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12th November
written by Mad Cow

Rating: NC-17

Mad Cow’s Rating:

This French lesbian movie lends a new twist (indeed many) to the usual “coming out” movie with which most lesbians are familiar. By now most people know that it features lots of explicit sex. If anyone still wonders and can’t imagine exactly what lesbians “do,” they can go to this movie. No subtle hands on the tummy and brief tongue on the tits followed by faces in ecstasy. We see full frame naked bodies and multiple orgasms produced by a variety of moves. If you cringe at the least bit of sex on the screen, this movie unfortunately is not for you.

Of course the bodies are gorgeous and, as with heterosexual sex scenes, we are spared things like “ouch, your elbow” or “move, I’m going to fall off the bed.” There are other variations in real life too. And yes, the film is about sex but in the context of life, which it always is. Thus, heterosexual persons may find meaning here too, just as LGBT folk do with heterosexual movies.

Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche and starring Lea Seydoux as Emma and Adele Exarchopoulos as Adele, the three (all heterosexual) jointly received the Palme D’Or at Cannes – the first time the prize was given to actors as well as the director. Like many of the best films, the story is a simple one that makes us care about the characters and contemplate how our lives are complicated by social and cultural forces.

The film is based on a graphic novel, Le Bleu est une colour chaude by Julie Moroh. “Scenario, adaptation and dialogue” were created by the director and Ghalia Lacroix. Maroh chimed in on the sex scenes by declaring that they were not lesbian at all and that the director abused the actresses. Seydoux agreed and Kechiche retorted by calling the actress a child. Sex is such an intimate thing that no doubt viewers will differ on this issue. One critic estimated that explicit sex captures 10 minutes in this three-hour movie, intense but hardly a deluge. I was not offended by the sex and have been offended by the lack of lesbian sex in movies that show way more heterosexual sex, as in The Kids are All Right.

When we meet her Adele is still in high school, confusing her friends who can’t understand why she is so blasé about the attention she is getting from the most attractive boy in school. Emma, a bit older, is in art school. They meet, they engage, they merge explosively. They later move in together. Over time, there are complications which the viewer gets both to observe, weigh and analyze.

Emma comes from an educated, sophisticated upper-class family who are used to fine things and intellectual communication and production. Adele’s family, solidly middle-class, applauds her wish to become a teacher, something of which Emma is almost immediately ashamed. Can these two have a future together? What about their friends and family? How can these differences exist in harmony?

It’s a tribute to the trio of director and actresses that we care about the characters and want to see what their fates will be for the three hours we sit there. The details have been artfully constructed and beautifully presented. Adele describes herself as always hungry. She devours her mother’s spaghetti and prepares it herself later for a party. The sensuality of eating and drinking echo the sensuality of sex. The only food Adele hates is shellfish, which Emma adores and her parents serve when they first welcome Adele into their home. Adele is compliant in her accepting the oysters, about which Emma assumes she just needs to be educated. They must always be consumed live, they say. There is no question of Emma’s emotional dominance in the relationship.

Adele is most self-confident and verbal with her classes of small children, who cinematically and delightfully provide a wonderful contrast with the rest of the film and at the same time help us to reflect that Adele herself is still very much of a child, even as we see her character over several years’ time. Passive and moody, she lacks a certain independence or self-determination. She can’t hold her own with Emma’s confident and somewhat pretentious friends, but it doesn’t seem to occur to her to pursue her own friends.

Adele’s high school girl friends seemed pretty bitchy; surely she could have found others. Her gay male friend from high school seems to have disappeared. This is how Kechiche gives us the story – not only by showing what is there but also by what is not, much like white spaces in a watercolor. Mostly it works, but like most heterosexual people he may be unaware of an LGBT community of people who are not predatory or pretentious, not barflies, but just friends. At the same time, Adele comes across as a kind of passive loner.

Even in the sex scenes we do not see a preponderance of loving affection, a falling into one another’s arms with words of love. At first one assumes that those moments did happen but not on screen, but that may be a mistaken assumption. Can there be great sex without love? Yes, of course. And vice versa. Problems emerge when two people in a couple interpret things differently, or come together with different expectations. We’ve seen this in other movies but perhaps not quite in this way, and not with lesbian lovers.

Does it matter that they are lesbians? Yes, and here I’m indulging myself by responding to other critics who say it doesn’t matter. It’s foolish to assume otherwise, the universality of their core relationship notwithstanding. This movie is about two women who are sexually attracted to other women (the presence or absence of bi-sexual desires notwithstanding – bi-sexuality is also physical as well as emotional). Thus, Adele, after being kissed by another high school girl tries to kiss her again. It’s a kind of an “OMG, I’m attracted to women. Kissing them feels different.” Even Kechiche does not go all the way. What if ALL of the cheating that goes on in the movie happened with other women? That would have been, at least percentage-wise, closer to “real” life. We have here not only the “male” gaze, but the “patriarchal heterosexual” gaze.

The persistence of Adele’s and Emma’s strong physical desire is instructive. If “falling in love” were all that lesbianism required, all the trial-lesbians from the 70s women’s movement would still be lesbians. Would anyone suggest that a love story about two men is only about love and not about sex? I don’t think so.

The interpretations of this movie can and will be numerous, with one’s own opinion changing over time and through discussion. For a film, that’s as good as it gets. Moreover, the movie is subtitled “chapters one and two.” I look forward to seeing more.

The next night after seeing this movie I had to make spaghetti and eat it with gusto. Maybe you will too.

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