It was her derri re that first caught my eye. Specifically, it was the way the camera captured the pretty teenager's rear end in "Blue Is the Warmest Color" so that it was centered and foregrounded in the frame. It is a lovely derri re, no question, round, compact and firm, and I became well acquainted with how it looked whether tucked into snug jeans or perched prettily in the air when Ad le, who's 15 when the movie opens, lies splayed sleeping face down in bed, as young children often do. The director, Abdellatif Kechiche, I realized fairly quickly, likes a tight end.
Mind you, I thought the same about Mike Nichols, given the attention he lavished on Natalie Portman's rear in his 2004 film, "Closer." This observation was a data point that I stashed in my files, where I've also noted that Alfred Hitchcock preferred blondes, and Quentin Tarantino likes pretty feet. For the most part, this information doesn't factor into my thinking about these filmmakers, even if it is unsettling to hear Tippi Hedren brand Hitchcock as a sexual predator. The truth is, if I were hung up about every predatory director or every degrading image of a woman, I couldn't be a film critic. So I watch, loving movies that don't necessarily love or even like women.
Does it matter that Mr. Kechiche appears to have a thing for rear ends? Mr. Kechiche, after all, elevated one such rear into art, or so the consensus was in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where "Blue Is the Warmest Color" won the Palme d'Or. In an unusual move, the jury, led by Steven Spielberg, awarded the Palme to Mr. Kechiche and his stars, L a Seydoux and Ad le Exarchopoulos. This "exceptional step," Mr. Spielberg said as he announced the winners, was taken to recognize "the achievements of three artists." By asserting that the actresses were co-creators of the movie, the jury had acknowledged that movies are also made by their performers, an idea that gently chips away at auteurism, one of the critic's favorite interpretive strategies.
" Blue Is the Warmest Color," which has now opened in the United States, is a sexual coming-of-age story about a French provincial voluptuary, Ad le (Ms. Exarchopoulos). She's a teenager with strong appetites - she keeps sweets stashed under her bed - whose hunger has a distinctly carnal aspect and invokes an association between literal and sexual appetite that has probably been around since Eve took a bite of that troublesome apple. Ad le stuffs her mouth with food, even as she remains unnourished by her high school boyfriend. She's only sated when later she falls for Emma (Ms. Seydoux), the blue-haired artist with whom she forms a bond as emotionally and psychologically intense as it is sexually pleasurable. They fall in love, move in together, and then it falls apart.
I first saw "Blue Is the Warmest Color" at Cannes, where I wrote 399 dissenting words on the movie and raised some of the issues I had with it. I wrote that Mr. Kechiche was a self-indulgent filmmaker (the movie runs three hours), and mentioned a scene in which a man talks about art and female orgasms. Primarily, I questioned Mr. Kechiche's representation of the female body. By keeping so close to Ad le, he seemed to be trying to convey her subjective experience, specifically with the hovering camerawork and frequent close-ups of her face. Yet, early on, this sense of the character's interiority dissolves when the camera roves over her body even while she is sleeping. Is Ad le, I had wondered then, dreaming of her own hot body?
I received flak for my comments, which was unsurprising because I had criticized a movie that other people love, raising questions about pleasure and a director whose desire felt more at stake than that of his characters. Some critics decided that I was really complaining about pornography, which was surprising because, while the movie uses some of that genre's conventions, it's clear that the sex was pantomimed. In June, Owen Gleiberman, from Entertainment Weekly, wrote a long blog post in which he took issue with my comments and those of Julie Maroh, who wrote the graphic novel on which the movie is based. By that point, she had weighed in on Mr. Kechiche's adaptation, calling it "coherent, justified and fluid."
But she also expressed unhappiness with the sex scenes with Ad le and Emma. "It appears to me that this was what was missing on the set: lesbians." Mr. Gleiberman took this to mean that Ms. Maroh was saying that real lesbians should have played the roles, although that is not what she wrote. What she did write was that "except for a few passages - this is all that it brings to my mind: a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and made me feel very ill at ease."
Ms. Maroh saw a connection between the way Mr. Kechiche shot the sex scenes and another scene in which characters talk about what she called "the myth of the feminine orgasm" as "mystic and far superior to the masculine one." She added: "But here we go, to sacralize once more womanhood in such ways. I find it dangerous." She was raising a red flag about an essentialist view of female sexuality, in which women, with their holy orgasms, are thought to embody an innate and eternal mystery. In "The Second Sex," Simone de Beauvoir termed this the mythic idea of "the eternal feminine," one that does not account for the "multiple existence of women."
