There is a passage in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room that still strikes me as a bit of a misstep in otherwise perfectly executed novella. I have always been resolutely drawn to Baldwin’s warring worlds. I devoured Giovanni’s Room from the first, hidden away in the stacks of the library where I read under the dimly light halogen of the track lighting one winter as if smothering erotica into the attic by candlelight. I was enthralled by the sensual, elegiac way Baldwin captures the internal inferno of bisexuality. To this day, I’d like to hang my hat on so many of the confessional lines which remain deeply worn, much loved and heavy underlined late in my copy of Baldwin’s novella at the point when Hella has returned to Paris and our narrator is forced to confront his love for Giovanni: “I hoped to burn out, through Hella, my image of Giovanni and the reality of his touch—I hoped to drive out fire with fire. Yet my sense of what I was doing made me doubleminded. And at last she asked me, ‘Have I been away too long?’ ‘I don’t know’, I said. ‘It’s been a long time.’”
Is that not the perfect loophole to capture the passing of faithfulness? The old spatial temporal dilemma of love at a distance, time passed. You went missing. When I looked for you in my moment of transgression, it was as if you didn’t exist. As Marguerite Duras reminds us in The Ravishing of Lol Stein, “In a certain state of mind, all trace of feeling is banished. Whenever I remain silent in a certain way, I don’t love you, have you noticed that?”
I was reminded of this passage from Baldwin the other evening when viewing Abdellatif Kechiche’s latest film Blue Is The Warmest Color. I was running to meet a friend after teaching and we arrived a bit late. BAM was crowded for a Tuesday night and we were still bartering for adjoining seats after the lights had dimmed and the camera had begun projecting its pictures. My first impression of the film was that it started in the middle of something, much like the late minimalist writers of the 80s, such as Amy Hempel and James Robison, the film seemed to descend like a fog, in an arbitrary yet intimate moment which overtook me so quietly I made the mistake of thinking it an extended credit. (I’m thinking here of how Hempel starts her story, “The Harvest”: “The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.” Suddenly through her remembrance of this arbitrary word we descend into conflict.) It wasn’t until ten minutes into Kechiche’s cinematic aria that I realized here we were immersed in a three-hour feature. Somehow I wished I had paid more attention to the start of things, as one often wishes at the start of those chance encounters that wrack the lives, as Baldwin says, of the “mysterious, cunning and dreadful intensity of the very young.”
My logic came rushing back to me somewhere around the scene where Adèle Exarchopoulos is topping Jeremie Laheurte with all the gusto of a caroler in a bitter frost. Jeremie climaxes before she does and, as his eyes close in satiation, Adèle collapses with her back to him in an abject disavowal that recalls a certain Nan Goldin still.
Yet so much of what distinguishes Kechiche’s film in my mind from the “dirty realism” of writing like Hempel’s or Robison’s, is the film’s explicit attention to length, to extending rather than truncating time. Much ado has been made over the nearly twenty minutes of sex in the film, as if to say: who could ever watch anything for that long? Yet I find it troubling that so many of the reviews-to-date focus, often with an emphatically pejorative stance, on the explicit sexuality of the film. This a film in which the naked female body plays no fleeting part. Spanking and slurping and genitalia are presented in the horizontal, vertical, convex and concave positions. Yet, there seems to be a critical attitude afloat which equates Kechiche’s insistence on documenting the bodily (active) narrative of sex with being asked to stand loathsomely in front of Courbet’s The Origin Of The World and examine the labial folds of the woman’s netherparts, which notably neither change nor move. This critical response suggests that the very act of witnessing coitus—which after all is, biologically speaking, a multi-sequenced act—is troubled not by allusion but by realism.
Kechiche’s film is after all not a painting of a single moment, such as Courbet’s that captures Joanna Hiffernan—Courbet’s proposed model—in state of (postcoital?) repose. Kechiche’s is a cinematic feature which, more than the accrual of a series of simple stills, must deal with the space time continuum; what interests me is how the director grafts both space and time onto his telling of the moments of sexual transgression and trespass in these two young women’s lives for the brief period of time in which they overlap.
