Blue Is the Warmest Colour by Abdellatif Kechiche combines a coming-of-age storyline, fused with startling intimacy and remarkable realism in its depiction of two female lovers – it is an emotionally absorbing experience, intense and incendiary.
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche. 179 min
The premiere took place as France passed a new same-sex marriage law, which was followed by anti gay-marriage protests in Paris. As if this wasn’t enough controversy before the official screening of Blue, the two leading actresses along with other crewmembers accused Kechiche for having produced unbearable working conditions. Kechiche won the Palme d’Or at the 66th Cannes Film Festival in 2013, the award was jointly attributed from the jury –(that year headed by Steven Spielberg) to him and the two principle actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, the only women besides Jane Campion [The Piano, 1993] to have been given this most distinguished award. It is additionally the first film based on a graphic novel to have won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
An intricate synthesis of Julie Maroh’s 2010 graphic novel Le bleu est une couleur chaude and Pierre de Marivaux’s 18th-century novel La Vie de Marianne, Kechiche’s film is nonetheless firmly rooted in the here and now of French quotidian life. The film’s original title La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2 [The Life of Adèle – Chapter 1&2] is much more fitting, not least because the colour blue is initially introduced as a reference to Adèle’s emerging passionate desires that grows out like the dye of her lover’s hair which leave only her piercing sapphire eyes.
Initially intimidated by the prospect of this three-hour film, I found myself surprised when the credits started to appear at the end. Rarely before had I been so completely immersed in a narrative, even felt to be a part of it. I was thoroughly captivated by the outstanding performance of Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, who together manage to depict emotions that are universal. Adèle, a high school student at the beginning and teacher at the end, meets Emma an art school graduate, who will initiate the new chapter in Adèle’s life. Early on in their encounter Emma sketches Adèle on a park bench, referring to Jean-Paul Sartre’s expression of ‘the mysterious weakness of man’s face’ [Nausea, 1938]. Is Kechiche in this instance making the claim that cinema is able – as a painting is – to unleash the enigmatic interior world laying hidden behind eyes? Indeed, Adèle’s extraordinary performance strips naked a private universe. Even the smallest movement of her face and gesture of her body are simultaneously sublime and subtle; every minute detail of her performance is charged with an unparalleled sensuality. Her eyes shy and strong enclose an endless depth of expectation and anxiety, pride and passion, insecurity and inequality. The moisture of her lips, the vigour of her breathing and the unruliness of her hair make Adèle at times too visceral to bear and the film too tactile to forget.
It’s a shame that the portrait of the characters’ family backgrounds sometimes veers towards stereotype and simplicity. The class differences between Adèle and Emma are portrayed in stark contrast: the one spaghetti-devouring-working-class concerned with financial stability and the other oyster-dining-middle-class discussing wine, art and the meaning of life. Class differences are cemented rather than challenged.
Most attention has tended to focus on the explicit, eight-minute sex scene, (which took ten days to shoot!). It has been critiqued for resembling pornography more than anything else and criticized by the gay community and Julie Maroh for falling into the heteronormative trap of presenting a male fantasy of a lesbian relationship. It is an exploitative film? Is it a male gaze sexualizing and objectifying the bodies of these two beautiful actresses or did the film in fact achieve something beyond a patriarchal depiction? Is it a true love story or a male fantasy of lesbian sexual awakening? It does both simultaneously. Kechiche places himself in line with a long tradition of male fascination of female sexuality within the arts, speaking through the most influential gallery owner of Lille during Emma’s graduation party, saying that the mystery of the female orgasm has always inspired male artists. Later in the film, Emma’s frustration with his fascination is rendered, even though she uses it later to bring about her own artistic success.
The scene set in the museum illustrates this point further: does Kechiche manage to displace so much of feminist writing, in proposing that not all spectators are male and that therefore the female nude is not a body turned into a passive object for the male gaze? Or is it a self-indulgent moment where the final mastermind is still the man placing two gorgeous women in front of the representation of multiple nudes, fantasizing about them? The camera does not represent Emma or Adèle’s gaze but Kechiche’s camera glances upon them how they look at the sculptures and paintings. During the much talked about sex scene the bodies of Adèle and Emma are turned into these perfect sculptures cast out of marble like in the museum, freezing at the end in a coalesced embryo position. Are they only displayed to be seen by us, while not recognized for themselves? Or is this a moment they find equality despite their class differences? Not just between each other, but between them and us? The overall question becomes: Do we share into their subjective experience or do we remain outside as voyeurs?
Either way, Blue is an unforgettable experience that will grow even more strongly after you have lived through this intense three-hour cataclysmic life experience. It is questionable whether it is simply a story of love. The film avoids reducing it to gay or teenage love. It is just love with ubiquitous obstacles. As the French title suggests, you are completely immersed in Adèle’s world, sharing with her all the physical, emotional and intellectual adventures, failures and the awakening of consciousness. But at the end blue remains a cold colour- the film depicts the tragedy of love disappearing – as one of Adèle’s teachers says about the La Vie de Marianne, despite everything you try is still unavoidable.