In the final scene of The Secret of the Grain, a teenage girl, Rym, belly dances for a restaurant filled with hungry people, to placate them until her father returns with the couscous. The scene is long, uncomfortably so, with closeups of her body, her sexualized interactions with the musicians, who are peers of her father. Meanwhile her mother goes home to make more couscous, and her father is chasing after kids who have stolen his bike, hopelessly, until ultimately he collapses (and dies). Rym uses the power of a provocative dance to distract customers until more couscous can be brought. We see how quickly the audience is placated, and how complicit her family and the musicians are in putting her on display for this purpose. I’m not well-versed in feminist theory, but the male gaze is at work here, and it seems to be, deliberately so.
Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist, wrote about the male gaze as an inherent power asymmetry in film. Because historically, and still today for the most part, heterosexual men are behind the camera, men gaze, women are gazed at. When women gaze, it’s indirectly, from the perspective of what the man sees.
Rym, the youngest daughter, makes the decision to put herself on display for the benefit of her family, and most especially for her father. Unknown to her, though, he is dying as she is dancing.
Abdel Kechiche, the director of both The Secret of the Grain, and , has been criticized for the male gaze apparent in Blue. There are lingering shots of the bodies of two female characters, many voyeuristic shots of Adele sleeping, as well as the infamously long sex scene (7 minutes). While watching the film, I was aware of the male gaze, but I simultaneously questioned it. Just because women’s bodies are being objectified, what makes it specifically male? If I didn’t know the director was male, would I feel differently? If I didn’t know the actresses themselves were critical of Kechiche for his unrelenting directing style, would I feel differently?
The sex scenes are long and fairly graphic for a narrative film, but despite criticisms the Kechiche gets lesbian sex wrong, the sex seems more naturalistic to me (a heterosexual woman) than in mainstream media. Since when is sex in film accurate, anyway? The long length, to me, suggests something besides male fantasy. Kechiche himself admits that he wanted to make it beautiful, like a painting or a sculpture, and we indeed see paintings and sculptures of female nude throughout the film. But duration is usually with the intent of giving the audience pause. I’m enjoying looking at this… why? Perhaps making people uncomfortable is part of the goal, like in the final scene of The Secret of the Grain.
Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel on which Blue is the Warmest Color is based, criticizes the lesbian sex, and says people were laughing at the movie for how wrong it is, and how ridiculous people find it, but perhaps people laugh because they are uncomfortable. They might very well be laughing for other reasons too.
There is plenty of Kechiche’s gaze in the film, but there is also seems to be a lot of direct female gaze as well. This is, afterall, a film about two women in love, and they both do a lot of looking. They fall in love at first sight when they happen to walk by each other on the street. Eventually they build a relationship that is largely based on their sexual connection. Adele is an observer, she’s always watching. Emma is a painter, and her subjects are her girlfriends, and it is her gaze that is active.
Something else that is perhaps indicative of the female gaze in the film is that early on: when Adele is still in high school, she is sitting with a group of her girlfriends, and they are all looking at this boy they think has a crush on Adele. He looks at Adele, and the girls all look at him, assess that he is cute, and she should pursue him, that “it’s in the bag,” The male gaze is present, but the female gaze is there, too.
I’m far from an expert on this topic, and would love to hear other opinions!
Blue is the Warmest Color is at Images Cinema through Thursday, 12/12.