The role of the director’s gaze in the creation of that graft is certainly not insignificant; Kechiche, perhaps like Courbet, has openly said that he took great care in highlighting the beauty in his portrayal of the female form, “What I was trying to do when we were shooting these scenes was to film what I found beautiful. So we shot them like paintings, like sculptures. We spent a lot of time lighting them to ensure they would look beautiful.” Certainly this recalls so much of art history’s rhetoric surrounding the male gaze. Indeed, the term pornography has been thrown around by reviewers the way it is generally slapped on anything that focuses on the narrative of two naked humans in coitus.
However, Kechiche’s insistence on rendering these two young women “in the repose of the 15th-century Renaissance reclining nude,” as Michelle Juergen from Salon, artfully protests, seems to me less of a revelation than Kechiche’s statement which follows: “After [the lighting], the innate choreography of the loving bodies took care of the rest, very naturally.” It is his use of the words “innate” and “naturally” here that I find myself returning to. What exactly does he mean by natural? Authentic? Original? Biological? Unmediated? It is no surprise to any of us that a director labored over lighting. This is, after all, not a documentary or the work of unmitigated surveillance—though the often acute camera angles and Kechiche’s insistence on using time as a way of sticking with scenes—even “difficult” ones—rather than circumventing them has a certain documentary effect.
This effect has baited the argument of authenticity amongst some reviewers. Is this authentic sex? The lighting is staged. The sex is staged. They aren’t even “real lesbians!” In fact, perhaps if one were to look at Kechiche’s film as a series of individualized moments one might more aptly compare the many gorgeous stills at play in Kechiche’s thirteen-minute sexual aria to the intensely choreographed work of Jeff Wall—whose photos are staged precisely to look “natural” and often reference famous art historical works—than the impeccable natural lighting of Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” (The difference here being that Nan Goldin didn’t place any art historical reference between her and her subjects. She was one of them. She lived among them, was drunk among them, and often criticized photographers such as Arbus who made “outsider” art about transvestites, midgets, nudists and queers as being “all about herself.”) But rest assured, what one is focusing on during Kechiche’s thirteen-minute sex scenes is not the semiotics of lighting, the 15th-century nude, Courbet, or even the camera’s frame. Nor is it something as banal as the erotic titillation of pornography, whose sole ticket to salesmanship is arousal.
For me, Kechiche’s film was the passionate portrayal of how the body is lost in love, how physical form is subsumed by ecstasy; the body indeed when allowed to peruse the object of its highest fantasy, and when devoured by one’s ideal lover in return, allows one to depart from the frame momentarily and enter a space that is entirely unmitigated by form or time or the corporeal constraints of gender. A space that indeed feels boundless. Is that not perhaps what Kechiche’s thirteen minutes of female nudity want to say? That perhaps the viewing of sex as performative is itself a patriarchal perspective that empowers the male gaze. Perhaps this film asks us to get beyond that? After the initial shock of viewing these woman fucking, is there not some point where we as viewers reach boredom and wonder, What else might be revealed beyond sex alone? As Barthes says of photography, “I was interested in photography for only ‘sentimental’ reasons; I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, I think.” It is less about “Seeing You, Seeing Me,” as Manhola Dargis titles her review for the New York Times, than it is about getting beyond sight.
So rarely in films do we actually witness sex. So often we witness the lead up to sex, the simulated tumult under the covers and then the forward flash to the day after, as if to say, well, you know what happened there. But do we? In novels half of the fun of sex is that it is rarely ever written; it’s just foreshadowed to the point of titillation and then subsumed by literary metaphor. I remember being a child and often waiting until my parents went out at night to read the dirty parts of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love In The Time of Cholera in the living room on my lonely Massachusetts dirt road, dirty parts which I remember as a strident disappointment, being that Marquez’s frame seemed to shift just as the real sex was getting underway.
