Oscars: Why Sex Isn't 'Blue Is the Warmest Color's' Only Problem (Analysis)

Blue is the Warmest Color - P 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color - P 2013

The Palme d'Or winner is challenging the Academy's squeamishness — but it's a tough year for a potential rookie best actress, as well.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Sex doesn't always sell -- at least not when it comes to the Oscars. However much stars flaunt their sex appeal, writers toss in sexual innuendo or directors turn up the heat, if a film truly dares to treat sex in a frank and forthright way -- and not just as a teasing come-on -- the Academy shies away.

Only one movie that was rated X has ever won the best picture prize, and that was 1969's Midnight Cowboy, which suggested more than it showed -- its rating was properly changed to a less restrictive R when it was rereleased in 1971. Last Tango in Paris, with its reference to anal sex, was considered shocking when it was released in the United States, complete with X rating, in 1973: "Tango has altered the face of an art form," swooned critic Pauline Kael. But it earned just two Oscar noms, for director Bernardo Bertolucci and star Marlon Brando. And since the MPAA created its adults-only NC-17 rating in 1990 in an attempt to remove the stigma surrounding the lurid X, no NC-17-rated film has gotten an Oscar nom in a major category.

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Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color is the latest film to challenge the Academy's general squeamishness over movies in which sex is portrayed with unflinching candor. It tells the story of a high school girl, Adele, who discovers her sexuality through an affair with a slightly older woman. IFC Films, the movie's U.S. distributor, has embraced its NC-17 rating. And Blue arrives with the bluest of blue-ribbon credentials, having won the Palme d'Or, shared by the director and his two actresses, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Blue has earned lots of critics' endorsements as well as a few caveats. (The New York Times' Manohla Dargis wrote that the movie "lapses into voyeurism.") But it's hardly the best test case to decide whether the Academy is ready for a truly adult movie. For one thing, no sooner had all that Cannes applause died down when Julie Maroh, who wrote the graphic novel on which the movie is based, stated that Kechiche and his two actresses were all too hetero to convincingly portray a lesbian sexual relationship. "This was what was missing on the set: lesbians," she proclaimed. Seydoux, 28, then turned on Kechiche, saying that the film shoot was "horrible" and the director was a bully. Kechiche responded by saying the actress "has a lot to learn."

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While Exarchopoulos managed to stay out of most of that fray, her bid for best actress honors faces its own uphill battle. The 20-year-old comes across as fresh and natural in the film -- in some years that could win her attention as a promising newcomer. But this isn't one of those years. The best actress lineup is crowded with veteran scene-stealers -- Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, Sandra Bullock, Emma Thompson -- who won't leave much room open for a rookie.

And, finally, there's that question of sex. Google through the movie's reviews, and the word that comes up again and again to describe its sex scenes is "clinical" -- which makes them sound halfway between a medical training film and a genuine porno. That makes the movie sound more titillating than it is. While there never is any doubt about who's doing what to whom in its sex scenes, they don't indulge in the gynecological detail that characterizes real porn. The movie actually spends more time in the classroom -- where Adele first is a student then a teacher -- than it does in bed. And it delights in intellectual conversation. On Adele's first date with a guy, he spends most of his time talking about Sartre. Another sequence is devoted to a debate over whether Egon Schiele or Gustav Klimt is the better painter. In fact, whether Blue is too sexy for the Academy's taste might be a moot point. At the end of the day, the bigger obstacle might be that it's simply too French.