The most controversial film of the year this side of Zero Dark Thirty is without a doubt Abdellatif Kechiche’s Cannes winner Blue Is The Warmest Color. After the film unspooled in competition, it was met with almost unprecedented praise and a historic Palme d’Or (lead actresses Exarchopoulos and Seydoux were co-awarded, a unique move), but it wasn’t without its criticasters, most notably NY Times critic Manohla Dargis, who had their share of problems with the ‘lesbian sex scenes’ and the way they were filmed. Aside from the question of what exactly, apart from technicalities, constitutes ‘lesbian sex’ and how this differs emotionally from ‘non-lesbian sex,’ the main discussion concerned whether a straight director like Kechiche should and could film such scenes and how his depictions of the two main characters having sex fit into the “male gaze” theory. A topic worthy of discussion, sure, but the ‘controversy’ was mainly a spat between supporters and critics of the film, not unlike other spats of this type littering the Internet (including some people having an opinion without even having seen the film). Things got interesting, for me at least, when Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel the film is adapted from, gave her official statement on the whole matter on her website. Maroh too was highly critical of the sex scenes, calling it “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn.” The criticasters of the film took that and ran with it, conveniently leaving out the pieces where Maroh admitted that this was “simply my personal stance,” and more notably where she called the film “a master stroke.” Still, this statement, combined with the fact that the controversial scenes make up just about ten percent of the film’s total running time, piqued my interest in discovering the differences between the film and the source it was adapted from. It took awhile to get it from my local library, even if it was in the 14+ section (I’ll get back to that later), but apparently winning a Palme d’Or inspires people to seek out the original work. Be aware that what follows will contain massive spoilers for both the film and the graphic novel, so if you don’t want to be spoiled on either of them, it is best to leave now.
At their core, both novel and film follow the sexual awakening of a young girl (named Clementine in the novel, Adèle in the film; the name change seems largely superficial), discovering for the first time her feelings for another woman. Both works chart their protagonist’s journey through her first ‘big love,’ her first true adult relationship. Maroh’s use of a framing device to anchor the story aside, for large parts novel and film follow the same path, right up until Clementine/Adèle and her lover (Emma, in both cases) have an established relationship and are living together. Many scenes from the book will be recognizable to people who have seen the film and vice versa, right down to visual cues. But there are still notable differences, mainly in the approach of the story and what both artists set out to do with their work (a result of what I assume are different target audiences), which ultimately change the tone of the film in comparison to the novel. Maroh herself said that she wrote the novel to attract the attention of those who “had no clue, had the wrong picture based on lies, hated me/us.” She says she doesn’t want to “preach to the choir,” but in a sense preach is what she does. One of the most notable differences in the book is the stance of the protagonist’s parents towards homosexuality. Clementine’s father is vehemently opposed to it, and he is rather one-dimensionally drawn (no pun intended) as a brutish pater familias who will not allow any opposition from his docile wife. In Kechiche’s film, Adèle’s parents’ feelings about homosexuality are more subdued and largely shown as ignorant, nothing like the rabid hatred of Clementine’s father. I don’t know if this part of Maroh’s tale is partly autobiographical (Maroh started the novel when she was 19), but it does tie in with the intention to instruct those who ‘had no clue,’ ‘the wrong picture,’ or ‘hated us’: by painting such an obviously negative picture of the haters, Maroh clearly condemns their behavior as being outside of the norm, not that of those they hate. Because most other characters besides the two central ones are not fully fleshed out (except for Clementine’s school pal Valentin), they lend a voice to a somewhat didactic tone of the novel that tells us there’s nothing wrong or ‘different’ about lesbianism. As an adult reader I was being hit over the head with something I already knew, but for adolescents reading the book this could be an eye-opener, not only a source of consolation for those in the same predicament as Clementine, but a lesson for those who have a friend or classmate like her.
Kechiche, however, takes a more subtle approach, starting from a position where ‘lesbianism is okay’ is not a point to prove or make, rather a self-evident truth. Perhaps helped by working with a richer medium where he can use movement and especially sound to express his ideas, the director simply shows that love and lust between two women is the same as between a man and a woman, and that the life trajectory of his Adèle is not all that different from that of most heterosexual girls, nor does her relationship to Emma develop differently than we would expect from a heterosexual one. Sure, suddenly finding yourself in turmoil because you discover you like the same sex more than the opposite sex brings with it complications and disappointments, and this inner struggle is one of the themes in the film, but the strictly positive and negative stances towards homosexuality displayed by the novel’s characters are more nuanced in Kechiche’s version. The most vicious attacks on Adèle’s homosexuality come courtesy of some of her classmates (a scene lifted straight from the novel), and here Kechiche employs the same technique as Maroh by letting all the nuance go in exposing the haters. But otherwise he treats the relationship between Adèle and Emma as mostly accepted by the people surrounding them, contrasted with Maroh’s choice to frame their relationship in a setting of pro and contra.
