This Friday marks the U.S. release of the French film Blue is the Warmest Color. Filled with compelling insights and angles, this film is by no means your average movie import. The film just won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival this summer and has gotten rave reviews and received a rare NC-17 here in the United States.
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, a major director in France who hasn’t made much noise stateside, the film follows the homosexual awakening of a 15-year-old girl, played by Adèle Exarchopoulos, with an older college student, played by Léa Seydoux. This story happens before the backdrop of important gay rights protests in France and the movie was released a few months after the legalization of gay marriage in the country.
The three-hour epic is explicitly sexual in nature — earning that prohibitive rating -— culminating in a 10-minute-long sex scene that inspired a standing ovation from the audience at Cannes. It was released too late to be in consideration for this year’s Academy Awards, but Blue is definitely the most anticipated film to come to us from across the Atlantic Ocean this year. With all this intrigue, it might be surprising to some that much of the coverage surrounding its release deals with something even more controversial than its subject matter; instead of focusing on the film’s message and storyline, media reports have instead focused on the public feud between director Kechiche and his leading actresses Seydoux and Exarchopoulos.
The controversy boils down to Kechiche’s directing style. Seydoux and Exarchopoulos gave an interview right before the film’s debut at Cannes in which they accused their director of essentially being a tyrant on the set. Though the extra attention that this controversy has brought the film will only bring more attention to it, Kechiche’s behavior during filming and following the release of the film merits closer examination.
The accounts of his behavior on the set — and the signs point to most of it being true — sound like the caricature of an over-demanding director: over a hundred takes for one scene of the two girls passing each other on the street, followed by a tantrum when one of the actresses laughed in one of the takes. Ten days were dedicated to filming that already infamous love scene and Kechiche pushed the actresses to actually hit each other in a fight scene to the point that Exarchopoulos severely injured herself. To anyone, Kechiche sounds every bit like a tyrant. But, really, it’s not anything we haven’t seen before in film history.
Alfred Hitchcock, one of the most beloved film directors of all time, developed some notoriety for his obsessive and often abusive treatment of his female leads. His sexual harassment, psychological games and domination of Tippi Hedren, star of Birds and Marnie, in particular became so famous in its own right that last year BBC released a TV movie based on the rumors. Stanley Kubrick was notorious for being such a perfectionist that he would film more than a hundred takes for scenes and exhausting his actors.
The point is that though Kechiche’s behavior was over the top, there is a precedent in the most revered parts of film history. Those directors were given free reign and almost always delivered fantastic results despite their eccentricities and questionable methods. This derives from the concept of film directors as auteurs where they are the primary driving creative force behind a film and are allowed significant freedom in the making of a film to pursue their vision. Kechiche was able to get away with his behavior because of that freedom, and that freedom was available because he was an established figure in the country from his previous work.
In a way, his behavior taints the movie because buying a ticket to see it equates to an endorsement of the system that allowed it to be made. The alternative of condemning a great movie because of the behavior of its director, however, sounds even worse. It would mean having to condemn countless other classic films made through similarly abusive methods. It also detracts from the efforts of everyone else involved in the film who pushed through despite the unreasonable expectations of a single, tyrannical director. Blue is the Warmest Color has plenty of other, more fascinating elements to focus on, so the tabloid antics and the caricature director should take a back seat in order for the art can be appreciated.
Daniel Grzywacz is a senior majoring in neuroscience. His column “The Reel Deal” runs Fridays.