For months, conversation about the French film Blue Is the Warmest Color — known in its native tongue as La vie d’Adèle — has been dominated by three things: its Palme d’Or victory at the Cannes film festival, infighting between director Abdellatif Kechiche and his young stars and, perhaps most of all, the movie’s explicit sex scenes. Blue is a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old girl, played by 19-year-old Adèle Exarchopoulos, discovering her own sexuality. As part of that story, it contains extended and graphic lesbian sex scenes with Exarchopoulos and co-star Léa Seydoux. It has, unsurprisingly, been given an NC-17 rating for its Oct. 25 U.S. theatrical release.
But that doesn’t mean teens 17 and under won’t be able to check it out.
As the New York Times reports, at least one of the handful of theaters that will open the movie tomorrow has decided that, in this case, the rating doesn’t really matter. At New York City‘s IFC Center (interestingly, a cousin of the film’s U.S. distributor, Sundance Selects), “inquiring teenagers” of “high school age” will be allowed to purchase tickets, since the theater’s management has decided that the topic will be relevant and appropriate for teens who are “looking ahead to the emotional challenges and opportunities that adulthood holds.” Usually, an NC-17 rating means absolutely no one under 18 is allowed into the theater — as opposed to an R rating, which requires those 16 and under to be accompanied by a guardian — but MPAA ratings are recommendations rather than requirements. (Studios can receive sanctions for misusing the ratings system, for example by receiving a rating and then failing to display it properly, but theaters are not involved in that and the ratings have no legal teeth.)
The IFC Center is only one of the handful of theaters that will show Blue this weekend; the box office at the movie’s other New York venue, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, said they would not sell a ticket to anyone under 18. Still, the IFC Center’s decision is a nod to an ongoing debate about movie ratings and what is or is not appropriate for children and teens.
The MPAA says that NC-17 does not necessarily indicate that a movie is pornographic, in a negative sense, just that due to “violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse, or any other element that most parents would consider too strong” it is not appropriate for children. In practice, however, sex is what puts a movie over the top; the MPAA’s own ratings tracker website makes that clear. Every single movie to receive an NC-17 rating over the last five years (fewer than 10 in total) has involved explicit sexual content, and the same trend holds true well before that, implying that the ratings board believes younger audiences are better prepared for gore than for passion.
Even beyond the leniency violence receives, the MPAA has been accused of arbitrariness and bias. For example, the 2010 uproar before MPAA overturned its initial decision to slap Blue Valentine with an NC-17 involved Ryan Gosling pointing out that the ratings board’s concern about whether the recipient of oral sex is male or female seemed to him to smack of hypocrisy and sexism.
Still, an NC-17 rating can be a death sentence for a movie’s box-office power: fewer people who are allowed to buy tickets equals fewer dollars, and thus fewer theaters that are even willing to show the picture. Ad opportunities and chances for future broadcast are also affected. As a result, many studios will recut a movie or release an unrated version rather than accept the NC-17.
When it comes to Blue is the Warmest Color, however, the rating stuck. That lack of re-editing adds one more factor to consider, in terms of whether high-schoolers should be allowed to watch. Blue is, just as it has been at festival screenings and in France, a 179-minute-long French film with serious artistic merit. In other words, it’s not exactly bait for the stereotypical sex-crazed teen trying to sneak into a movie; the hypothetical “inquisitive” teen the IFC Center plans to admit will be a special breed of moviegoer, and perhaps one particularly well suited to get the most from seeing it. In reporting on the IFC Center’s decision, the Times‘ A.O. Scott noted that he feels Blue is ”a movie that may be best appreciated by viewers under the NC-17 age cut-off,” due to the age of its protagonist — and that his own 14-year-old daughter has seen it twice.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the NC-17 age cut off. It is “17 and under,” not “under 17.”