Art or abuse: Pushing actresses to the limit

Lea Seydoux, left, with Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour. Picture: Contributed
Lea Seydoux, left, with Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour. Picture: Contributed
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There is a long history of directors pushing actresses to the limits, says Alistair Harkness

Abdellatif Kechiche doesn’t believe in the old maxim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. “It’s unhealthy,” says the French-Tunisian director of the controversial new drama, Blue is the Warmest Colour. “You see a film for the story it tells, for the beauty of the characters, for the strength of its message, its themes, not because you’re attracted by bitchy, unhealthy rumours and comments that have been flying.”

He’s referring to the negative publicity that has dogged his film since it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Blue is the Warmest Colour depicts an intense, sexually explicit love affair between two young women, played by Leá Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. Early reviews were largely positive but in the run-up to the film’s French and US release last month, a different story began to emerge.

In interviews, Seydoux and, to a lesser extent Exarchopoulos, described how “horrible”, “embarrassing”, and physically and mentally exhausting the experience of making the film had been. Seydoux said shooting the sex scenes made her feel “like a prostitute” and vowed never to work with Kechiche again. Kechiche responded by telling one French magazine he didn’t want the film to come out. “That was said in a moment of annoyance,” he says when we meet.

I ask how he feels now about Seydoux’s comments (unlike Exarchopolous, she’s no longer promoting the film). “I was very astonished when I heard about what Leá had said in the press, first of all, because the comments are not really said in a professional spirit, and they’re destructive to the film. And they’re lies. And they’re in contradiction to what she’d expressed earlier on. After the film was made, in Cannes, she said and reiterated how happy she was and how grateful she was, and had said it was one of the most beautiful experiences of her life. So the question is, what happened? ”

Kechiche expounds upon it at length, but it could just be that their hostility towards one another reflects a rare breakdown of the sometimes euphemistic-heavy nature of film promotion. Mainstream and art-house cinema alike is awash with well- documented contretemps between filmmakers and actresses.

Alfred Hitchcock’s obsessive relationship with Tippi Hedren on and off the set of The Birds was so notorious it became the basis of last year’s BBC production, The Girl. The late German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (whom Kechiche cites as an influence) was known to torment actresses in order to break them down emotionally on screen in films such as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. And, in a widely circulated YouTube clip, David O Russell can be seen screaming obscenities at a bemused Lily Tomlin on the set of screwball comedy I Heart Huckabees when he didn’t feel he was getting what he needed from her.

In all these instances, coaxing a performance out of an actress is the justification/excuse used for such behaviour. That’s been a constant through the years, be it Adrian Lyne directing Mickey Rourke to be hostile towards Kim Basinger on the set of 9½ Weeks to better simulate his idea of what her character’s mental breakdown should look like, or Stanley Kubrick haranguing Shelly Duvall on the set of The Shining to the point where the stress of the role caused her health problems for six months during production. Interestingly, both Basinger and Duvall conceded in interviews that despite the hardships, the ends justified the means.

That’s effectively what Exarchopolous has said about Blue is the Warmest Colour since the initial flair-up in September. When she referred to being manipulated by Kechiche, she didn’t mean it was necessarily a bad thing: recording a lot of takes (sometimes upwards of 100) and being pushed to her limit, was hard, she’s said, but she also says she learned a lot.

Nevertheless, it does seem as if actresses are expected to suffer more for their art than their male colleagues. In her 2002 film, Sex is Comedy, Catherine Breillat suggested that was because women were the only performers willing to submit themselves fully to a director’s vision. Male performers were, by contrast, a vain, insecure, ridiculous lot, too concerned with their egos to commit fully to a role.

That’s similar to the view of Lars von Trier, who told me while promoting Melancholia in 2011 that he liked to use women to represent him in his emotionally harrowing films because he found “men a little dull”. Von Trier, of course, has had his fair share of contentious relationships with actresses thanks to his exacting process. Björk vowed never to act again after making Dancer in the Dark and “scheduling conflicts” were cited for Nicole Kidman pulling out of Dogville sequel Manderlay. Nevertheless, actresses are still lining up to work with him, perhaps because, as he put it to me, “they think I’ll do some good for them”.

That’s certainly true in terms of careers. Emily Watson scored an Oscar nomination for Breaking the Waves, Kidman received some of the best reviews of her career for Dogville and Björk and Kristen Dunst (who starred in Melancholia) each won best actress at Cannes.

With Blue is the Warmest Colour, Exarchapoulous and Seydoux went one better: for the first time in the Cannes Film Festival’s history the Palme d’Or was jointly awarded to the lead actresses and the director.

Despite Kechiche’s fears – “If I hear that a director has tortured an actress, I am not going to see a film” – Blue is the Warmest Colour has already grossed more than $6 million in France and has had one of the highest openings for a foreign language film in the United States this year.

Blue is the Warmest Colour is released on 22 November.