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Polarising blues: Abellatif Kechiche

INTERVIEW. Bold and beautiful love drama? Or offensive, pornographic bore? After dividing audiences around the globe, multi awarded "Blue is the Warmest Colour" finally hits Berlin cinemas on Dec 19. Read our interview with director Adellatif Kechic.

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Is it a beautiful love story or an offensive, pornographic bore? Blue is the Warmest Colour has polarised audiences around the globe  including the Exberliner staff itself.

The film has hardly been released in Germany, but it’s already come under heavy fire across social media – with a lag of a few months since the film was released earlier in other countries, every time to a barrage of abrasive attacks and controversies.

The recipient of the 2013 Golden Palme at Cannes, La vie d’Adèle (titled in English after the graphic novel it took inspiration from, Blue is the Warmest Colour), seems to have a polarising effect. The Tunisian-born French director Abellatif Kechiche was lambasted in the French media for allegedly exploiting both his crew and his main actress (Léa Seydoux described the shoot as “hell”).

Across the Atlantic, gender-sensitive souls saw in the film an insulting hetero male attitude towards women in general and lesbians in particular. Many viewers didn’t make it past the by-now-infamous 6-minute ultra-realistic sex scene between the two young protagonists. Patriarchal-minded, ultimately boring lesbian porn? Or aesthetically innovative, ethically progressive and emotionally poignant love story? 

Here’s what the soft-spoken Kechiche had to say on his press stop in Berlin.

You didn’t get any prize at yesterday’s European Film Awards. Did you mind?

I’ve received many prizes; but, you see, after each one, I ran into so many problems… So, no, I guess I don’t mind!

Every viewer seems to see a different film  either loved or loathed for dealing with lesbian sex. I saw a poignant love story. What film did you intend to make?

I don’t know – honestly, I’m not sure what my original intention was. I guess I wanted to tell a beautiful love story, something universal; I was touched by this subject… but in reality  I don’t know. 

What attracted you to the original graphic novel?

A lot happens by chance. Actually at the very beginning I wanted to tell the story of a schoolteacher. My original theme was “duty” in the face of challenge – maybe. Maybe! That was a script I had written after Games of Love and Chance years ago. Then there was that female character I had in mind.  A woman inspired by the Romy Schneider of the 1970s, Sautet’s A Simple Story – an amazing character with that admirable ability to “give herself”. Something that left a strong impression on me – I based my first character on her. She was an older woman… It’s hard to unravel all those intricate mechanisms going through one’s mind from a few leads to actual script. For example, I realised after the film was released that Fassbinder’s character in Fox and His Friends also influenced me. That guy played by Fassbinder himself who wins the lottery and accesses the upper class, then falls for some rich guy and ends up getting stripped of everything he owns and dying. The two characters Schneider’s and Fassbinder’s – have that sacrificial thing in common, giving everything you have at the cost of losing your own self.

And then you ran into the graphic novel? 

Yes, I saw something there. Adèle is a schoolteacher… And it was about two women – even better than one! I like female characters; I’m more attracted to them than male characters. So I started working on them and the film became what it became.

So the characters shaped themselves during the shooting?

Yes. For example, I never planned Emma the way she is in the film. That’s the result of my interaction and work with Léa. What I had in mind was a Rosa Luxemburg type – more militant, more political. I asked Leah to read her works… but somehow it developed in a different direction.

In your past films, references to your background were obvious: immigration, Paris banlieu… so what about two Gallic girls in Lille?

Well two lesbians – that’s not that Gallic!  Maybe it’s not so much immigration I have been dealing with as alienation, the condition of being different. To be out of the norm.

You seem to feel a lot for Adèle – she’s such a sympathetic character.

She has a strong sense of duty. From the beginning her love for Emma is a trial – she has to change her life. It’s like emigrating to a foreign country and entering a new, different world – socially, sexually… And then of course in the breaking up, she must face her duty.

By contrast Emma feels almost unpleasant. Would you say you identify more with Adèle?

No, Adèle is not me – I’d like to become her, maybe. But maybe I’m Emma. I find myself very unpleasant sometimes!

Adèle seems vulnerable in appearance, but she has that extraordinary strength – this gravity…

It’s very feminine. Something difficult to grasp. Something that goes above average – such generosity, such strength, such amazing benevolence towards others. As if she had a long experience of life.

And total loyalty and honesty …

Yes, the ideal character. The ideal woman! She’s a free, courageous woman who accepts her instincts and lives them through. You feel she’ll develop all that through her life.

