Blue is the Warmest Colour, and the line between art and porn

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Abdellatif Kechiche’s film finally does away with the artificial distinction between pornography and art.

Blue is the Warmest Colour is one of the best films of the year. But in amongst all the praise, it’s been hard to escape the controversy over the film’s explicit lesbian sex scenes, with much of the commentary focussing on them to the exclusion of the film’s many other merits. It sometimes feels like a group of schoolboys giggling in the back row of a sex education class. It is absurd.

Blue’s sex scenes develop the characters and advance the plot, and are shot very simply; there’s little of the male gaze here

The sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Colour are very graphic, certainly, but why is that a problem? In the context of the film, it would be ludicrous to tone down or remove those scenes, as they are essential for the progress of the story. They are also, it must be said, beautiful scenes, whose purpose is to celebrate the passion of young love, and not to pander to the audience. There is a good case to be made that the scenes are pornographic, but there is no doubt that they are art as well. They develop the characters and advance the plot, and are shot very simply: there’s little of the male gaze here, just two people having sex.

Strangely enough, they’re like a good fight scene, in that what makes them really work is their context, and the fact that we know and care about the participants. It’s this context of the broader narrative, and the sex scenes’ importance within it, that allows them to be artistic. If we saw the sex scenes and nothing else, they would entertain and arouse, to be sure, but would have none of the emotional impact that they have in the film. They would mean as little as the famous corridor fight scene from Oldboy (good version) would if divorced from context: it’s still a spectacular fight, but it means nothing on its own.

Blue is the Warmest Colour

It’s the contrast with violence in film which makes the media obsession with Blue is the Warmest Colour’s sex scenes seem truly ridiculous. Realistic, graphic violence rarely becomes the media talking point that Blue’s sex scenes have, and many films have even been celebrated for their honest depiction of violence. Saving Private Ryan immediately springs to mind, with its presentation of the massacre at Omaha Beach, as does the deeply disturbing third act cruelty of Oldboy (good version).

It’s one of the more bizarre aspects of our culture that sex is everywhere, but is still frequently considered taboo

And this is where the real problem becomes apparent. Why are we more comfortable with – and why are film ratings boards more relaxed about – people getting bloodily blown to bits on the beaches of Normandy than two people engaging in joyful sex? It’s one of the more bizarre aspects of our culture that sex is everywhere, but is still frequently considered taboo, and that consensual sex in cinema deserves a higher classification than someone getting shot in the face.

It’s not a new observation that film classifications are often seriously broken, but this appears to be a particularly significant issue. The point is not that Blue is the Warmest Colour should have its classification lowered, but that it is insanity that sex in film should be more taboo than violence. Sex is one of the essential aspects of the human experience, and to deny the importance of sexuality in our art is not just stupid, it’s wrong. There are precious few films which explore sexuality – female sexuality in particular – with as much maturity and honesty as Blue is the Warmest Colour, and as such it should be celebrated for its graphic sex scenes, not subject to controversy.

blue is the warmest colour

More than that, it’s pushing the boundaries of what is allowed in mainstream cinema. One of the great things about art is that there are no rules. Art cannot happen without freedom of expression on the part of the author, and it is admirable that Blue is the Warmest Colour is willing to approach the often difficult topic of sex without embarrassment or pretence. The Raid essentially boiled down to 90 minutes of non-stop, incredibly brutal, utterly thrilling violence, and was celebrated for it. Its no-holds-barred approach to its subject matter earned it a great deal of richly deserved critical praise, and it is nonsense that taking a similar approach to sex is any less artistically valid.

When backed up by a strong narrative and engaging characters, why shouldn’t ‘pornography’ be capable of being art?

Blue is the Warmest Colour’s willingness to show us explicit sex scenes has resulted in some people calling it pornographic, meaning the word as a criticism, apparently forgetting that films like The Raid approach the topic of violence in exactly the same way as Blue approaches the topic of sex. Which brings us back to the recurring question: why is graphic violence less objectionable than graphic sex? It makes no sense. Sex is a much more natural activity than violence, and let’s face it, is much more fun.

Presumably most people would rather have sex with someone than get into a knife fight. So why can’t we have the same attitude in the cinema? At the end of the day, pornography is just another genre. When it’s backed up by a strong narrative and engaging characters, like we want all our films to be, why shouldn’t it be capable of being art?

 

All images: Artificial Eye

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