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March 31, 2014 | by  | in Arts Film |
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Blue Is the Warmest Colour no Pariah

They are everywhere. They are out, loud and proud. They preach their ‘lifestyle’ in the classroom, around the family dinner table, in bars, on the radio, in books, on the TV and the big screen. Often, they are people you care about, your friends, your family. We grow up with them flaunting their agenda and sometimes we wonder: could I be one of them too? Could I be a heterosexual?

Growing up in a homophobic and heteronormative society, we queers (unsurprisingly) find ourselves scarcely represented in film. We spend most of our lives translating heterosexual stories. We master the ability to empathise with straight films and have them resonate within our own lives. However, when I watch a lesbian film or television programme, an inexplicable fixation comes over me. My girlfriend and I will spend nights in, drinking booze and watching ‘gay things’, flailing in excitement of actually authentically connecting and being understood by a film, rather than having to understand it.

Naturally, we were looking forward to the widely acclaimed French lesbian film Blue Is the Warmest Colour, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. I checked The Pirate Bay daily, I read the reviews, I watched and rewatched the two teaser scenes. Alas, forget Cannes, and what the typically white male reviewers of the world have been saying: this is yet another cinematic tragedy for the lesbian community. Blue Is the Warmest Colour is not a queer film. Like so many lesbian films, it is made by and for straight men, to receive insight into the ‘mysticism’ of female sexuality and orgasm. Two beautiful white femme lesbians, palatable to the male gaze, non-threatening; they fall within the bounds of ‘the acceptable lesbian’.

What perplexes me most is how reviewers have seen this as a coming-of-age film, rich with intensity and character development. While I do not discredit the actresses’ performances, I found the relationship between the two emotionally vacuous, and their chemistry as charged as drywall. The dialogue between the two becomes incredibly sparse and limp. There is little to suggest that this relationship is anything more than Kechiche’s teenage wet dream. The film left me agitated, bored, and the tissues I had ready to cry my dyke tears, untouched.

While liberal critics have raved about this film, Dee Rees’s Pariah slipped under their radar. Pariah breaks the white, flush, attractive, heteronormative construction of lesbians on screen. Like Blue, it is a coming-of-age film, centered on 17-year-old African-American lesbian, Alike. It carefully traverses through the many intersections of oppression that face the wider LGBT community. From gender identity, class divides, family abandonment and family support, Rees seamlessly interweaves complex characters in a nuanced manner, rarely seen on film. Rees, a black lesbian herself, is able to make an authentic presentation about coming to terms with one’s sexuality. Where Kechiche explores ‘lesbian’ sex, Rees explores identity.

For LGBT youth coming to terms with their sexuality, films like Pariah, serve as a direct lifeline. When you feel isolated and invisible, an affirming film escape can be a truly life-saving experience. Popular culture is where the pedagogy is at. It has the dual power of teaching straight people what to think about LGBT identities, and to teach us what to think about ourselves (reference). Unfortunately, usually what we see is not how we actually are. It is a straight white boys’ dreamland to commodify us in the direction with the most dollar signs. The narrow depictions we see on the screen are due to the limited funding given to projects like Pariah. Queer identities on screen still need to be palatable and relatable to the straight audience. Whether it is the gay man with AIDS, the hot lesbian couple, the drug-addled trans woman, these constructions leave the audience unchallenged, bathing in patronising ‘empathy’ and rejoicing about their liberal values. Congratulations to all the privileged directors out there for making other straight people feel okay about two per cent of the queer population. You’ve made yourselves proud.

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Salient is a magazine. Salient is a website. Salient is an institution founded in 1938 to cater to the whim and fancy of students of Victoria University. We are partly funded by VUWSA and partly by gold bullion that was discovered under a pile of old Salients from the 40's. Salient welcomes your participation in debate on all the issues that we present to you, and if you're a student of Victoria University then you're more than welcome to drop in and have tea and scones with the contributors of this little rag in our little hideaway that overlooks Wellington.

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