An exception in literature here is perhaps Mary Gaitskill’s female characters who, like Kechiche’s Adèle, often have “deep longings that will never be satisfied.” One of Gaitskill’s best stories, “Today I’m Yours,” in her collection, Don’t Cry focuses on a married woman who reunites with a lesbian lover. One passage reads, “I did not realize I had made monsters, nor how strong they were, until the book was published and they lifted the roof off my apartment, scaled the wall, and roamed the streets in clothes that I never would’ve worn myself. Everywhere I went, it seemed, my monsters had preceded me, and by the time I appeared, people saw me through their aura.” In an interview with BOMB Magazine, Gaitskill expounded, “I was actually not a sophisticated person; I was lonely, socially ignorant, very shy […] Suddenly I would be at these parties, or at dinners with, like, Sonny Mehta and some big agent. I had no idea what to say, and I felt that people expected me to be really sharp. They’d say things to me as if they were expecting me to hit the ball back really hard, and I would just freeze.” We see Adele so plainly at play here in Gaitskill’s words, alternatingly shy and yet bold enough to kiss her female friend in the bathroom, only to hear her friend retort, “I didn’t know you’d get so hooked.” Perhaps it is not that Kechiche “Gets Lesbian Sex Wrong,” as Jeurgen posits in the title of her review but that we get sex wrong by viewing it as a mediated transaction of ideas or commodities of no more import than a flipbook.
What struck me as far more compelling than the nudity in the film itself were the film’s nuances, namely time and social class. Perhaps John Cassavetes would be a better comparison here than pornography, though his films featuring Gena Rowlands—character studies similar perhaps to Kechiche’s study of Adèle—often portray Rowland as the hapless victim flummoxed and ultimately doomed by her own good looks. Certainly the first thing one notices from the get-go of Blue Is The Warmest Color is the closeness of the camera angle: early on in the film the narrative opens with a scene of Adèle’s family eating dinner; we are made to watch their mouths slurp and ruminate like horses over the trough.
It’s these details which remain the film’s most salient moments. Adèle literally seems “wet” and disheveled throughout most of the performance: she slurps her father’s pasta. Her nose is constantly running—most notably during the break-up scene and again during her reunion with Emma over dinner where, despite Adèle’s new haircut, which she dons to look more sophisticated, her nose runs like a feral tide. In the sex scenes we see the moisture on her lips and at one point she awakes in her bed drooling. Every other scene she is readjusting her laissez-faire chignon with a one-two tug.
But that is precisely what is charming about this movie—Adèle is in continual physical transformation, simultaneously the unassuming high-schooler and the budding sophisticate who falls for an older woman, an artist no less. At one point in the film Adèle professes to an unabated physical hunger for food. Yet this same ass at the end of the film becomes neatly supine and alarmingly elegant under a tight fitting dress.
And here too is perhaps my greatest qualm with the profligations written about this film to date. So too this is a story about the transcendence of social class. As Spencer Wolff points out in his review for the Huffington Post, the French title of the film, The Life of Adèle: Parts One and Two, recalls The Life of Marianne, a 17th century novel depicting the rise of a working class girl into the patina of bourgeois culture, a book which we see Adèle—a self-professed lover of literature —and her peers reading from at school at the film’s start. As is established in the dinner scene where Emma visits Adèle’s parents, Adèle is not only confined by the guise of her sexuality—Emma plays the role of her straight “tutor”—here the two women confront the limitations of Adèle’s parents’ middle class gaze. When Emma professes to be an artist by trade, Adèle’s father comments that there isn’t much money in the arts. Emma counters with a decoy; she assures him her boyfriend is in finance. Adèle’s mother comments that it must be nice to have someone to depend on, a snide jab at Adèle’s own father whose most notable accomplishment is his recipe for pasta bolognaise, which is characterized by one of Emma’s artist friends later in the film as simple but delicious.
In stark contrast, there is the artful parallel drawn in the scene with Emma’s parents, who themselves, though not rich, are members of the artisan class. Emma’s stepfather has gone to the trouble to prepare oysters and a complex bottle of wine, neither of which Adèle is able to engage. In fact, seafood is the only goût that Adèle detests; curious of the sensual taste, she takes Emma’s father’s instruction while commenting on the beauty of Emma’s mother’s art on the walls. Emma’s mother promptly announces that the paintings are the work of her ex-husband. (Here is a woman who is not waiting on a man to support her. She’s been divorced, eats oysters, knows good wine and has the gall to keep her ex-husband’s art around for her lesbian daughter’s girlfriend to enjoy.)
