Directed by: Abdel Kechiche
NC-17. 187 mins
* * Warning: A few spoilers and lots of feelings ahead * *
A heartbreaking tale of self-discovery anchored by two powerhouse female leads; it’s not a wonder why both the director and lead actresses – the first females to win since Jane Campion – were honoured with the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche (Black Venus, The Secret of the Grain) and loosely based on the graphic novel by Julie Maroh, Blue Is The Warmest Colour simply traces the life of Adèle, a 15 year old student who questions her sexuality after she finds herself fantasizing about Emma, the blue-haired art student she locked eyes with in the streets of Lille one fateful afternoon. Eventually, Adèle plucks up the courage to visit a lesbian bar and once again, she runs in to Emma. They cautiously meet a few times, discussing philosophy, art, and literature, but underneath it all is a palpable chemistry and the pair soon find themselves passionately in love.
Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) loves to read and over lunch with a classmate, she explains why; She adores the vocabulary and how books can get under her skin. She especially enjoys being immersed in a novel, but would rather not over-analyze things like her teachers do – she prefers to use her imagination. This scene comes early in the film and it explains many things about Adèle, the first being that she is fiercly independent and grows impatient with her classmates who don’t seem to follow her way of thinking. It also introduces an element which will gain importance as the film continues: her lips. They serve as a puzzling signifier, in that they indicate her youth and hunger, both in a literal sense, but also in her intellectual and sexual desire to learn. Exarchopoulos’ performance is brilliant as we see Adèle hesitate to form words and explain herself as best she can; even in her sleep her mouth remains open and trusting.
All of Adèle’s tremoundously visceral experiences, especially those involving Emma, are presented visually; the act of gazing is critical here. Their entire romance begins from a glimpse in the street, one that is repeated over and over showing close-ups of their eyes and body language, suggesting that this enchanting moment is a mutual experience. When Adèle has a proper introduction to Emma at the lesbian bar, their body language and respective gazes are in focus once more; Emma leans in confidently, often laughing with a relaxed attitude while Adèle’s hesitant eyes and open mouth leave room for so many unanswered questions and her behaviour, like any teenager, suggests she is worried that this mature companion may over-analyze her. The conversation is brief, but both parties appear seduced by the differences they share and that indescribable spark. Despite Adèle’s youth and avoidance in labelling herself as a lesbian, she is sure of her desires. After the initial anxiety, Adèle pursues Emma and is very much in control of the situation once she realizes that Emma is interested, though unwilling to make the first move.
While I, admittedly, identify very much with Adèle’s journey, I would have appreciated some more efforts to show the audience how this one special night turned into a relationship that spanned many years. There is chemistry, to be sure, but almost immediately after a few innocent encounters we are bombarded with the infamous sex scene – which is actually quite awkward at times – then years fly by and we see that the couple is having issues and all the magic has disappeared. Since we are never privy to the day-to-day life that these two women shared, it reinforces that uneasy feeling of this being some sort of dalliance. Like many others have suggested, I would agree that the sex scene(s) didn’t look like two women discovering the body of her partner for the first time – something audiences were expecting to see, but were instead served up a heaping plate of disingenuous exuberance which frankly, didn’t make this relationship feel any more real than the quiet moments they shared simply looking into each others eyes at the park.While the onslaught of close-ups would suggest that this film is intimate beyond reproach, interviews with both actresses and author Julie Maroh argue that this is not an artistic character study but in fact, an exploitative, voyeuristic male fantasy.
I will now refer you to a passionate article that unpacks many of the issues those in the queer community have with the film. In it, the author proclaims that queer storylines should be told by queer people, and that this film can hardly be considered a work of queer cinema, one of the many reasons being Kechiche’s screenplay and direction (which is quite different from the source material). The author cogently argues that since Adèle’s romance with another woman is quite literally framed by other heterosexual relationships, it implies the same old trope of just another foray into the lesbian world – one that isn’t relatable to many queers and one that further compounds this idea that homosexuality is a phase in a person’s life, rather than a living, breathing, reality. Moreover, the author inferred that the film concludes with the possibility of Adèle pursuing yet another heterosexual relationship. To some, this ending is frustrating on a number of levels, but I personally found it to be a hopeful sentiment, one that doesn’t exactly affirm she will pursue a relationship with ‘that guy,’ but that no matter what happens in Adèle’s future, the failed relationship between her and Emma will make her stronger. Despite all the heartache, that is something she can take from that experience and that is something almost everyone can relate to when it comes to that first, painful heartbreak.
