Could someone please save Abdellatif Kechiche from himself? The Tunisian-born French director experienced a career-defining high last May at the Cannes International Film Festival with his fifth film, a three-hour epic of passion and heartbreak that had the Cannes jury, according its chairman Steven Spielberg, “spellbound.” The drama Blue is the Warmest Colour, adapted from a graphic novel about a passionate affair between two young women, won the festival’s highest honour, the Palme d’Or.
The timing of the award and the media excitement around the film was perfect: It came just days after France legalized same-sex marriage. Moreover, it had reviewers breathlessly discussing its “explosively graphic lesbian sex scene.” Sex plus art is a hard combination to beat, especially when its topped with progressive politics in the host nation. Kechiche, riding high, dedicated the prize to the youth of Tunisia, spearheaders of the Arab Spring. The cinematic world, you might say, was in his palm, so this week’s widespread release of Blue is the Warmest Colour ought to be occasion to further celebrate Kechiche’s great achievements.
But there isn’t much talk about his Palme d’Or these days. In the half-year since his seaside triumph at Cannes, the narrative has changed from the audacious same-sex triumph of his film to criticism of the director’s on-set behaviour and the rebellion of the film’s two stars, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos: In a Daily Beast interview in September, they called the experience of working with Kechiche “horrible” and “embarrassing.” And amid the raves from reviewers, there have been troubling dissenting voices and a stern rebuke of the film’s interpretation from Julie Maroh, the author of the novel on which the movie is based. So while the film’s acclaim remained mostly intact, Kechiche’s halo has slipped precipitously.
In public-relations terms, that doesn’t have to be fatal. Controversial and fractious sets sometimes help sell movies: The early attempts by William Randolph Hearst to shut down Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane helped it define it as a courageous masterpiece. In other cases, tales of fights and excesses are lethal, as in the case of Michael Cimino’s grand folly, Heaven’s Gate.
Unfortunately, when Kechiche could have turned down the heat on the controversies, he instead reacted with petulant outrage. He was betrayed, he said, and people were plotting against him. At one point, he threatened to withdraw the film, which he now considered “sullied.” He even threatened a lawsuit for slander against his enemies in op-ed rant on the website Rue89 (titled “To Those Who Sought to Destroy Blue is the Warmest Colour”). He called Seydoux a spoiled child out for self-promotion, as if winning a Palme d’Or wasn’t promotion enough. In all, his response painted him as pretty much the hectoring control freak his actresses said he was during filming.
Kechiche now needs to get ahead of controversy and manage it before Blue Is the Warmest Colour turns into a black stain on his reputation and an impediment to his career. Is damage control still possible at this late date? History says yes, but first Kechiche has to relinquish the European cinematic tradition of director as god, and behave more like a media-wise North American. Here’s what he did, and what he needs to do going forward.
Let’s start with the first minor crisis: author Julie Maroh weighing in on her blog. In addition to her complaints about the movie version of her story, Maroh said she heard giggling at the Palais du Festival during the film’s graphic sex scenes: “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 found it ridiculous,” she wrote.
Kechiche says he just wanted to make the scenes “beautiful.” What he should now do is speak positively of the writer’s contribution and how her book inspired him to make the film in the first place, and explain that books and films are different beasts with different rules. Anne Rice didn’t initially care for Interview with a Vampire, Daphne DuMaurier didn’t like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, etc. And he could ask how, short of telepathy, she determined the sexual orientation and motives of the Cannes audience? (From what I heard, the only laughter at the Cannes screening came from the filmmaker’s row.) And he might remind her of the many glowing reviews, including by New Yorker blogger Richard Brody, who says the problem with the movie’s sex scenes is that they are “too good,” which is why some critics find them so disturbing.
A weightier line of criticism, including by The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, suggests the movie was, beneath a sensitive exterior, conventionally sexist, with lots of pert bum shots and women treated as magic, enigmatic creatures.
There’s a smart way to answer these charges without complaining, as Kechiche did, “Do I need to be a woman, and a lesbian, to talk about love between women?” First, he could explain that he was showing a character who is aware of being looked at, who is perceived by others as a sexual being. He could also ask why Sofia Coppola got a free pass when prettily framing Scarlett Johansson’s backside in Lost in Translation.
Now we come to the crunch: The accusations of the actresses. First, responding to a slight through the media, as he did, is like killing a mosquito with a bomb. This needn’t have been such a big deal. When I met the two actresses at their hotel suite during the Toronto International Film Festival shortly after their Daily Beast interview, they seemed uncomfortable with the fuss. Seydoux said that their comments, offered as anecdotes in an interview in uncertain English, looked “terrible” on the page.
“I regret that it’s treated as some big scandal that’s so exciting for journalists,” added Exarchopoulos. “Yes, the shoot was hard, but it was a human adventure.”
Kechiche, however, responded in full dudgeon. He said that Seydoux had manipulated Exarchopoulos against him, that she “out of phase with reality,” didn’t understand what an actress was, and so on.
Now that the film is opening wide, and the spotlight is sure to find him again, this is how he should handle that issue. He should say that friction sparks the process, especially in a long (five-month), emotionally exploratory film shoot such as Blue is the Warmest Colour. He can argue that he had just given the actresses the best roles of their lives. And he should point out that personality clashes often lead to great work: Stanley Kubrick and Shelley Duvall in The Shining, or Frances Ford Coppola and Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.
In conclusion, Mr. Kechiche should follow the old Hollywood adage: “Leave the drama on the screen.”