Ms. Maroh's description of the sex scenes as both pornographic and conveying a sense that women are sacred might seem contradictory, except that both the pornographic and the sacred generally treat women as abstractions instead of flesh-and-blood individuals. Pornography involves real sex and has one blissfully obvious objective: to turn viewers on. "Blue" isn't a blue movie; it's just a formally standard example of European art cinema that comes with the usual ambitions, pleasure and art included. Even so, I can see why someone might find it pornographic given the visual conventions that Mr. Kechiche used, including close-ups that assert that, as a journalist, Liza Katzman, once said of pornography, "The drama of a woman's pleasure is written not on her genitals, but her face."
From the start, Mr. Kechiche puts us spatially close to Ad le, a proximity that I think is meant to create, to borrow a phrase from George Eliot, the "extension of our sympathies." Yet if my sympathies didn't extend, it's partly because Mr. Kechiche employs a selective aesthetic that shows Ad le slurping her food ("You're voracious," Emma says) but, importantly, does not permit her a similarly sloppy appetite in bed, where the movie's carefully constructed realism is jettisoned along with bodily excesses and excretions in favor of tasteful, decorous poses. This may be what Ms. Maroh meant when she said the sex scenes were missing lesbians; I'd go further and say they're missing women of any kind. Ad le's hunger is contained, prettified, aestheticized.
This isn't a question of "the male gaze," an idea from feminist film theory and a phrase that has been thrown around a lot by admirers of the movie and that I purposely didn't use in May. The movie has run-of-the mill representational problems, which is why I quoted the art critic John Berger's useful axiom from his 1972 book, "Ways of Seeing." "Men look at women," Berger wrote. "Women watch themselves being looked at." It's a formulation that may not work for all men and all women, as many feminist film theorists have argued. But Berger's comment retains its relevance, and it's apt given the art lesson that a man delivers to some women in "Blue Is the Warmest Color."
The lecture takes place during a party given by Ad le and Emma. Ad le has become Emma's muse, a familiar division of labor that carries into the kitchen, where Ad le cooks the food. Later, with the party in full swing, a man begins talking about art and orgasms. "Ever since women have been shown in paintings, their ecstasy is shown more than men's, whose is shown via woman," he says without a hint of irony. "Men try desperately to depict it." Three women offer short retorts, including that "it could be a fantasy." Unstoppable, he adds, "Art by women never tackles female pleasure." The women, including Emma, a former student at thecole des Beaux-Arts, remain silent. None mention that historically, women were often barred from working with nude models.
The women's silence is deafening and, like the sex scenes, punctures the movie's realism. It isn't that it's inconceivable that a man, an art type whom Emma thinks could help her career, would yammer on at a party about representations and female orgasms to women who say little. It's improbable but not unimaginable. The man's words and the women's silence are aesthetic choices, and as much a part of the movie's meaning as the hand-held cinematography; Ad le's appetite; her work with children; the absence of a score; and her silent, downward look after a man at the same party asks her what sex with Emma is like and then asks Ad le if she wants to be a mother. All these add information and at times serve as metacommentaries on the female body on display in "Blue."
Watching the movie at Cannes, I couldn't help thinking of the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman's first feature, " Je Tu Il Elle," which has a lengthy sex scene between two young women. Ms. Akerman, who plays the protagonist, filmed the scene in medium long shot without any of the visual codes (close-ups, fragmented bodies) used in mainstream pornography. It's infrequent that you see female pleasure like this or even a shot like the one of Brad Pitt's torso in " Thelmait's the patriarchal anxieties about sex, female appetite and maternity that leach into its sights and sounds and the way it frames, with scrutinizing closeness, the female body. In the logic of the movie, Ad le's body is a mystery that needs solving and, for a brief while, it seems as if Emma will help solve it. In "The Second Sex," Beauvoir wrote that "the erotic experience is one that most poignantly discloses to human beings the ambiguity of their condition; in it they are aware of themselves as flesh and spirit, as the other and as the subject." This is the ideal, but for Ad le, the erotic experience leads to despair, desperation, isolation. The body betrays her - just like a woman.
That wouldn't be the first time that happened to a female character, though as it happens, as a movie critic, I spend more time looking at men's bodies than women's. Mainstream movies, especially from the big studios, are now overwhelmingly dominated by male-driven stories, made by men, for men. Feminists have taken issues with old Hollywood representations of women, but at least its star system provided a rich body of work, which is one reason you don't often read feminists talking about movies outside academia and Jezebel.com. There's not much to discuss. That's another reason "Blue" is interesting: It's a three-hour movie about women, a rare object of critical inquiry perhaps especially for American men working in the male-dominated field of movie critics. The truth is we need more women on screen, naked and not, hungry and not, to get this conversation really started.