Blue Is the Warmest Color opens in New York and Los Angeles today, bringing the year’s most famous lesbian sex scenes to U.S. theaters at last. Enthusiastic reviews of the film, the winner of the top prize at Cannes this year, make clear that this isn’t just any lesbian sex: It’s “already legendary,” “raw as an exposed nerve,” and “practically unprecedented.” Cue the Motion Picture Association of America, giving the movie a warm stateside welcome with an NC-17 rating for “explicit sexual content,” the board’s gravest warning for films deemed unsuitable for children or teens of any age.
Leaving aside questions about the MPAA’s judgment, Blue is indeed an NC-17 movie if the standard refers to content that some parents would find “patently too adult” for children and teenagers. The rating means that at most theaters, no one 17 or younger will be admitted even with an adult present, per the MPAA’s advice. But in New York, the head of one top independent cinema said he doesn’t care. John Vanco, the general manager of the IFC Center, issued a bracingly right-minded press release that said high-school-aged patrons would be admitted to the movie, regardless of the rating. “This is not a movie for young children,” he said, “but it is our judgment that it is not inappropriate for mature, inquiring teenagers who are looking ahead to the emotional challenges and opportunities that adulthood holds.”
That’s not exactly revolutionary for the head of an independent movie house in New York City, and Vanco probably won’t face down protesters under the IFC Center’s iconic marquee. But there’s a lot of history to consider here. Blue Is the Warmest Color also has hetero sex and plenty of universal appeal in its story of crushing adolescent love, but there’s no doubt that Vanco is speaking especially to LGBTQ teenagers (“inquiring,” right?), who have long faced insidious efforts to keep them away from gay stories in their formative years. Even if no one disputes the MPAA’s decision in this case, the ratings board has long had a demonstrable habit of bestowing more age-restrictive ratings on movies that feature gay sex than on movies with straight sex. (The practice was famously documented in side-by-side shots of gay and straight scenes in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Kirby Dick’s manifesto against ratings double standards.) And given the enduringly sorry state of gay characters in most major movies, young people often have nowhere else to look than art houses to see stories about other people like them. Apart from making an incredible amount of sense, Vanco’s stand on Blue is an unmistakable message that LGBT youth in particular must be allowed to connect with powerful depictions of same-sex love.
Far from the coastal strongholds where Blue opens this weekend, film and other media remain a singular early connection for young gay people. Pilgrimages to the nearest urban venues featuring gay works is a rite of passage that hasn’t gone away even as kids come out younger and have more resources at earlier ages. Years ago, as I was realizing some things about myself in southern Michigan, I traveled to a pair of three-screen theaters to see movies like All About My Mother and Burnt Money, buying a ticket for who knows what to get past the usher. I felt pretty edgy back then, though my memory has since unlocked a knowing wink from theater employees, who more than tolerated the seditious teenagers in their midst. Perhaps that’s why I can’t help but read more into Vanco’s statement—an open invitation that had previously only been implicit. Gestures like that can have a real impact on people grasping for even the slightest hint of acceptance.
So as Blue travels to the most far-flung American cities that will indulge a three-hour emotional time bomb in French, I hope more theaters will heed Vanco’s advice and open their doors to the (gay) young people who deserve—and perhaps need—to see the movie most.