What is the Price of Art?: ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ and the Myth of The Mad Genius

By  · Published on September 17th, 2013

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color took home the Palme d’Or at Cannes this past May, riding a wave of critical praise given towards what is, by most accounts, an ambitious, immersive epic of a tumultuous young romance. Its sexuality is frank and transparent, and no punches are pulled – this, it seems, is the type of risky, visionary cinema speaks to the very rhyme and reason why Cannes exists in the first place, especially in the context of an ever-homogenizing global market.

Recent news, however, has cast a different light on what would otherwise be a surefire arthouse darling. First, author Julie Maroh (who wrote the graphic novel upon which the film is based) all but disowned the film for framing a straight male gaze on a relationship between two women – a serious critique indeed, but not at all surprising considering past Cannes darlings.

Things became considerably worse when news of Kechiche’s on-set antics entered the discussion. The film’s cast and crew have attested to exploitative labor practices and possible emotional abuse directed toward the two leads, particularly during extended takes of the film’s central lovemaking scene.

Films don’t exist in a vacuum to be certain, but it’s common practice in criticism to largely stick to what’s within the frame as much as one can. What do we do, then, when the problematic terms of that art is overwhelmingly present? If Blue is the Warmest Color if a film made through (at best) unprofessional or (at worst) condemnable means, are we complicit in those practices if we find the end result to be remarkable, even brilliant?

I say this having not yet seen Blue is the Warmest Color. If I choose to see the film when it opens on US screens later this fall, I have little doubt that I will be thinking about the recent controversies as I (try to) experience the film. As reported by Drew Taylor at IndieWire (who culled together information from The Daily Beast and a French entertainment website), actress Léa Seydoux commented that the sex scenes as they played out on set involved a different level of commitment from the terms that had been discussed prior to filming; at the same time, Kechiche refused to arrange choreography for the sex scenes between actresses who claim no prior experience with lesbian sex. And according to Vadim Rizov of The Dissolve, during a less intimate scene, when the two lead characters first meet, one of 100 or so takes that Kechiche demanded resulted in the actresses breaking character and laughing, which sent the director into a violent fit involving a monitor being thrown into the street.

What’s more, what amounts to labor exploitation allegedly occurred during filming. As stated by Rizov:

“The performers’ description of the prolonged shoot coincided with complaints made anonymously by crew members in May, which cited a ‘bullying’ set, chaos about who was working which days, lost payroll hours, 16-hour days recorded as 8-hour ones, and a shoot that spiraled from two planned months to five and a half… A new collective labor agreement was passed in January 2012 to put an end to such practices, but it’s yet to be enforced. Some French directors have claimed that being forced to pay these rates would make production of their work fiscally impossible.”

So this mess around the film could be a combination of systemic problems in the French film industry, a poorly planned shoot, and a director whose working style can be described as existing anywhere between a lack of professional foresight, obsessive compulsion, egotism, and acts of deception. This isn’t to say that Kechiche did anything that is demonstrably illegal, but that he seemed to display a lack of empathy towards his cast and crew while approaching notably sensitive subject matter; the environment on set was certainly not one of trust.

Kechiche himself didn’t make the film’s PR prospects any better when he stated, citing Seydoux’s lineage in the French film industry: “How indecent to talk about pain when doing one of the best jobs in the world! Aides suffer, the unemployed suffer, construction workers could talk about suffering. How when you are adored, when you go up on red carpet when we receive awards, how we can speak of suffering?”

Two things are certain: 1) Abdellatif Kechiche is an asshole, and 2) the film that reviewers saw at Cannes may no longer be the same film that arthouse-goers aware of these stories will see this fall. The film hasn’t been cut or altered, but the frame of reference has demonstrably changed; later filmgoers will be burdened by a context that the film’s initial critics weren’t privy to.

As much as cinephiles would like to maintain the ideal that what is within the screen’s four corners is ultimately the most important and consequential aspect when experiencing a film, context has a way of creeping in. It’s a strange problem to deal with, because Blue is the Warmest Color has certainly made a powerful impression on people who have and haven’t been aware of these stories throughout its festival circulation. One must wrestle with the fact that, despite Kechiche’s questionable methods, the “film itself” (if we can concede for a moment that it can be evaluated as a context-free text) might be very, very good. Even great.

But this is not to say that the film is great because of his methods – an irresponsible claim not only because this is something that can’t be known, but because such a rhetorical strategy justifies the methods outright, playing into the myth of the mad genius director who, despite his unorthodox practices, can supposedly see a greater picture that none of his cast and crew can. I can only suspect that this is somewhere along the lines of how Kechiche sees himself.

The mad genius is a familiar figure, and he’s not known for treating women particularly well. He’s been familiar to us in the forms of Stanley Kubrick, Lars von Trier, Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock, and others. Justifications, qualifications, and concessions are continually made for these figures: Kubrick is dead; Polanski’s crimes seem of the past, crimes that he’s been tried for in the court of public opinion; Hitch treated all actors like cattle, not just women; von Trier is Scandanavian. And none of these figures have been charged with crimes committed on a movie set.

But loving the art doesn’t necessarily mean justifying its process, or holding the artist as an exemplar of interpersonal conduct. Some of us might prefer not to know about filmmakers’ troubling behaviors on or off-set. After all, some of the most celebrated filmmakers were likely assholes and misogynists, and the lauded director’s chair is a site of considerable power, one that can easily be overreached in the insulated space and structured hierarchies of the movie set.

While it’s pretty bizarre that we implicitly require our artists to be exemplary (or simply nice) human beings, the instinct to protect their reputation makes sense, even if it doesn’t really make sense. The praise afforded to figures like Kubrick and Hitchcock can render any serious discussion of their reported and documented conduct considerably difficult because it seems to call the art itself into question, or even render the fan of the art complicit in any problematic processes of its making. But we need to acknowledge that such complicity can happen in the reverse. The wall that this myth puts up (see the controversy over HBO’s The Girl, for instance) perpetuates a notion of the genius director that gives license to continued questionable behaviors on set like those reported by the cast and crew of Blue is the Warmest Color.

I think it’s high time we say that The Shining is one of the greatest horror films even made and Kubrick could have been considerably less shitty to Shelly Duvall while shooting. We should say this not only to give an honest admission that these were actual human beings working together in a collaborative artistic process with certain inherent power disparities at play, but also so that this idealization of the cinematic mad genius can lay to rest as a product of the 20th century.

Who should replace the mad genius of filmmaking’s past? Hopefully the compassionate visionary of filmmaking’s present and future. The previous paragraphs were not meant to suggest that film sets should never be a place where risky, arduous, envelope-pushing, demanding, exhausting, and even compromising work should be done. Rather, these very things should continue to be pursued, but within an environment enabled through trust. Steve McQueen, the director of the much buzzed-about 12 Years a Slave, seems by all accounts to be a compassionate artist whose harrowing work emerges from a confident environment that he shares with (rather than works against) his cast. McQueen exhibits control, yes, but through collaboration rather than dictation.

I’ll give McQueen the last word, from his recent interview with Graham Fuller of Film Comment, in which he discusses his on-set correspondence with actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and actress Lupita Nyong’o:

“You have to create an environment where they feel safe and then make them into spheres, so however they roll, whatever direction they go in, is right. They’re like dancers – every part of their body has to be used. There’s no restraints, no censorship. If you create that environment, things happen out of the ordinary, which, as log as you’ve got the camera rolling, you catch.”