There has been much controversy surrounding the graphic sex scenes that amount to a whopping 20 minutes in this three-hour long tale of sapphic lust and heartbreak, but ultimately, this film is hardly about sexuality or even queerness – this is simply the story of Adèle, a young woman who, like us, struggles to survive her youth relatively unscathed. It’s sexy, to be sure, but Blue Is the Warmest Color isn’t the controversial movie so many critics would have you believe. In fact, both actresses have consistently reminded critics that this type of ‘graphic sexuality’ is common in European cinema, especially French cinema. They continue to remind audiences that the American ratings system is quite backwards in that it allows – supports, even – brutal violence and foul language, while showing the slightest bit of nudity and sexuality receives the harshest rating.
It is important to note that Julie Maroh’s graphic novel was different in a number of areas.. the most obvious difference being, her focus on the consequences of homophobia and what challenges are faced by queer people attempting to inhabit certain spaces. The ending of her novel is far more bleak than Kechiche’s vision, though he has pointed out on numerous occasions that his film is not concerned with queerness, but rather class differences.
While Kechiche claims to be unconconcerned with sexuality, the character of Emma is very firm with regards to her sexuality, identity, political views, career goals, etc. Emma is disappointed when Adèle hides their relationship from her family, and later from her coworkers. She can’t seem to understand why her partner lives separate lives while she ties both her sexuality and artwork together as one. Unfortunately, Emma’s character often feels like a tired cliche – the artist who dies her hair bright colours, will never “sell out” and has a deep appreciation for the works of Sartre and Scheille. What are we to make of her? Stereotypes come from somewhere and one could argue that they know someone just like that in their own life. But what about the others who see this mysterious lesbian in the same way we always see them – queer as a result of their “liberated” and “unconventional” lifestyle. Emma has depth, of course, but despite Seydoux’s tremendous performance, this character feels too often like the same old lesbian artist trope we’ve all seen before. By positioning these two women opposite one another, the class difference becomes quite clear. Emma’s lifestyle seems to “allow” for this sexual freedom, while Adèle’s aspirations of becoming a teacher suggest that this affair is just that – a brief experiment, despite her tender feelings for Emma.
During a dinner party at Emma and Adèle’s home, the guests appear against an outdoor movie screen that shows Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, another film that attempts to understand a strikingly complex woman. Feeling out of place amongst Emma’s friends, talented (and openly queer) artists, Adèle meets a young Arabic actor who’s been to America to play the role of a terrorist in many action films. They share a moment of understanding – indicating the trouble that comes from living up to stereotypes and the difficulty of fitting in, while still being true to oneself. This scene is particularly moving as it reaffirms the notion that one character, especially in an artistic medium such as film, cannot represent an entire community. While I agree with many of the sentiments that have been raised by the queer community with regards to this film, this scene is a reminder that a film such as this may not succeed on all levels and may even upset certain audiences, but as a character study, it is a resounding success. This film, as a depiction of what it feels/looks like to be queer, not so much. But I don’t think that’s what the director intended and he has made that very clear. Blue is the Warmest Colour is about many things, but the most prevalent theme is that of growing up and learning how to fit in; how does Adèle represent herself and how will she learn to live with, and without, love?
Without the astounding performance from Adèle Exarchopoulos, this film would be soulless; at the unconscionable age of 19, in her first major film no less, she has managed to render the life of a woman developing over a decade with commendable vulnerability and an emotional fortitude beyond her years. A striking character study, perhaps one of the most affecting you’ll ever experience, is achieved with Kechiche’s assured direction and Sofian El Fani’s stunning cinematography. With their career-defining performances, Exarchopoulous and Seydoux tell a story that captures both the agony and ecstasy of first love. Blue is the Warmest Colour isn’t without flaws, but it is a truly unforgettable and entirely unmissable experience; one of the year’s best.