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Director, star escalate feud over French lesbian drama

Photo: AFP

An ongoing war of words between Abdellatif Kechiche, director of Palme d’Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Colour”, and Léa Seydoux, one of its stars, reached a peak this week. Is it a clash of egos or something deeper? FRANCE 24 takes a closer look.


On May 26, director Abdellatif Kechiche and actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux clutched each other in tearful triumph when their film, the three-hour lesbian romance “Blue is the Warmest Colour” (“La Vie d’Adèle”), won the top Palme d’Or prize at Cannes.

What a difference four months makes.

In an interview published in French magazine Télérama on Wednesday, the renowned 52-year-old French-Tunisian filmmaker is quoted as saying: “In my opinion, the film should not be released. It’s been too tarnished. The Palme d’Or was a fleeting instant of happiness; since then, I’ve felt humiliated, dishonoured, rejected – as if I’m cursed.”

Kechiche’s remarks refer to a torrent of negative attention that he and his widely – even rapturously -- praised film have received since its Cannes premiere: allegations that the notoriously prickly and demanding director mistreated crew members during the shoot; accusations from the author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, as well as a few critics, that the movie’s lengthy, graphic sex scenes were gratuitous bordering on lascivious; and, above all, public comments by the film’s two leading ladies that they would never work with Kechiche again.

In an interview with US news site The Daily Beast at the Telluride Film Festival, where “Blue is the Warmest Colour” screened earlier this month, Seydoux called her experience making the movie “horrible”. She specifically cited one incident in which Kechiche “burst into a rage” after shooting 100 takes of the same moment, and another in which he demanded that the actresses repeat, countless times, a violent fight scene -- even after Exarchopoulos had injured herself and was bleeding.

Talking to the press in Los Angeles later that week, Kechiche fired back at Seydoux, one of France’s most sought-after actresses and the granddaughter of the CEO of major French production company Pathé.

“If Lea hadn’t been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, she wouldn’t have said those things,” he retorted.

In the interview in Télérama this week, Kechiche continued to slam the actress, saying that Seydoux’s difficulty getting into character was among the main problems during the shoot. “I suggested, as early as 20 days into filming, that we end our collaboration,” Kechiche recounted, adding that he was ready to replace her with Sara Forestier (who starred in one of his earlier films, “Games of Love and Chance”) or Mélanie Thierry (whom he called “an accomplished actress”).

According to Kechiche, Seydoux’s complaints are “worse than biting the hand that feeds you; [they show] a lack of respect for a profession I consider sacred”.

The director also wondered: “If she really endured what she says she did, why did she come to Cannes and cry and thank me [when accepting the shared Palme d’Or awarded to Kechiche and the two actresses]?”

Anglophone press dismayed, amused

Indeed, the disconnect between the image of a united and affectionate trio at Cannes and the subsequent vitriol has left many confused – especially in the US and the UK, where airing of dirty laundry before a film hits theatres is rare.

Seydoux, Kechiche and Exarchopoulos after winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes.
Seydoux, Kechiche and Exarchopoulos after winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

“I'm curious about why they couldn't have figured out that they loathed each other before making that hugs-kisses-and-tears appearance on stage together,” Mark Harris, a prominent American film historian, told FRANCE 24.

Harris also voiced an increasingly common concern: that the toxic buzz swirling around the film will cast a cloud over its eagerly anticipated stateside release on October 25 – and chase away potential American viewers.

“It's unprecedented for a movie with so much advance acclaim to have its reception sabotaged by the rancor of its creative team,” Harris noted. “It's a long movie in a foreign language with controversial content, and some people who are on the fence may take all the negative noise as permission to skip it. What's particularly damaging is that, because the movie is sexually explicit, it was important to sell the idea that nobody involved felt hurt, exploited or mistreated. That battle is pretty much lost.”

If the film’s behind-the-scenes drama overshadows what will surely be an enthusiastic critical response, US distributor Sundance Selects/IFC Films may find it hard to follow through with planned Oscar campaigns for Exarchopoulos and Seydoux in the lead and supporting actress categories, respectively. (Neither the French nor American distributors of “Blue is the Warmest Colour” responded to a request for comment.)

But at least a couple of US journalists have expressed a sort of half-facetious admiration for the candor displayed by Kechiche and his actresses. “The bitter back-and-forth is particularly unusual because it comes during Oscar season, when filmmakers and actors tend to…[gush] over one another and [tell] canned tales of what a blast they had working together,” wrote Steven Zeitchik and Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times earlier this month. The take-no-prisoners bluntness of the “Blue is the Warmest Colour” team could be considered “refreshing”, they concluded.

‘A Tunisian director attacked by a white French aristocrat’?

Still, many more film journalists have taken to Twitter to express disappointment and annoyance. “I don't care how much bad blood there was behind the scenes […] The film is done. It's wonderful. Why not simply keep quiet?” tweeted Variety critic Guy Lodge.

Kechiche, who was born in Tunisia but moved to France as a child, won César awards (France’s equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay in both 2005 for “Games of Love and Chance” and 2008 for “The Secret of the Grain”.

In perhaps the most provocative assessment of the events, one American critic interpreted Kechiche’s fury at Seydoux through the prism of French racial tensions. “I do think you need to factor in the politics of a Tunisian director being attacked by a white French aristocrat,” Sam Adams, a top editor at popular film website Indiewire, tweeted.

Though some might think Adams is reading too far into a typical clash of egos between artists, his take on the controversy is echoed in some of Kechiche’s statements.

“Léa Seydoux is part of a system that wants nothing to do with me,” the filmmaker told journalists in Los Angeles in early September.

And in this week’s Télérama interview, Kechiche again hinted at his volatile relationship with the “French cinema family”, as industry insiders call it here, which Seydoux, in many ways, represents.

“Because of my economic and ethnic background, I’ve had a hard time getting people to judge me as an artist,” he said.

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