I haven’t yet seen Blue is the Warmest Color. The winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Blue is the Warmest Color has been as loved by critics as any movie released this year. It won top honors at Cannes in a unanimous jury vote. The performances, by young French actresses Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, were of such power that Jury President Steven Spielberg awarded the Palme d’Or to both women as well as the film’s director Abdellatif Kechiche, a first in Cannes history.
Blue is the Warmest Color, a three-hour epic French film about the rise and fall of a teenage romance, also contains portrayals of lesbian sex that have earned the film an NC-17 rating from the MPAA.
The MPAA is notoriously and famously terrified of cinematic depictions of sex as it exists in reality. The exploitation of female bodies and the combination of sex and violence has long been accepted for broad audiences by the MPAA, and films of that kind regularly receive PG-13 ratings.
But sex as actuality, an identity marker, something that is real and clumsy and scary and exciting and beautiful, as it is for adults and for young people (deal with it parents), has never been welcomed to US theaters for any but the most restricted audiences.
Every word on Blue is the Warmest Color seems to indicate that it is exactly the kind of film experience that could benefit young adults. A passionate and youthful love affair that tells a human story beyond politics and cheap exploitation, Blue is the Warmest Color received a 12 rating in its native France, equivalent to our PG-13. I suppose it is the fear that teens will be titillated by sex that results in a desire to keep them out of the theater. But sometimes sex is sexy. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise; we should treat that idea respectfully.
Here, though, deemed NC-17, we can be assured that the film will struggle to find an audience at large, and its intended audience will be all but barred from the movie.
That is, everywhere except the IFC Center in Greenwich Village. The IFC Center has stated their intention to ignore the MPAA rating, and allow high-school aged students to view the film, with or without adult supervision. Said the IFC Director: “This is not a movie for young children, but it is our judgment that it is not inappropriate for mature, inquiring teenagers who are looking ahead to the emotional challenges and opportunities that adulthood holds.”
Congratulations to the IFC Center for treating teenagers like teenagers.
MPAA ratings actually hold no legal authority and failure to enforce such ratings carries no penalty. (Though try telling this to mothers at video rental chains in a previous era and you’ll find yourself wildly berated). Theaters and retailers are able to accept or ignore the rating, though ignoring them is a practice almost never seen in US cinemas.
Sometimes, though, ignoring the MPAA is called for. There are certain films that come along that simply cannot be encapsulated in a rating. Most often, ratings pass by without much consideration, but every now and then a film of real value is deemed “inappropriate” by the mysterious and hyper-secretive MPAA and requires the public to take notice.
We saw this with the documentary Bully, and the animated Richard Linklater film Waking Life. Both movies have much to offer young viewers, and treat their subject and audience with respect. But both were rated-R for the most superficial reasons possible (someone said “fuck” one too many times–thanks MPAA for keeping kids from a word they’ve never encountered). Those films only received an unfortunate R. Blue, with is’t NC-17, is in a much more difficult position.
The value of the MPAA (if there is any) is not in its ability to designate the appropriateness of a film for its audience. Every movie is of course not appropriate for every viewer, and decisions about appropriateness are up to individuals and their families (A.O. Scott has written about taking his 14 year old daughter to Blue is the Warmest Color, twice, saying: ” because of its tone and subject matter, “Blue” is a movie that may be best appreciated by viewers under the NC-17 age cutoff”). But keeping honest, inquisitive and critically engaged youths away from a story that can lighten the often difficult and under-represented teenage years does no service to anyone.
It only serves to reinforce the idea that sex and sexuality is something to be locked away from the reality of our human experiences, or worse, a source of shame.