Lost in all the hubbub about the sex scenes in this “controversial” Palme d’Or winner is any sense of the very real accomplishments of this movie, the most significant of which is to my mind to depict what’s it like for a young woman to discover herself and her body as a lesbian. It’s the first seriously sustained and sensitive examination of that process that I’ve ever seen. The obsessive use of close-ups is emblematic of that focus and moves beyond style into a form to contain and channel the audience’s attention. It’s far more disciplined and comprehensive than what we generally mean when we use the phrase character study. I’m saying that as someone who has tried over the course of my life of movie-watching to see and evaluate every movie with gay characters that I’ve come across, good and bad.
For gay men, we call this process “coming out of the closet” and there are probably enough films in that genre for men to fill a small video store. For lesbians, not so much. That might be that the process for these women is different and that for lesbians it’s that much more different. I think that’s one question this film presents and explores, and I’ve never seen that before either.
If we understand the rather old-fashioned phrase “coming out of the closet” as how one individual pushes back and through that web of social, political. legal, inter- and intra-personal pressures, strictures, boundaries and definitions that tell same-sex attracted people that they can’t act on those attractions or benefit from them in the same way that different-sex-attracted people are allowed, encouraged and pressured to act upon them and benefit from them, then this film is a damn good materialist study of what it’s like to suffer through that shit. I’ve never seen that before either. And it is suffering as the film makes clear when Adele breaks down trying to explain what’s missing inside her after she’s had sex with a man — sex that from the outside looks pretty satisfying, But then it would, wouldn’t it, particularly for someone who’s never suffered in any kind of closet.
So, Adele’s sex scenes with her older lover Emma are extended and detailed but they’re hardly superfluous or gratuitous. They’re powerful. They show sex not as an option, as an aside but as an essential. So of course they last a long time and they show the give and take of two powerfully attracted individuals. While the beginning of the film demonstrates what’s it’s like to feel that power as an absence, once things heat up and consummate, we’re shown what it’s like to feel that power as a presence, as a force, as a life force. Having attraction reciprocated and multiplied back is astonishing, thrilling, overwhelming and sometimes just as confusing as not knowing what it is you’ve been searching for. The rest of the film explores the limitations of that power as it’s contained within a single relationship, one with partners with unequal experiences and very different affinities and goals. Other than an undeniable and barely controlled passion for one another, Adele and Emma don’t have that much in common, so it’s not surprising that it ends, and that it’s Adele who steps out. But it’s just the beginning for Adele and I hope we get to see more as the film’s French title and the final frame suggests.