News Column

Chilly climate among 'Blue Is the Warmest Color' director and actors

September 6, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 06--TORONTO -- -- "Blue Is the Warmest Color," the lesbian coming-of-age drama that won the Cannes Film Festival's prestigious Palme d'Or in May, is a boiling caldron of emotions and passionate arguments. The same might be said for the film's North American press tour.

Just as their movie has rolled out at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche and lead actresses Ad le Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux have erupted in an unusual and extremely public feud, trading tearful recriminations and cringe-worthy denunciations.

The bitter back-and-forth is particularly unusual in Oscar season, when filmmakers and actors tend to hone a spiel and repeat it ad nauseum, gushing over one another and telling canned tales of what a blast they had working together on their movie.

The startling -- some might say refreshing -- events offer a behind-the-scenes portrait of how messy moviemaking can be, and point up how, beneath the stage-managed facade of film publicity, lie complicated, even angry, human beings.

Signs of tension began to show a week ago. That's when Seydoux, 28, told an interviewer from the Daily Beast that the shoot was a "horrible" experience and Exarchopoulos, 19, said "there was a kind of manipulation, which was hard to handle" on the part of Kechiche during production in France, alluding to an unusually large number of takes of scenes of graphic sex and a physical fight. Both actresses said they wouldn't work with the director again.

Further strains appeared Wednesday in Los Angeles. First, Kechiche refused to be photographed with the two actresses in a shoot scheduled with The Times. Then, during a press conference with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the director launched into a blistering, vitriolic tirade lasting nearly 20 minutes against the actresses, saving particularly vicious comments for Seydoux.

At first, Kechiche seemed fine as he spoke before a dozen or so members of the organization that hands out the Golden Globes, talking about the film in a thoughtful manner, a recording of the event made available to The Times indicates. But a question about the Daily Beast interview set him off. He said that his "first reaction is astonishment; why make these reactions when we are here to promote the film?" And "the second is they are not truthful and so it is hurtful to hear them."

He went on to say that the shoot was originally scheduled for two-and-a-half months, but he had to spend twice as long to get the performance he wanted from Seydoux. He added that the additional time cost him more than 1.5 million euros out of his own pocket and said he gave her every opportunity to quit -- even during production.

He also repeatedly referenced Seydoux's privileged background and suggested that her family connections within the French film industry (two of her relatives are CEOs of major French studios) had somehow motivated her comments about him. He claimed he had to ply Seydoux with caviar to obtain the performance he wanted -- and had the receipts to prove it.

After Kechiche left the room, Seydoux made a separate appearance before the HFPA journalists and broke down sobbing when her family was mentioned.

"I feel that I'm accused. I don't have to feel ashamed. It's very hard for me too," she said, beginning to cry. Between the tears she said: "It's difficult for me to be here and to defend the film. And I gave so much to the film. My family never helped me. You can ask them. I feel there is something very unfair, and anyway that's all I can say."

Exarchopoulos also sat for her own solo Q&A session, in which she said Kechiche is "a genius, he's tortured." She did try somewhat to walk back the Daily Beast comments, adding: "We said those things, but not like this."

By Thursday, Kechiche and the two actresses had moved to the next stop on their publicity tour, the Toronto International Film Festival. At a question-and-answer session following the screening that night, the three seemed to be trying to hold some of the raw emotions in check. Still, there was a sense of chilliness as the director and his female leads stood on two sides of the male lead Jeremie Laheurte, barely interacting with one another.

At one point, Seydoux chided Kechiche for speaking too long and not giving up the microphone to the translator so he could relay his words to the audience in English. Kechiche's obsessive tendencies also were on display, as he told the moderator he felt everyone was standing too far back on the stage and made them all walk to the front.

Kechiche spoke in platitudes about his relationship with the women; asked about the casting process he said only vaguely that "when I meet actors I need to have a sense of complicity with them" and "my casting process is very much based on intuition."

Although such discord is not uncommon on film sets, it rarely bubbles to the surface -- and even when it does, it tends to happen long after the principals are done promoting the movie. In one such memorable incident, video of director David O. Russell's tirade at Lily Tomlin on the set of "I Heart Huckabees" surfaced several years after the movie came out.

"Blue" is in a more pressing situation. The film is set to be released by IFC's Sundance Selects on Oct. 25 and boasts champions such as Steven Spielberg (who presided over the Cannes jury) as well as an international gay rights topicality. But its awards-season ambitions are complicated by the fact that it won't be eligible for a foreign-language Oscar due to its late release date in France. It remains eligible for the Golden Globes, critics' prizes and other awards, though, and could conceivably compete in Academy Awards fields such as best actress and director.

The tension also could make for awkwardness as the group troops to various festivals and events touting the movie and raises the question of how much press it will be able to continue doing. An IFC spokeswoman declined to comment.

The tension may not entirely go away, not least because there's an odd analogue in the film itself. Late in the movie a character is asked why he decided to give up acting. His response? "I was so tired of ball-busting directors."

Zeitchik reported from Toronto; Olsen reported from Los Angeles

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

mark.olsen@latimes.com

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