Notably, Adèle and Emma’s relationship begins to crumble the eve that Adèle recreates her father’s dish for a gathering of Emma’s friends from art school. Here we are in the creatives’ garden of Eden, a patio which recalls a certain Williamsburgian joie de vivre definedas much by lighting, champagne and the artistic merit of one’s profession as by how much stability crowds one’s life. (This is also the eve that Adèle senses Emma falling in love with her then pregnant friend.) Adèle has introduced her middle class passions—her father’s bolognaise, her desire to be a teacher and to ‘help people’—into the individualistic swirl of Emma’s artistic milieu. What appears as gratitude on the part of Emma’s peers—they congratulate Adèle warmly on her preparation of the dish—is subtle condescension. Adèle is cast aside early in the party by her inability to discuss Egon Schiele. And as it turns out, in bed after dinner Emma expresses her discomfort over the limitations of Adèle’s career as a school teacher and expresses to her that there must be something else, something more in line with her own self-fulfillment, that she must desire to do. Emma encourages Adèle to write.
However, it is here too that Manohla Dargis’s review of the film takes issue and makes an observant point. Relegated to talking with a want-to-be-actor who is obsessed with Adèle’s new found love of women, the actor casually comments in this garden scene that perhaps one day Adèle might covet a child, an object of attachment with which Emma’s next lover is already fulsome. This does seem an odd aside in the film, dragging out the anti-feminist sawhorse of equating female sexuality and desire with biological function. In this, the film reminds me of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room’s one sad flaw, in relegating Hella at her moment of revelation to a flip-flopping two-dimensionality: “‘You know,’ she confesses, ‘I’m not really the emaciated girl I try to be at all. I just want a man to come home to me every night. I want to be able to sleep with a man without being afraid he’ll knock me up. Hell, I want to be knocked up. I want to start having babies. In a way, it’s all I’m good for.’”
There is an odd sense too at the close of the film that Emma—the woman who was integral in instigating Adèle’s own coming out—chooses to elevate the importance of “family” over sex as she uses the word as a shield to protect her from her own temptation in one of the final scenes at a restaurant where the two women have reunited; here, Adele sticks Emma’s hands up her skirt as a final plea to incite passion and Emma protests that she has a family to return home to dashing Adele’s hopes at rejoinder. Dargis’s review misses one crucial observation of this scene: the man who originally expounds on the mysticism of the female orgasm at Emma’s party introduces his rant by saying he too has slept with both men and women; he too is of Baldwin’s “doublemind.” Yet there is a near reverence in the way this man, a member of the artistic bourgeois himself, views Adèle: “Ever since women have been shown in paintings, their ecstasy is shown more than men’s, whose is shown via woman,” the man at the party explains. “Men try desperately to depict it.” As Dargis says, John Berger’s seminal book on perception Ways of Seeing, puts it all too quaintly, “Men look at women,” Berger wrote. “Women watch themselves being looked at.” (Indeed we see this played out in the opening scene where Adèle grinds abjectly against the boy she is made to like, and we see how much this parochial parody of sex fails.) Is this man’s rant equating woman’s ecstasy with mysticism dangerous in the way that it relates femininity with scripture as Dargis implies? Perhaps. But, perhaps again this is merely an apt investigation of the bisexual code that true passion, when unfettered by the gaze, can be boundless and that the sense of the body as a vehicle to expand time is so oft left unexplored as a means to transcendence. Perhaps the expounding on the loquaciousness of the female orgasm at Emma’s party of artists is indeed a condemnation of Berger’s very idea – that, no matter the gender, the gaze somehow traps us in the role we play, as both the watcher and the watched; if we could only make love with our eyes closed, we would see a whole different world.
As Goldin said of Arbus’s work, “Her genius is about not wanting to be herself, about wanting instead to be each person that she photographed. At the time she was photographing them, she was really trying their skin on. It’s the work of someone with empathy that borders on psychosis. But I felt with the drag queens she was seeking to reveal them and that wasn’t my desire. My desire was to show them as a third gender, as another sexual option, a gender option. And to show them with a lot of respect and love, to kind of glorify them because I really admire people who recreate themselves and who manifest their fantasies publicly. I think it’s really brave. I just really have so much love and respect and attraction for the queens. So I don’t like her stripping them and exposing them according to her own preconceptions of who they are.”
Is it possible that Kechiche—like Gaitskill, like Goldin—uses time and an unflinching eye toward the manifestation of fantasy as a way to glorify, or at least extol, the reality of love over sex’s literary / art historical allusion? I was tempted by this question while wandering Sarah Anne Johnson’s recent gallery show, Wonderlust. Like Goldin, Johnson’s work traverses the erotic and the forlorn. She photographs strangers coupling in their own bedrooms in order to “explore the internal world of sexual intimacy. To show what it looks and feels like.” Johnson’s personal statement expounds, “Some of these images represent my desires for romance, ecstasy and emotional connection, while others depict boredom, self doubt and personal disappointment.” So too, one might say of Kechiche’s Adèle.
