Sometimes when there's controversy about a film during its release cycle you can sense the dark arts of skilled movie publicists at work, manufacturing dissent to generate column inches and page views. At this point it's safe to say that that's not the case with Blue is the Warmest Colour, the Palme d'Or winning romantic drama from Tunisian-born French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche.
It’s unfettered, messy, and increasingly destructive.
Given the events of recent weeks – which have culminated, for now, with an extraordinarily combative open letter released by Kechiche last night (translation here) that includes one of his leads among its many targets – it's clear that this is a controversy that stems from genuine conflict. It's unfettered, messy, and increasingly destructive.
Blue is the Warmest Colour, which opens in Australia on February 13, 2014, has been attracting attention ever since it triumphed in Cannes in May of this year. A majority of reviews were highly laudatory, praising the film's intimate dissection of a transformative lesbian love affair between a high school student, Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), and an older artist, Emma (Lea Seydoux). The film is long, intimate and accretive – all familiar elements from Kechiche's previous success, 2007's The Secret of the Grain.
One repeatedly cited element in the three hour long film are the lengthy and explicit sex scenes between the two leads. Some critics wondered at what point microscopic attention to the passion of Adele and Emma became a form of voyeuristic spectacle. Ever since, questions about those scenes and the pair's relationship with the director have simmered ominously.
The smiling faces and unified front on the Cannes red carpet were soon replaced by eagerly quoted assertions and explanations. Seydoux, who is building a stellar career with her recent work in Farewell, My Queen and Sister, explained to American journalists the French dynamic between actors and directors.
“The director has all the power. When you're an actor on a film in France and you sign the contract, you have to give yourself, and in a way you're trapped,” Seydoux explained to The Daily Beast. “He warned us that we had to trust him – blind trust and give a lot of ourselves. But once we were on the shoot, I realised that he really wanted us to give him everything. Most people don't even dare to ask the things that he did, and they're more respectful – you get reassured during sex scenes, and they're choreographed, which desexualises the act.”
Citing a scene where the two characters first walk past each other, Seydoux claims that Kechiche shot over 100 takes. Working with him was “horrible”, and she would “never” do it again. Exarchopoulos, still a teenager, simply replied “I don't think so”, when she was asked about stepping onto a Kechiche set again.
For Kechiche this appeared to be the final straw. He's already been criticised by Julie Maroh, whose graphic novel he'd adapted, over the sex scenes, and he'd taken umbrage about articles in the French newspaper Le Monde about working conditions during production that were reportedly long and demanding. His replies, during his own media commitments, were increasingly wounded and emotional.
The peak of his passion is his incredibly detailed open letter to his detractors – or who Kechiche imagines his detractors to be – which clocks in at about 4,600 words. It's in French, but no-one is going to be claiming translation errors as an excuse for the punches it throws. The Le Monde stories are part of a conspiracy to stifle his film and damage his career, while Seydoux is “an arrogant and spoiled child”. In a section titled “The Opportunistic Calculations of a Young Lea” (Kechiche has helpfully broken the long letter into individual diatribes), he adds that Seydoux's “insinuations” were “slanderous” and that she will have to explain herself in a court of law.
A director taking legal action against their star may well be one of the few ways this story could top itself. Not all film sets are genial workplaces, especially when the subject matter is so demandingly intense, but the contributions made by both Kechiche along with Seydoux and Exarchopoulos appear to have given each side a belief that they at least share a sense of control over how Blue is the Warmest Colour should be perceived. That it plays out as two young women versus an older man, only adds to the potent symbolism of the ructions. Where to next, however, is anybody's guess.