The Controversy Around ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’: A Case Study in Bi Erasure and Public Hysteria


Blue is the Warmest Color is an unfortunate title for a great film originally titled La Vie d’Adèle’ (The Life of Adèle). The story is deceptively simple: Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) meets Emma (Léa Seydoux), they fall in love, have incredibly hot sex, live together, and eventually break up. Early scenes showing Adèle’s interest in Marivaux’s novel La Vie de Marianne’ (The Virtuous Orphan: Or, The Life of Marianne Countess of  ***) tell us two things: That this film is going to explore the emotional metaphysics of Adèle like Marivaux does with his heroine Marianne. And that Adèle’s emotional unraveling is likely to come at a high price. Shot mostly in an up-close-and-personal style, this film takes us into the mind, heart, bedroom, and the life of Adèle.

In the deafening cacophony of OMG, there are naked women having sex here are some absurd and reactionary comments.

Almost every review and headline has characterized this film as a “lesbian love story”. Emma may be lesbian. We learn that she has had relationships only with women. But the film deliberately avoids labeling Adèle’s identity. It is instructive to see how Adèle relates to boys at school, whether it’s her gay best friend or the jock Thomas (Jéréme Laheurte). There is an awkward friction whenever Adèle and Thomas talk or when they have sex. In another scene, midway through the film, Adèle meets Samir (Salim Kechiouche) at a party. There is a spark between them that is reignited later in the story. With precious scenes like these in the film, one wonders about the motives and credibility of the chest-beating crowd eager to give it the lesbian label.

Dr. Pepper Schwartz, sexologist and Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington, made this emphatic claim in an article for CNN: “The chilling part of this film is that it’s basically the story of an adult woman poaching on a high-schooler”. Like countless critics, Dr. Schwartz reduces the film to porn that she would not recommend to teenagers.

The film is about that “high-schooler” desperate for an emotional connection with a kindred spirit in a world where she is surrounded by small minded, intellectually boring and homophobic people. The first real conversation between Adèle and Emma is a beautifully flirtatious symphony of subjects as diverse as philosophy, paintings, music, and relationships. They go on to have a committed relationship for six years. Emma may be a few years older but, in the end, it is Adèle who turns out to be the more emotionally mature one.

Dr. Schwartz seems unconcerned by the fact that Adèle chain-smokes but warns that Adèle’s lovemaking with a woman who is her partner is too damaging for us to watch. No teenagers were harmed during the making of this film, Dr. Schwartz, and I’m pretty sure that watching this film will harm none.

Then there are those saying the sex is unreal, too clinical, filmed through a male gaze, blah, blah, blah. Why aren’t we celebrating the fact that these scenes even exist? There are three explicit sex scenes adding up to nearly 10 full minutes of nude, girl-on-girl action in an award winning film. What film released this year, or in the entire history of cinema, can even compare? Instead we are debating the mechanics of sex between two women, like this ridiculous, sad, and cynical piece making its rounds in the Gawker, Hollywood Reporter, and other sites. For once we have sex scenes where women are not being dominated or manipulated. And this is our thanks?

And finally, the ugly truth that no one wants to admit. The film beautifully explores how the sexual barometer can grow cold and change the nature of a relationship. For those who have not seen the film, minor spoiler alert for what follows. In a harrowing scene, Emma breaks up with Adèle for reasons that would be devastating to any relationship but pose a particular challenge to same-sex relationships: class difference and biphobia.

Few films have accurately captured the quotidian life of the French middle class. It may at first seem needlessly repetitive to watch Adèle eating spaghetti every night with her parents. But the spaghetti makes a gleeful, almost mocking, reappearance in a later scene when Adèle, older and living in domestic bliss with Emma, serves homemade spaghetti to a gathering of high brow, artsy guests at a party and they chow it down like it was haute cuisine.

The more successful and profitable that Emma becomes as an artist the more she shuts down emotionally. She also begins to feel shame about Adèle’s modest ambition to become a schoolteacher. She goads Adèle to dream bigger and is annoyed when Adèle simply says, “I am happy here at home being your lover.” Emma’s shame over a partner who does not measure up to her own class standards then translates into rage when she discovers that Adèle has been having an affair with a male colleague, an emotional connection that Adèle had sought in the absence of warmth and empathy from Emma. Is Emma furious that Adèle cheated on her? Or that Adèle had sex with a man? Or is Emma simply jealous that Adèle hasn’t reached emotional frigidity like she has?

The film offers no easy answers. It simply documents the devastation on Adèle and, in the end, only hints at a brighter future for her.


About Author

Anil Vora

Anil Vora is based in Seattle, Washington and is a regular contributor to Bi Magazine. As a result of his series of articles about bisexuality in India, written exclusively for Bi Magazine, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs included bisexual content in their development of a global charter on LGBT rights. He has been a queer activist for more than three decades starting with HIV prevention, treatment, and advocacy issues and is now focusing on the health and wellness of LGBTQ elders.

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