Interestingly you’re lending her a future: in the graphic novel, she dies. Was it important to make her live on, so that the film’s not about the loss of someone, but the loss of something – a love that died? Which, after all, is much worse…

I agree. Often in those moments death seems preferable, or at least that’s how one feels in the moment, so devastating the suffering can be.

Could you imagine sequels – Adèle 2, Adèle 3?

Why not! If I keep on making films, that is…

What do you mean? Did the controversies and attacks affect you to the point of considering giving up?

It definitely pushed me to put myself into question. What is the point, really? That’s what I sometimes came to ask myself.

But many people loved the film too!

Yes… but often declarations of hatred stick with you more than the love ones.  

Are you referring to controversies around Léa Seydoux who described the shooting as “hell”? Or the polemic articles about working conditions on set…

But that’s what make me wonder. Most of what was reported all over is totally false. I have a wonderful relationship with my technicians. I’ve worked with them for 4-5 films – we’re very close, like a real family. I might be among the very few directors in the world to have never fired anyone, ever! I never raise my voice, never insult anyone. That’s just the way I am, my upbringing. So one really wonders what that was all about. There was never any evidence to support all those accusations, to create that reputation of tyrant, pervert, whatever. The real question: is it true? And if not, WHY? I let you be the judge.

Many people got turned off by the sex scenes. Why so graphic?

I don’t have much to say about it. That’s the way I felt they should be with the means I had. Reactions have been really mixed. I’m coming back from a promotion tour where a lesbian woman in New York told me how much those particular scenes touched her – even saying it revived her own sex life! Many women were actually moved.

But what about the length? It’s unusual to see a six-minute sex scene on screen, unless it’s in porn.

Since I started making films I’ve been told it’s ‘unusual’ to see such long scenes of this or that. Well that’s true. That’s my grammar, the way I express myself cinematographically. It might not fit the norm… but that’s the way I ‘feel’ it. I followed my instinct, my inner rhythm. I know it might be puzzling to some. Many people have trouble getting into my films because it’s uncomfortable to them. Of course I could try to conform and do something more ‘usual’, more acceptable, more comfortable. I chose to do something different. People are free to like it or hate it, that’s fine. But personal attacks don’t go away so easily, they leave scars.

Could you imagine defecting from the French and going to Hollywood?

Oh yes! You see, they are many people who like me in France but there are even more who don’t like me very much.

You’d have to go easy on the sex scenes, then!

Well, this remains to be seen. Americans are much less prudish than people like to think  – much less than the French and the Germans. 

You started your cinema career in front of the camera. Regarding the sex scenes, as an actor, where would you draw the line? Would you perform fellatio on camera?

It would depend on the film; on the director. But you see, I’m surprised by how controversial all sex things are. I had no idea that people would be so shocked! It reminds me of the controversy around the great Pabst film The Diary of a Lost Girl – the film was censored because it was suggested that one of the protagonists was a lesbian. You’d think that nowadays no one would have a problem with lesbian sex. Surprisingly that’s not the case!

Do you think the debate surrounding the legalisation of gay marriage  which took place pretty much right as your film was released in France  had an impact on the reception?

To be honest, I had no idea about the debates. I even thought that gay marriage was already legal in France! I was totally out of it! When you work on a film you’re just totally absorbed by it. For three years, I had no idea what was really going around me! I was shocked by reactions. I see a regression of mentalities in France.

But your film was not controversial only in France. How has the reaction differed form country to country?

In Romania, Poland, Russia there’s been an amazing emotional response. Same in Japan – I was really surprised. In Japan, men especially were very moved, and surprisingly they didn’t give a damn about the sex scenes, not daunted at all!  Separation was what affected them most.

One thing people seem to agree on was the outstanding performance by Adèle Exarchopoulos. I know you casted many girls; was it “wow” at first sight?

Ah, yes… no mistake, right away I knew it had to be her. But of course, you don’t want to tell an actress it will be her. Like a woman: if you’re too obvious about your desire for her, you’re finished!

Exarchopoulos was quoted as saying that it was the way she munched on a lemon tart that convinced you.

That’s true. I was filming it as a close shot in my head and I thought it was truly beautiful. There was some sugar powder on her lips… There’s something almost erotic in the way she eats her food, always, but the lemon tart was something truly out of this world.

Blue Is the Warmest Colour opens in Berlin cinemas on December 19. Check our OV search engine for showtimes.