Since its debut earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, Abdellatif Kechiche's eventual Palm d'or-winning Blue Is the Warmest Color has been one of the most discussed movies of the year. The three-hour French-language film features about 10 minutes of explicit lesbian sex over three scenes (including one that stretches on for almost seven minutes). Blue's sex caused it to be banned in Idaho, as well as unrest among its lead actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. (Seydoux told New York magazine that she was asked to do things in the movie that made her feel "like a prostitute.")
Blue Is the Warmest Color's attention to mundane detail at times tested my patience, but overall it affected me like no other seemingly quiet story of a full relationship that I've ever seen on screen. This is a confrontational movie. Among other things, the unflinching, extended sequences of what look like real lesbian sex made me realize how little I know about woman-on-woman action. That's to say that it confronted me with imagery, and in turn with my own ignorance. Lesbian sex is not something I've spent much time thinking about for reasons including, but not limited to, it having nothing to do with me—since I am a man who sleeps with men.
However, being made to think about lesbian sex only made me think about it more, and left me with a number of questions—many of them regarding practices and, well, mechanics. Because of circumstance, I don't have any close lesbian friends that I could ask about their ins and outs, so I took to Twitter and found a local gay woman who said she'd be down to watch the movie and then talk with me. Blake MacKay, a 30-year-old woman who has been dating woman since she was 18, met with me in the Gawker office last week for a nearly hour-long conversation about Blue Is the Warmest Color. During it, we discussed her experiences with and understanding of lesbian culture and sex between women. The edited results are below. (Minor spoilers are revealed.)
(To be clear: We both acknowledge that our experiences and points of view are subjective and not meant to speak for all. Hence the personal approach that I tend to take when discussing issues of gay sex and culture.)
Rich: What did you think of the movie?
Blake: I really loved it. By the end I was just so devastated.
Do you think you loved it specifically because it was a portrait of this female-female relationship?
It never hurts—there’s only so much we’ve got. But I think it went way beyond that. I mean, I’ve liked some trash that’s about same-sex female relationships, but I felt like this had such depth and that it also felt like it could’ve just as easily been not two girls, in a lot of ways. Could this have been a first love story for a young hetero couple? With the exception of a couple scenes, there wasn’t a ton of the gay thing happening in it. There wasn’t a lot of parent or peer backlash. And so it felt more just like a young love story.
I appreciated it. I felt like its strength was also its weakness, in a way. I felt like what Kechiche was after was to portray the banal way that people communicate. A lot of the lines were just completely unremarkable. And that was so true to life. And I think that’s also part of why that relationship felt so real. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, also, were just amazing. But at the same time, during the middle of many scenes, I'd think to myself, “OK. I got it.”
There’s that party scene in the middle of the movie, and during it a man talks about the mysteries of female pleasure and the female orgasm. I felt like that was Kechiche speaking directly to us. He’s a man. He’s straight, as far as I know. To me, the three-hour running length was a metaphor for his mystified view of lesbian sex. It seems like said sex could go on forever, and so did this movie, and then it was over. And that was actually the No. 1 question about lesbian sex that I had when I watched it: How do you know when to stop?
It’s a really good question, because unlike for men, the female body’s made to keep going. So you can have orgasm after orgasm after orgasm. In fact, it gets easier to have more once you’ve had one, physiologically. But in real life?
I think that it’s like anything else. You’re having it until, most likely, each person has their orgasm, and then that’s it, if it’s like a work night or whatever. Of course, some of the best times are when you think it’s going to be like that, and then you’re like, “No, I don’t want to stop.” But mostly it’s just, you’re tired, you’re satisfied, or there’s some sort of time limit. Life just doesn’t allow you to have sex for six hours all the time.
I guess it’s sort of like reading a book in that way.
That’s actually a great way to think about it. Before bed, if you’re reading a book that's good, you might read two chapters. If you’re reading a book that’s great, or if it’s great in that moment or great on that given day, then you might read six chapters.
In your experience, how fixed are roles amongst women who have sex with women? How much do people’s identities come from their status as tops and bottoms?
Much less so than, from what I understand, in gay men’s sexual culture. I think that some people, absolutely, those are their preferences and so that’s what turns them on, which is really interesting for gay women, because there are women who are tops, but oftentimes for them that means they’re not orgasming. They’re getting all their pleasure just from giving. Which obviously makes it different, usually, from two men together. But I feel like those roles, though they’re absolutely there, play a lesser role. Just because of the way our bodies work, to orgasm in some sort of…not traditional way. But usually you have to, if you’re with someone else, you have to give and receive, to get off.
Would a strict lesbian top, in terms of oral, be only giving or only receiving?
