Criticwire Question for 28 October 2013 Q: The very public feud between actress Lea Seydoux and her Blue Is the Warmest Color director Abdellatif Kechiche has become as well-known as the film itself. Should critics ignore off-screen information in reviewing a film, or do they have an obligation to deal with it?
I wasn’t asked to answer this question although other writers for RogerEbert.com were given the opportunity to write in. Only two women wrote in reply to this controversy (Alissa Wilkinson of Christianity Today and Carrie Rickey of various outlets).
Like Rickey, when I heard about the feud, I immediately thought of Maria Schneider, who decided after her role in “Last Tango in Paris” that she would no longer pose nude. Schneider was bitterly angry about how Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando exploited her.
The two stars of “Blue is the Warmest Color” are angry now and times have changed since the 1970s. If you want a brief history of the controversies surrounding “Blue is the Warmest Color,” read the timeline on Vulture.com. When it was released, “Last Tango in Paris” was also controversial.
As it happens, I had finally, watched another controversial film, also made in the 1970s. The Japanese-French production of “Realm of the Senses” (1976) starred Eiko Matsuda as the infamous Abe Sada and Tatsuya Fuji played the lover. This was a sensational case in which a woman killed her lover by choking him during sexual intercourse. Yet she didn’t stop there. She cut off his genitals and kept them with her, fleeing the scene after carving script into his body to immortalize their love as if the corpse was a tree. The dead are, remember, usually cremated in Japan, but Japan embraces the ephemeral, something symbolized by the cherry blossoms.
We know what happened to Abe Sada–she became a celebrity of sorts after her release. What happened to Eiko Matsuda? Her career floundered. Tatsuya Fuji remained active within the movie industry.
The movie “Realm of the Senses” came out four years after “Last Tango in Paris” (1972). What happened to Maria Schneider? She would later say, “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologise. Thankfully, there was just one take.” Should any actor be made to feel this way? Schneider was only 19 at the time.
It’s hard to ignore the implications of another 1970s film, “Manhattan” with the writer/director/star Woody Allen presenting the best relationship in the movie between the twice-divorced, 42-year-old Allen and a 17-year-old Tracy (played by the then 16-year-old Mariel Hemingway).
The Criticwire question only came to my attention when I read the clamorous tweets by Kevin B. Lee. He wrote, “This question relates to whether a critic should be a personal shopper, gossiper, or something else.” Lee thought more serious thought should be given to the matter, commenting “The two examples you gave, both essentially about culture workers and mistreatment, begs discussion of exploitation in arts.”
As a woman, and someone who previously volunteered at a women’s center, I don’t think we should ignore the continued plight of women from Eiko Matsuda to Maria Schneider to Natasha Kinski or to Mary-Louise Parker. The movie industry and its powerful directors–inside and outside of Hollywood, including most infamously Roman Polanski, too often take young hopeful women, underage or just recently legal, and exploit them.
In many ways, what they do is little better than the pornography industry and in many instances the difference is blurred–consider the case of John Derek and three of his four wives (Ursula Andress, Linda Evans and Bo Derek). With time and pop icons like Madonna, the line between pornography and pop culture has been further blurred. Is this the kind of liberation feminist wanted or just sexism re-packaged? The question to ask would be: Are young men treated similarly?
I haven’t seen the movie in question, “Blue is the Warmest Color.” Yet it doesn’t surprise me that a lesbian erotically charged film was produced by a man because that is a male fantasy. As an artist, a sometime photographer (my latest project) and student of art history, I know that there is still a resistance in the United States to the male nude, the full frontal male nude and men being photographed as erotic objects (e.g. Robert Mapplethorpe). As a theater critic who used to frequent productions (including the original “Naked Boys Singing”) in small theaters around Los Angeles including West Hollywood, I know that male actors aren’t afraid of going buff and that in part supports an industry (full body waxing).
As a female student in a photography and film department long ago, I quickly became aware of the mindset of many of my fellow students. Many male students would laugh and not in a kindly way about how they got clips of photos of women posing nude. In one department, there would be informal beer and porn movie parties. In another art department, women would pose nude in a student movie as a way to get credits on their portfolio.
Whatever the intent of movies–student or studio, nude clips become part of a collection, existing outside of the artistic context and reduced to titillating pornography collections online and off. That makes one wonder just how necessary nudity in the movies is at all, particularly in a culture that is so skewed against male nudity.
As critics, and as human beings, I don’t think we should ignore the exploitation of men, women and children, particularly in a year when we are celebrating films that explore the exploitation of men based on race: “Daniel Lee’s The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave.” We should question if a movie that exploits or abuses human beings should be considered art and consumer worthy, just as some people ask if we should buy products made through slave or child labor, or, if you support PETA, products that result in the death or injury of animals.
If female nudity in movie is the result of coercion, bullying and emotional manipulation in the movie industry, then this is something that critics should consider just as critics should consider race and racism. Can a critic ever speak of “Triumph of the Will” without acknowledging the European Holocaust? Can any critic discuss “The Birth of a Nation” without considering the reality of slavery and the Ku Klux Klan?
While the director of “Blue” has ridiculed the complaints of his stars because other people suffer more, that doesn’t mean his actions were right.
I have written at length about the current racism in movies toward Asian Americans. Asian Americans are an ethnic minority in the United States while ethnic Asians are a majority in the world (roughly 60 percent of the global population). Women are a bare majority in the U.S. and the world. If we as critics can be critical in the case of certain races, why can’t we acknowledge problems, ethical, legal and moral, regarding the treatment of a little over half the human population.
As a disclaimer, I do not know Manohla Dargis, but I am glad she gave the industry something to talk about. As a critic, I don’t believe we are personal shoppers or part of the rumor mills, but we should be giving our readers and colleagues something to think about.