Critical gaze

Blue is the Warmest Color

Starring Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux; directed by Abdellatif Kechiche


Male gaze: A feature of gender power asymmetry in film, the concept proposes that women are objectified in film because heterosexual men are in control of the camera. The male gaze occurs when the camera puts the audience into the perspective of a heterosexual man. It may linger over the curves of a woman’s body, for instance. The woman is usually displayed on two different levels: as an erotic object for both the characters within the film, as well as for the spectator who is watching the film. The man emerges as the dominant power within the created film fantasy. The woman is passive to the active gaze from the man. In mainstream cinema, this adds an element of patriarchal order as the male gaze typically takes precedence over the female gaze, reflecting an underlying power asymmetry. (Source: Wikipedia entry for the general term “Gaze”)

Critical gaze: A feature of commentary asymmetry, the concept proposes that critics are elevated by their proffered commentary because they are ostensibly better equipped to evaluate than those who casually encounter artistic experiences. The critical gaze occurs when hyper-judgmental constructs become an inherent part of critics’ repertoire regarding the examination of artistic source material. Frequently this may involve seeing a film with prejudicial eyes based on preferences and biases that the commentator brings to a film. It occurs when a commentator finds fault with a film or elements in a film, even if those attributes are reflective of the nature of the film medium itself and the way narrative elements are depicted in a moving visual format. These faults may in fact be present, but are not necessarily fatal (or even objectionable) given the overall work and constraints involved in the creation of the work. In mainstream cinema, this adds an element of critiarchal order as the critical gaze typically takes precedence over the civilian gaze, reflecting an underlying power asymmetry between critic and average filmgoer. (Source: Politi-Flix)

Léa Seydoux and another cast member in Blue Is the Warmest Color.
Photo by Sundance Selects

Below is a sampling of how the critical gaze is applied by a variety of hypothetical critics to Blue is the Warmest Color, which has been accused of being an example of the male gaze as it depicts a lesbian relationship filmed by a man.

Critical Gaze 1: The Foreign Film Fawner. Indeed, here is an appealingly long, talky French film with subtitles, which means it’s vastly superior to Hollywood pap, plays exclusively in the rarified air of art houses, thankfully has no explosions or car chases, is fawned over by film critics and is naturally bestowed with awards at exclusive, insular film festivals.

Critical Gaze 2: The Plot Plodder. It’s a film about two young girls growing up and facing the usual teenage angst regarding relationships, sex, family, school, girlfriends, food, work, body image, peer conflicts and pressure, etc. One young girl, Adèle, the main character, is seen in French lit classes and has a tentative, unsatisfying relationship with a boyfriend, but is smitten by the allure of a somewhat older women that she passes one day on the street. Curious and driven by a certain longing for connection, she seeks out this woman, named Emma, and finds her at a lesbian bar. At the bar, Emma strikes up a conversation with Adèle when she helps her fend off the advances of other lesbians. They develop a poignant bond that is sealed with passionate lovemaking. The rest of the film involves the two getting to know each other (both intimately and personally), their respective families, lots of scenes involving voracious food consumption, and the subtle classist strain that develops between them — especially as Emma is an artist circulating in intellectual circles and Adèle longs to be an elementary school teacher. Nothing really wrong with any of this, it’s just that we’ve seen it all before in so many coming-of-age films.

Critical Gaze 3: The Accolade Aggravator. Naturally the film was well-received and highly touted at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival (where it also won the Palme d’Or — that festival’s top prize) because Cannes is attended primarily by snooty French film critics who eagerly bestow accolades on a film from one of their own, especially an auteur director originally from Tunisia, which has had a troubled history with France, which adds an extra willingness to give films like this top festival awards to address guilt and make amends. Did it deserve the top prize? Of course, but only the Oscar really matters.

Critical Gaze 4: The Easily Irritated Nit-Picky Naysayer. What’s up with the title? It’s ostensibly based on a graphic novel written by Julie Maroh that in French translates as “Blue is a Warm Color” and the French title of the film is La Vie d’Adèle. And what’s with all the scenes of people scarfing down food? We get treated to many meals with the characters — especially Adèle — stuffing their faces as if ravenous beasts, or as if the way a person eats is synonymous with sensuality and personality. How unappetizingly symbolic. And what’s with the preoccupation with extreme close-ups of the two young women’s faces? I mean they are attractive, but we don’t need to microscopically examine their pores. And all they do is talk and talk, or make goo-goo eyes at each other. And what about all that mucus flowing from eyes and nostrils? A good cry is one thing, but here creates a new meaning for the word “waterworks.” It’ll have one longing for more food scarfing. Oh, and the lengthy sex scenes? Let’s not even go there. After all, this is a respectable, family friendly newspaper.

Critical Gaze 5: The Male Gazer Grouser. Yep, this film is a “male gazer” alright — just what you’d expect from a male filmmaker. A blatant fixation on women’s bodies, the film lingers over these women and keeps a tight focus on their, um, attributes. The prodigious and graphic sex scenes are unnecessary to the main focus of exploring a budding lesbian relationship and are only provided for pure prurient perversion. They result in presenting these women as mere abstractions rather than individuals. This is further exacerbated by the dialogue in scenes of artists pontificating about naked women in art and the depiction of female sexual arousal. It’s both boring and sanctifying — as if women’s sexuality needs to be more explicitly projected because of the perception that it’s more mysterious and profound. The filmmaker may think that he is elevating women and depicting them with appreciation and respect, but he’s really doing the opposite by turning them into fantasy archetypes. It’s graphic for the sake of being graphic in that such explicitness is expected from a French film, which is defined by a more uninhibited aesthetic.

Critical Gaze 6: The Critical Gazer of Critics’ Gazes. Granting all of the issues identified by the forgoing critical gazes 1 through 5 above, the film is nonetheless an emotional powerhouse. Each of the purported “faults” is explainable — and defensible — by the filmic visualization of the source material. The story is about a young woman’s first true love affair, which provides a learning experience not only regarding her sexual orientation, but also about her drive for true connection with another person. That the filmmaker chooses to portray that in graphic and explicit ways (through close-ups, ravenous feasting, physical intimacy) is certainly a credible cinematic way to do so. Fundamentally, it’s about identifying with these characters, making them real with nuance and depth, caring about them, and feeling their hurts and vulnerabilities. By that standard, it succeeds. The filmic techniques do not detract or even distract from this underlying goal, but rather enhance it and make it all the more acute and poignant when relationships go awry or fade as people grow and evolve. The fact that there is a clear cultural, classist and characteristic disparity between these two characters adds to their curiosity of each other and heightens the eventual conflicts and feeling of loss. The fact that they can still feel passionately — both pleasure and pain — is the universal humanistic truth that’s effectively conveyed.

Critical Gaze 7: The Boastful Booster. Non-superhero, female-focused, homosexual, non-violent, non-horror, emotionally-affecting, subtitled foreign films are good for you — for a change!

Statesman film critic Doug Young is the Senior Policy Director in the office of Governor John Hickenlooper.