Last week while trying to find respite from the sudden cold snap in the city, I took advantage of New York’s cinematic status to see two recently released films that are certainly not playing in my hometown in Ohio: Kill Your Darlings and the French film Blue is the Warmest Colour (also known as La Vie d’Adele). These films were completely different in language, tone, and overall experience, but they have both opened to film festival awards and general critical acclaim. And they do share a common theme, one of coming of age and homosexual awakening, though they are tackled very differently and for differing purposes.
I’m going to put it all out there at the start: While the performances in both films were phenomenal, I loved Kill Your Darlings and have a lot of trouble coming to terms with Blue. I could very well take the time right now to discuss the technical issues I had, how I loved Kill‘s directing style (from director John Krokidas), a sharp and modern and engaging technique that evoked the jazz age and called to the coming Beats. How Blue felt over-long and it’s director (Abdellatif Kechiche) came off as self-serving and heavy-handed, not to mention slightly pedophiliac. But right now I am much more interested in comparing how these films tackled the issues of their protagonists’ sexuality.
Kill Your Darlings, starring Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, as the great American poet Allen Ginsberg, centers on Allen as he becomes entrenched with the enigmatic and dangerous Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), and meets the artists who will help him define a generation. Though the plot of the film is heavily focused on Ginsberg and Carr’s friendship and Carr’s murder of his tumultuous lover David Kammerer, the real story is that of Ginsberg coming into his own as an artist, discovering his poetic drive and style as well as coming to terms with his sexuality. His relationship with Carr is based on intimacy, and while there is a homosexual sex scene, it is interspersed with three other scenes of plot and character, like a woven web. Allen’s sexuality is not the central point. His connection to Carr is not shown to be one of lust, though the physical is a factor. It is as much about art and poetry. And while the film does not shy away from the historical issues of homosexuality in the mid 1940s, Ginsberg’s discovery of his sexuality is not played as odd or wrong. As a modern audience, the film wants us to be happy when he finally allows himself to be, truly, himself, despite the ever-present fear of arrest and/or public shaming. Thematically, I think the film handles its homosexuality very well. It is tasteful and it is not the be-all-end-all of Ginsberg’s life. It is an aspect of who he is, just like his relationship with his parents, his friends, and his poetry.
Blue is the Warmest Colour is a different story. It is a French film that opened at Cannes and won the prized Palme d’Or, which was unusually awarded not just to the director but also the two lead actresses as well. Starring relative newcomer Adèle Exarchopolous as the lead who shares her name, the film (based on the French graphic novel by Julie Maroh that shares the English title and was only recently released in English) is the story of a young woman’s discovery of her sexuality as she falls deeply in love with blue-haired artist Emma (Léa Seydoux). Not to give too much away, but their romance is anything but easy, and while they have a happier ending than their graphic novel counterparts, their ending is far from a Happily Ever After.
This movie is all about desire and appetite. The audience is constantly seeing Adèle eating, or focusing on her mouth, or viewing her body in separate objectified parts. We see her desire for friends, desire to be normal, desire to be a teacher, and overwhelmingly her desire for Emma, even when her actions cause her to lose her. In some ways, the movie is not only about Adèle being gay. Though we see her facing bullying at school in one scene, and see her purposefully not coming out to her parents in another, most of the plot is about Adèle’s growing up and maturing, finding a career she loves and trying to make her relationship work. These are things that transcend sexuality.
But there are moments in the movie that, to me, void all of the positive scenes. All of this, again, in my opinion, are down to the director. Reports from the actresses say that he was very difficult to work with, especially in the sex scenes. These scenes are incredibly graphic, giving the movie an NC17 rating in the US. And wow, those scenes. The first is incredibly long, and has every position you could imagine possible between two women (except for one, which happened in the second sex scene, causing me to awkwardly laugh at my friend and say, “I wondered when that was going to happen”). This infamous scene, which is more than uncomfortably long, is blatant and stark, very much like porn. The camera leaves no room for emotion, though often the women are looking each other in the eye. They are sexualized with no intimacy beyond the physical, no warmth or heart. In fact, it isn’t merely like porn, it is porn. And while I have no problem with porn existing, I do have a problem with this kind of scene taking time in a story that should have been about emotion and relationships. To me, this scene and the director’s preoccupation with objectifying his stars and the female form, as well as female relationships, ruins the movie. The writer of the graphic novel recently wrote:
“Because – except for a few passages – this is all that it brings to my mind: a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and [made] me feel very ill at ease. Especially when, in the middle of a movie theatre, everyone was giggling. The heteronormative laughed because they don’t understand it and find the scene ridiculous. The gay and queer people laughed because it’s not convincing, and [they] found it ridiculous. And among the only people we didn’t hear giggling were the potential guys [sic] too busy feasting their eyes on an incarnation of their fantasies on screen.”
While my love of Kill Your Darlings and my dislike for Blue is the Warmest Colour is very much because of my feelings on the directing and editing of each, I do think they point to two very different ways of portraying non-heterosexual sexualities. While it is very possible to have a movie that centers on a character coming out and has their sexuality take center stage, it is more than time for movies with LGBTQ (also known as Gender and Sexual Minorities, or GSM) characters whose sexualities and genders are inconsequential to the greater plot, or at least minor in compared to other attributes. GSM individuals are just people, and what makes them great characters are the same things that make any character great. And I would love to see a film about a non-heterosexual female that did not objectify them or their love.
It’s 2013. Civil Unions are legal in many countries, and marriage equality is growing in the United States. The entertainment industry is at the forefront when it comes to those in the industry itself who are GSM or allies. So why the hell can’t that translate to the screen?