The Harvey Weinstein scandal has laid bare the extent of off-screen sexual coercion in the film industry—but what about on-screen? While the first conflates sex and power, the other typically conflates sex and art. And one of Weinstein’s accusers claims to have experienced both.
In the same year that actress Lea Seydoux says Weinstein made advances on her, she made an explicit lesbian coming-of-age drama entitled Blue is the Warmest Colour. Bitter controversies soon arose over the production. Seydoux complained of being made to feel “like a prostitute,” of being given no actual direction during days of graphic retakes, and of being made to engage in physical abuse with her co-star. The film’s director, Abdellatif Kechiche, responded by saying it was “indecent” to complain about having one of “the best jobs in the world.” In echoes of the Weinstein scandal, Kechiche implied that celebrity was a dividend they were happy to bank from a deeply unhappy shoot.
The work’s country of origin will come as no surprise: France, where it was released as La Vie d’Adèle and won the Palme D’Or. The conflation of intellectual pursuit and sexual gratification is common to academia and arts across the world yet recurs with a particular mendacity in France. This is a country where a leading living philosopher let slip that he “of course” writes to attract women.
Uniquely in France, you have to be intellectual to be sexy—and the intellect is seen, in turn, as somehow transfiguring sexual gratification. Author Michel Houellebecq famously made a point of propositioning every interviewer he sat down with, and got away with it. French presidents have traditionally used their vaunting positions to add gravitas to their affairs (except Emmanuel Macron, perhaps holding a clue as to why he’s distrusted by French voters). Giscard d’Estaing famously copulated with the Emmanuelle star Sylvia Kristel in the Elysée Palace, undoubtedly believing he was embodying something of the French nation. It took the excesses of Dominique Strauss-Khan, who allegedly brutally exploited underpaid prostitutes, to test French public opinion to breaking point (and yet his sharing a platform with Macron earlier this month has led some to speculate that even “DSK” can stage a comeback).
A broader reading of this permissiveness is that the French are so enamored of matters cerebral that they will forgive an intellectual anything. This would account for the rehabilitation of far-right author Louis-Ferdinand Céline—not to mention the so-called Mitterand Doctrine of harboring far-left Italian terrorists during the 1980s (including quadruple murderer Cesare Battisti). Against such a backdrop, how could a confirmed intellectual be held to account for something so trifling as sexual misconduct?
Yet a deeper explanation is found in the underlying relationship between sex and the country’s intellectual touchstone: the French Enlightenment. A typical reading is that academic enlightenment led to sexual liberation, but it’s also true that enlightenment was spurred by desire for greater sexual liberation. Examples abound. While busily theorizing that man is “born free,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau was also busily liberating his illegitimate creations to the footsteps of an orphanage. The Palais Royal—home to France’s late-Enlightenment patron, the Duke of Orleans—was famed for the ease of the encounters that took place there. The Marquis de Sade’s Justine was published three years before the Revolution; Laclos’ Les Liason Dangereuses three years after (with the disclaimer that “I am only writing what I have seen in my life”). Intellectual freedom and sexual freedom went hand-in-hand, and it has since been hard to pry them apart.
It is no surprise that the most successful titillating French art takes aim at this synthesis rather than embracing it. Manet’s Dejeneur Sur L’Herbe and Olympia starkly re-established the dualism of sexual desire by stripping women naked in a firmly bourgeois setting. The message to 1860s Paris was clear: stop kidding yourselves, sex is sex. The works were near-contemporaries of a truer apotheosis of sex-in-art, the four-hour tantric journey of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Needing no naked bodies to make its point, it provides a clue that whereas you can use sex to change art, you cannot use art to change sex.
This is the mistake made by Blue is the Warmest Colour. Like all such attempts, the results are ridiculous. The juxtaposition between sex and well-made cinema is so sudden that it could be a comment on the the audience’s own vicariousness (in the mold of the brilliant Belgian satire Man Bites Dog). Yet a distinct lack of irony—not to mention dark clouds over the film’s production—place such an interpretation sadly out of reach. It is revealing that the same conflation does not exist for France’s neighbors. Even in an oversexed country like Italy, the dualism between sex and intellectual life remains intact. Hence, even with Berlusconi appointing his girlfriends to ministries, sex never threatened the heart of political and intellectual life. The archetype of an Italian public intellectual, Umberto Eco, had no mandate to be sexy as well as smart. In Germany, meanwhile, the childless head of state exists as a kind of latter-day Virgin Queen.
Blue is the Warmest Colour‘s Tunisian-born director (and writer/producer) would probably counter that he is pursuing France’s tradition of un-blinkered existential truth. How could the cameras not follow the young couple into the bedroom? And not stay there for the duration? Surely anything less would be mauvaise-foi of the first order? Yet the most damning criticism of this soi-disant realism—including by the lesbian author of the comic book on which the film is based—was that the sex neither featured real lesbians nor looked like real lesbianism. The real bad faith was therefore trying to present porn as art. A German or Italian director, not to mention a sex-crazed American producer, would at least have known the difference—and called the work by its proper name.
Toby Guise is a London-based writer and novelist who specializes in political culture on both sides of the Atlantic. His other work can be found here.