One of the lesbians had smashed head first into the wall so hard she left a face-sized indent in the plaster. I still remember it: the crumpled outline of her cheek in the off-white drywall, her heavy, wrinkled body on the bed before it.
I don’t think I’d ever seen a lesbian couple before, at least not one that I recognized as such. My mother, a small town doctor, had taken me with her to see the old ladies on a home visit (presumably my youth had healing properties) and had whispered to me in her diversity-education voice, much to my prurient fascination, that these particular patients were “lesbians.” I didn’t know it then, but it was an experience that stayed with me. By the time I was starting to comb through movies and novels and music CDs looking for some—any—roadmap for the rainbow kind of life I was going to lead, I would mentally revisit the encounter, trying to see if there was any hidden significance in its quiet sadness, trying to see if I could relate.
French director Abdellatif Kechiche’s ponderous, intensely sensual, and supposedly scandalous film “Blue is the Warmest Color,” while imbued with its own quiet sadness, initially seems ages away from this mothball-lined interior. The film itself is as brimming with youth as an overfull water balloon. Its star couple, college-senior Emma and high school junior Adèle (played by Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos), flirt, slurp oysters, and have endless (okay, seven) minutes of Certifiably Hot Sex in a Beautiful and Doomed Relationship that plays out amid cherry trees so abundantly in flower it seems the boughs will break. It was pretty real.
But that doesn’t mean I was happy about it. I put off watching the film for weeks, months even, terrified that I would like it, and equally terrified that I wouldn’t. Already I was wary of a film whose celebrated emotional intensity was the product of what sounds like psychological abuse. Mostly, I was scared that the Cannes-winning movie about lesbians would prove just as one-dimensional and delegitimizing as many other films.
This is the problem of wanting—and failing—to see yourself at the movies, a tension that goes for all sorts of people who find the groups they are part of too often reduced to stereotypes on-screen. It’s a phenomenon that weighs down the way you relate to works, so much that they cease to be individual pieces of art but card tables sagging under the weight of your collective desire to be recognized. On one hand, there’s an aching desire for representation, a kind of itch to consume media that pays homage to your existence. On the other hand, there’s the feeling that, inevitably, and however well-intentioned, the films are going to mess up: in big ways, like outright stereotypes and mockery; in enormous ways, such as abusing actresses; and in little ways, too—the limits of the types and lengths of stories that people even care to tell.
This anxiety, while not universal, can be fierce. There are so few representations of lesbians in the mainstream media that when they do come around, any little jibe can hurt. Erotica author Ella Boureau, in an interview on the Huffington Post, summarizes the drama surrounding the release of the film like this: “We [lesbians] actually have very few chances to have some sort of mainstream entry point, and so that’s why we care so much.” At the same time, this anxiety over representation can result in wars over legitimacy—over who gets to say whether a film is or is not authentic, is or is not “truly” lesbian. And ironically, the urge to find a “lesbian” voice in the debate can lead to the marginalization of those who don’t fit normative images, leaving them outside whatever ends up being the community standard of legitimacy.
That’s not to say “Blue” should escape critiques about representation. I find the fixation on young, normatively pretty female bodies—the tight camera angles and fixation on the protagonist’s rear—mildly unsettling; I find the allegations of director mistreatment of the actresses—all for the sake of evoking “genuine passion”—deeply unsettling. And while it’s reductive to dismiss the film because it comes from a man, that’s not because gender doesn’t matter, or because the film is above such critique. “Do I need to be a woman, and a lesbian, to talk about love between women?” Kechiche asks. “We’re talking about love here – it's absolute, it's cosmic.”
This, perhaps, is the film’s—and its critic’s—biggest flaw: the equation of “cosmic” with “neutral.” Inevitably, works like Kechiche’s will pack a different punch for different audiences—and for those who feel that their identities are at stake, this punch can be painful. It’ll take a lot more home visits and a lot more gay movies before films like “Blue is the Warmest Color” become truly cosmic—by becoming truly unexceptional.
Reina A.E. Gattuso ’15 is a joint literature and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.