In my understanding, it would be only giving. Which differs, I know, from gay men. I think that with men, there’s so much tied up in weird, displaced notions of masculinity and it’s like, back in the day, you could still be straight but get your dick sucked [by a guy] and so that made you even more of a man. I think, with women, a top performs.
Scissoring: is it pleasurable?
This—I’ll be honest with you—is a bit of a blind spot for me. It's not that I’ve never done it, but that it’s not something that’s in my regular practice. I’ve known a lot of people for whom that is their jam. People who aren’t women, and don’t have sex with women, have kind of a preoccupation with scissoring. Because it’s like, “That must be what they do, right? They just rub private parts together.” It’s definitely pleasurable. It’s interesting, too, because you wouldn’t think that you’d get a lot there because the actual act of it isn’t giving you what a hand could give you, what a mouth could give you.
Exactly. It doesn’t seem like enough stimulation.
But there is something that kicks it to a next level, especially when you don’t lead with that, when you find yourself comfortable enough with someone for that to come into play. There’s just a little extra something that’s provided in that act, and you’re like, I’m probably not going to get off this way—although some people definitely will—or it might be harder or whatever, but there’s just something kind of powerful in the most central pleasure centers of your bodies meeting.
The sex in Blue Is the Warmest Color is just short of hardcore. I was convinced that it was actual sex that I was watching until you told me about the prosthetic genitalia the actresses wore.
Oh, yeah. And with no music. Which I didn’t realize until like halfway through the scene. I was like, “Holy shit. There’s no soundtrack right now.” And they don’t say any words, either. It’s just noises.
I watch barely any porn featuring women, and I can’t remember the last time I witnessed a lesbian sex act before this movie. Surveying all such onscreen portrayals of lesbian sex that you've seen, where does the sex in this movie fall for you in terms of quality and realism?
I’m super-bummed that [Exarchopoulos and Seydoux] say they had a bad experience while making it, because it was definitely the best sex I’ve ever seen between two women on screen. It felt more real than a lot of sex I’ve ever seen, no matter who’s involved. It was really striking to me that there was nothing covering them. There was no obvious attempt at keeping things hidden. It wasn’t dark, it was light. As I was watching it, and since then, I’ve been trying to fight back that feeling that it resembles pornography, but just because we’ve only ever seen those types of images in porn doesn’t mean that it’s porn-like, necessarily. It just means that other people have been too hesitant to make a sex scene like that. My experience of women having sex on screen is so limited, and I feel like, even with something like The L Word, for instance, there is still this sense that there are men watching, and we want it to be good for them, too. With Blue Is the Warmest Color, I didn’t feel like it was for me, but I didn’t feel like it was for the guy sitting next to me, either. And, in the moment, in the theatre, I definitely couldn't feel the straight male director's gaze, though I understand what people are saying about the way it was shot. Maybe I was too wrapped up in the story to cast a critical eye. I didn’t feel like it was shot through his lens of a straight male, which seems to be flying in the face of everything that’s being said of what it was like on set.
One thing that the movie didn't discuss was toys. Strap-ons and such. For you, personally, are strap-ons appealing either way?
I’ve never had them be a regular part of my sex life. I don’t think that will remain. I think they probably will. You know, for a long time lesbians had this idea of, “I don’t need a penis in my bedroom.”
That’s kind of the point.
Right? But I do think a lot of that attitude, that kind of lesbian feminism, has fallen away. So when I was young I feel like I was buying into that: “I don’t need it.” And there also is this sense of mystery and pride in being able to have someone who’s only been with men tell you that you’re the best sex they’ve ever had, when everyone thinks that sexual acts revolve around penises. So for me personally, they’ve never really played a big role. But again, I no longer have that feeling about, you know, there’s no place for them, there’s no need for them.
The most outstanding thing about this movie to me is that it’s so straightforward. It’s just the tale of a relationship, basically. It’s articulate in that way.
Apparently for the DVD version it’s going to be the director’s cut, which is 40 minutes longer. The film is getting so much attention because of the sex scenes, and that feels appropriate to me. Because although people are loving to say, “Long after the shock of the sex scene’s over, this love story will remain, and it was so beautifully told," there’s so much there that felt like it was a sex story to me. Not a love story. And I don’t think anyone would deny that Adèle and Emma were in love, but the first time one of them says that to the other is when they’re breaking up and they’re fighting. And you still only hear it out of one of them.
I really enjoyed that it was a story about the physical. It was about sex. It was about the ways that sex drives you. I mean, right from the first interaction that we see of them, it’s a fantasy, right? When Adèle is masturbating after she’s seen Emma on the street. And so even before they’ve met or had a conversation, this is a story about sex. I love that second-to-last scene between them, which is absolutely heart-wrenching, when they’re sitting in the restaurant together. It’s not like, “I love you and I miss you,” it’s like, “I want you and I’m dying.” It’s the desperation when you have sex like that and then it’s taken away.