A. O. Scott, in spite of his stealthy persona as the New York Times' nice, sensible, movie reviewer, is one of the great English-language critics active today. This fact hit me once again when I read his stunning review of a stunning film, Abdellatif Kechiche's La Vie d'Adèle (distributed in the US under the title Blue Is the Warmest Color).
The film portrays the life of the adolescent Adèle, of Lille, as she falls in love with the slightly older Emma. Most of the talk surrounding it has been focused on the long, graphic sex scene featuring these two women. This scene won for La Vie d'Adèle an NC-17 rating by the censorship board in the US, and it also won the condemnation of the author of the graphic novel upon which the film is partially based. She complained that, for all the film's pretense of authenticity, this was just another 'steamy' lesbian romp, a product of the male gaze.
I'll get back to this question in a moment, but what I wanted to focus on was more Scott than Kechiche. Scott liked the sex scene ("Um, wow," was his gloss on the elements of the film that made the censors' meters go full tilt). He also understands the problem of the male gaze and how it has limited the sort of things that have been able to be represented in the history of art. And what comes across, in this simultaneous sensual absorption and critical awareness of the limitations of perspective, is a profound humanism, of the sort that art may be hoped to bring about in a person willing to learn from it, and that is entirely at odds with the increasingly conventional pseudo-wisdom that goes under the name of 'intersectionality': the thoroughly anti-humanist idea that one may only know the experience of members of one's own group, and one must preface any talk of the experience of members of other groups with a list of one's own demographic coordinates (cis, straight, white, male...).
Scott doesn't bother with such a list:
[O]ver the course of nearly three hours and what seems like about a half-dozen years... Adèle acquires a depth and grandeur that make her equal to some of the great heroines of literature. For a while, as with Anna Karenina or Elizabeth Bennet or Clarissa Dalloway, her life is also yours, and afterward you may discover that yours has altered as a result of the encounter.
I also had the sense that Adèle's life was mine, and this in spite of the thoroughly contingent features of my identity that define me socially but not, I'm prepared to say, metaphysically. I liked the sex scene (c'est peu dire!), and I felt that it deepened my identification with the protagonist, rather than removing me from her experience and placing me outside it as a voyeur. I took this deepening as a mark of the film's artistic integrity.
I recognize that my perspective could well be inflected by my particular list of demographic coordinates, but I am not prepared to accept that my belief, that art takes me outside of myself and facilitates Einfühlung into the lives of people who are not me, is only a sort of false-consciousness or rationalization of the male gaze as something loftier than it actually is. It seems to me much more reasonable to suppose that art has such 'feeling-in' as one of its highest aims, but that it will nonetheless always bear the signature of its creator. The visibility of this signature --in the event, Kechiche's own gaze-- is not necessarily an artisitic failure, and especially not --as Scott notes with his sharp interpretation of the significance of the conversations in the film about Gustav Klimt et al.-- when the artist conveys within the work itself a heightened awareness of the limitations of his own perspective.
In sum: a glorious work of art, and a bold expression of resistance against our era's self-inflicted ghettoization of human experience.