Yet what is striking about Johnson’s work is that she too seems to desire—like Kechiche—to take eroticism outside the boundaries of the static. She “animates” her photographs, by burning, scratching, gouging and even glittering over them, as a way of distinguishing between the “seen” or the surveilled and the “felt” or imagined. There is something revelatory about her imagination-play within the documentary realm that feels very much like fantasy. The physicality of the surface of her work indeed bristles with animation in the way that say Stan Brakhage’s 1963 film Mothlight animates dead mothwings by pressing dried moth wings, flower pelts and blades of grass between strips of 16mm splicing tape and then using the assemblage to create a contact print which literally seems to “move,” reanimating the moths as the film plays.
It is here, in its use of time as a way to animate sex, that ultimately Kechiche’s film surpasses the flimsy critiques of pornography or voyeurism. As Jane Gallop reminds us in her fantastic essay, “The Pleasure of the Phototext,” “There is a lot of work in film theory on voyeurism—numerous analyses that describe how the gaze is an aggression upon that which is seen. Barthes’ consideration of photography does not concur with the notion that the photograph as object of the gaze is passive while the viewer is an active, even aggressive, relationship to it.” Gallop goes on to say that in this relationship “there is passive and an aggressive term which are often lined up as female and male.” However, Barthes’s understanding of what makes film erotic upsets the power play of this questionable binary. Barthes suggests that viewing film is a reciprocal relationship of amatory animation, that indeed just as we encounter a film as an erotic other it might encounter us. In fact “something quite different sometimes happens […] something happens which is quite the opposite of the relationship which occasions complaints about the male gaze and the female object. Something happens: the second element goes off from the scene like an arrow and comes and pierces the viewer. here is a reversal, something in the photograph is aggressive and penetrates the viewer.” Barthes names this second element the “punctum”; “it’s that accident which, it stings me.” Gallop dutifully points out here that the French equivalent Barthes gives this word is piqure, which can amusingly be translated “prick,” a term reviewers have not eschewed attaching to Kechiche’s directorial vision.
However, perhaps it is this piercing, this punctum, which resolves Kechiche’s film of the mask of pornography or art historical burden under which so many reviewers have shrouded it. Quite simply, something happens. Like Johnson’s Wonderlust, when viewing the film, there is an animation that pierces us. Like Johnson and Gaitskill, Kechiche dares to stare at sex for enough time to document and yet too to imagine exactly what is taking place between the seen and the felt, not as some masturbatory vision but as a mark, as Goldin says, of respect. This is, to me, precisely what made the film so moving. Its resolve to animate sexuality rather than adhere to my memory of Garcia Marquez’s allusions of literary tumults under the covers. But perhaps film is a bit privileged here. As Gallop remarks, “the cinema has something which at first glance photography has not: the screen is not a frame but a mask; the character who leaves it continues to live.” So too Barthes says of the erotic photograph, “I animate it and it animates me.” It is precisely that sentiment which resounded in my heart upon leaving the theatre. Kechiche’s film allowed me to depart from the frame momentarily and enter a space entirely unmitigated by my own inner gaze, or those of the viewers around me. In that way, I remembered what it was to fall in love, to be animated by the gaze of an other who would both consume and entice without judgment.
Ann DeWitt’s writing has appeared in NOON, Guernica, BOMBlog, Esquire’s Napkin Fiction Project, The Believer Logger, art+culture, Everyday Genius, The Faster Times, elimae, and Dossier Magazine, amongst others, and is forthcoming in the anthology, Short: An International Anthology of 500 Years of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms, edited by Alan Ziegler due out in 2014. Ann holds a B.A. from Brown University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia School of the Arts. She was a Founding Editor of Gigantic: A Magazine of Short Prose and Art in 2008. She currently teaches in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Columbia University and in The Art and Design History and Theory department at Parsons, The New School, and is at work on her first novel. For more of her work, please follow her blog at: http://talllikethreeapples.wordpress.com.