It is interesting to see where Kechiche’s and Maroh’s stories start to diverge, because I feel that again the difference in what they set out to do lies at the heart of this divergence. In both cases, the relationship falls apart, but whereas in the novel the problems between Clementine and Emma are based solely in their different approaches to their sexuality, with Emma making it a politicized issue while Clementine sees it as more personal, Kechiche grounds the rift between the two in social class, with Emma being from a circle of art students and intellectuals while Adèle is a working-class girl from Lille’s suburbs. The friction comes from Emma trying to push Adèle into becoming more like her, and it is this forced conformity to her standards (a nice juxtaposition of homosexuality not conforming to the social norms of some people) that drives them apart. It should also be noted that Maroh spends very little time on this process and break-up, whereas Kechiche signals the differences between the two girls and the doom it spells for their relationship from very early on. This is where the director comes full circle with the relationship he tracks, while Maroh fails to give it natural closure in the novel: Clementine and Emma meet again some time after the split and the old flame starts to blaze again, but as their rekindled sexual desire starts to rise, so does Clementine’s blood pressure. She suffers a heart attack and dies, the cause identified as an addiction to pills she started taking after the break-up. This leaves Emma to read Clementine’s death-bed memoirs of their love in the framing scenes of the novel.
In Kechiche’s version, the two also meet again after their parting, but while in this case Adèle frantically tries to set the flame ablaze again, it is clear that the break-up is final, and at the end of a dramatic scene each goes her separate way. And as we see Adèle literally walk into the distance in the film’s final shot, there is a feeling of closure and acceptance on Adèle’s part, whom we have witnessed growing from an adolescent girl into a young woman over the course of the film and her first big relationship. Both authors chart this relationship in their respective works, but the approach is different. Kechiche, perhaps because he had more experience in both life and in authoring a story, manages to get closer to the core of a serious relationship’s evolution than Maroh, perhaps because being a young, debuting novelist, she wasn’t able to express herself fully, but also because her emphasis is more on the ‘sexuality’ part of the story and how Clementine deals with her realization of being lesbian, while Kechiche’s focus is more on the ‘relationship’ part and how the girls’ differences ultimately wreck their bond, regardless of the sexuality. As a result, the film achieves a more fully realized arc of that relationship, with everything that entails.
Which brings us to the infamous sex scenes. Now, while there is sex in the novel, there’s a reason why this was in the 14+ section of my local library, while the ratings boards in most countries will aim for a higher age when rating the film (provided it is the same cut as in Cannes). The novel’s sex is depicted in a way that feels more attuned to what I see as the adolescent target audience (my library seems to think the same, I guess). While I think there is a degree of tenderness in Kechiche’s scenes, in Maroh’s drawings the tenderness is the focus, not the raw lust that is on display in the film. For example, there is cunnilingus in the novel, but as Clementine moves to reciprocate the pleasure Emma has given her, the older girl draws her back, saying, “You’ve never done that.” In the film, Adèle goes in like a trooper, seemingly instinctively knowing what to do when in bed with another girl. It’s interesting to note here another difference between novel and film: in both, before she meets the future love of her life, Adèle/Clementine has a fling with an older boy from school. In the novel, however, Clementine stops short of having sex with this boy, sensing it does not feel right. In the film, Adèle does have a sexual encounter with him, but from a shot of her face we can see it is not a success. So being in bed with Emma is not her first sexual experience. The scenes in the film are more graphic and certainly longer, more raw and full of lust. Whether the behavior of Clementine or Adèle lies closer to the truth is probably a case-to-case discussion, but what I think Kechiche more succesfully captures is the animalistic nature of the sex that one can have in the early stages of a relationship: in those stages, it’s all about the sex, the lust, the getting lost in each other’s bodies. Love, as in actual love, comes later, as the bond steadies and matures. But it is this early fuck-like-there-is-no-tomorrow attitude that Kechiche shows here, and I think it is in many cases closer to what happens in the bedroom than the idealized, lovey-dovey version that Maroh gives us. Whether the scenes should go on for as long as they do is a matter of debate, but it is precisely here that I think Kechiche gives us his version of what Maroh does in the novel, which is making a didactic point of showing that ‘lesbianism is okay’: if these were scenes between a heterosexual couple, there would likely be much less debate among critics. Apparently, audiences still approach such scenes between two women (or men, for that matter) differently than between a man and a woman. ‘Lesbian sex’ versus just ‘sex’ indeed.
Which makes it slightly puzzling, to me at least, that Maroh also uses this term, especially as she states that she is interested in the “banalisation of homosexuality.” Perhaps it would be better to not categorize different types of sex then. As to the ‘brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold,’ I feel that she missed the difference in tone and intention that Kechiche had in comparison to her own work. I personally find the scenes far from cold and surgical, and certainly not brutal. I’d describe them as passionate and full of desire to melt together, with an urgency to consume each other whole. Perhaps that is the ‘male gaze’ in me, but I think it is just the result of an adaptation in which Kechiche changes the focus of the work. Maroh does acknowledge this part of the process of adaptation in her reaction, and as such she doesn’t “see the movie as a betrayal. When it comes to adapting something, I believe the notion of betrayal should be reconsidered.” It feels as if she misses that Kechiche changes focus precisely during the sex scenes.
There is no reason to compare the adaptation to the original in terms of quality, as they set out to do different things and are targeted at different audiences. I feel some of the changes make more sense (the altered ending) or give the film a more even-handed feel (nuance in the characters), while others are more arbitrary (the social issues, the length of the sex scenes). Both works at their core show a deep love and respect for their central character and her struggles in dealing with her homosexuality, as well as an understanding of the dynamics of a serious relationship, which are the most important aspects of the story. That Kechiche managed to retain that and expand it is in my opinion the testament of a successful adaptation: keeping the heart and soul of the original work intact while weaving your own voice into it.