7 April 2014
Passionate, heart-breaking and occasionally ridiculous, Abdellatif Kechiche’s wonderful film Blue Is the Warmest Colour explodes onto the screen in a glorious mess. Despite the controversy over the sex scenes, it’s still my favourite film of 2013.
It feels like centuries now since I saw La vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 et 2 (renamed Blue Is the Warmest Colour for English-speaking audiences), Abdellatif Kechiche’s glorious three-hour epic about the coming of age of a young Frenchwoman. In fact it’s only been a few months – I saw the film at the London Film Festival in October 2013 – but the ensuing debate about the film’s no-holds-barred lesbian sex scenes was so loud that I didn’t feel inclined to write about it at the time. Now that the noise has quietened down a bit, and the movie has been released on DVD, it feels like a happier moment to recall what was, for my money anyway, the best film of 2013.
Blue follows a tradition of poetically infused realist work that, while not uniquely French, features strongly in works by directors living and working in France. (Other examples of this new-ish genre include Jacques Audiard’s The Beat My Heart Skipped, A Prophet and Rust and Bone, Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels, Catherine Corsini’s Leaving, Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy and Lauent Cantet’s The Class). With a nod to the independent American cinema of the 1970s, the production values are simple (or, at least, trying to look like they are); the camera work, while stylish, focuses on the immediate and spontaneous movements of the action; and there’s a preoccupation with capturing the physical and emotional intensity of the narrative, with lashings of nudity as shorthand for the characters’ emotional vulnerability.
Kechiche’s film begins slowly and unremarkably, focusing on the day-to-day experiences of his heroine Adèle (played by the astonishingly good Adèle Exarchopoulos). Kechiche and his cinematographer Sofian El Fani train the camera on Adèle’s face and seldom let up – she’s in nearly every scene – and the film progresses at a leisurely pace, allowing us to drink in the details of her life. She is, it seems, a fairly standard-issue teenager: living with her parents, going to school, flirting with boys, eating her dad’s spaghetti with a satisfying slurp (and licking her knife afterwards), worrying about essays and exams, and forever not knowing what to do with her hair. She’s beautiful, but not quite self-possessed enough to wear her own beauty consciously – like her unruly mop of hair, her sexuality is something she hasn’t quite got the hang of or worked out what to do with yet. Exarchopoulos’s extraordinarily expressive face, carrying just a hint of vestigial puppy fat, registers every moment of Adèle’s shifting moods, without a trace of actorly self-consciousness.
It’s nearly 40 minutes into the film before something significant starts to happen. (By this time, we’ve seen Adèle connect and have sex with a cute boy from her class, a scenario that seems motivated mostly by curiosity and lacking in passion.) The “something” takes the form of Emma (Léa Seydoux), a foxy blue-haired art student and lover of distressed denim jackets, who cruises Adèle in the street, sparking a mutual interest. After a masturbatory fantasy involving Emma, Adèle take the plunge and goes into a lesbian bar – not necessarily to find Emma, but perhaps just to get confirmation of her burgeoning tendencies. Adèle and Emma meet, connect and before you can say “free toaster oven for every new lesbian conversion”, they’re engaged in a passionate affair.
It’s at this point that Kechiche cranks things up and slows them down simultaneously, playing an extended sex scene in which the two actresses, both buck naked, bump and grind passionately against each other for what feels like hours. (The scene runs at just over nine minutes). Quite apart from the nudity, the length of the scene itself feels like a challenge to the audience. Here Is Female Sexuality, Kechiche seems to be saying: Prepare To Be Dazzled. And dazzled we are, for the first few minutes, though the scene loses rather than gains momentum as it goes on and finally elicits a few laughs (or yawns) from the audience.
Fans of the film, including the great New York Times movie reviewer A. O. Scott, notes that Blue is “ardently and sincerely committed to capturing the fullness of Adèle’s experience — sensory, cerebral and emotional”, and that the sex scenes are therefore “essential to that intension”. That certainly feels true, though it doesn’t quite explain why Kechiche chooses to abandon his cinema verite-style and shoot the scene with harsh bright overhead lighting and formal tableaux-like camera framing. The naturalism that’s so beautifully laid out in the earlier scenes disappears. The actresses hold what look like uncomfortably-posed Kama Sutra positions, and their bodies are, for the first time, weirdly perfect, blemish free and with no sweat or runny noses. I watched the scene, waiting for some messiness in between the mechanised humping – more stops and starts, a leg muscle cramping or even some laughter and moments of respite – but it never came, even though we’re supposed to believe that the characters do repeatedly. Though I wanted to believe in the scene, in the end it looked and felt too uncomfortably like made-for-male-consumption lesbian porn than anything Adèle and Emma might feasibly have done.
Maybe this lack of naturalism was Kechiche’s way of presenting what Camille Paglia calls the “magic” of female sexuality onscreen – a magic that male characters in Blue refer to in a later scene during a conversation about art. Either way, it doesn’t work. Quoting Scott again, in trying “to push the boundaries of empathy, to communicate physical rapture by visual means, [Kechiche] bumps into the limits of the medium and lapses into voyeurism, turning erotic sensation into a spectacle of flesh.”
Though the scene is flawed, and unrepresentative of the rest of the film, it does provide sufficient heat to make clear that the love affair is, for Adèle anyway, a life-changing, perspective-altering event, terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. The intensity of Adèle’s desire, and her shame about it, propels her and the rest of the story forward into extreme emotional territory. For a film that’s attracted so much attention for the sex scenes, it’s what happens after the Cirque du Soleil event is over that’s infinitely more interesting.
Most gay and lesbian-themed movies, especially those about teenage experience, tend to end at the point where the two pretty protagonists overcome the obstacles of family, society and their own repression and fall in love with each other. Refreshingly, Kechiche is just as interested in what happens after the “happily ever after” of a great love affair. The film’s middle sequence builds masterfully on the long introduction, exploring the unfashionable notion that love and desire might not necessarily be enough to sustain a relationship.
Afer an ellipsis of what we guess is a year or two (Kechiche is happy to let the story play out without time markers to the audience), Adèle and Lea are living together and apparently happy. Lea is painting furiously, mostly nudes of Adèle which hang everywhere in their apartment, and Adèle is teaching in a nursery school. In an earlier, nicely plotted pair of scenes, we’ve already learned to spot the subtle class distinctions between Adèle and Emma. Adèle’s parents are solidly working class: Adèle’s father serves proletarian pasta for dinner while her mother warns Emma about the instability of life as an artist and suggests she gets herself a husband who can support her. By contrast, Emma’s mother and stepfather live in bourgeois bohemia, pouring wine and serving oysters as they expound on the Importance of Art and bask in their own liberal credentials for accepting Emma’s lesbianism. They’re well-meaning but slightly smug – a quality Emma emulates too – and they all seem unaware of how intimidated Adèle is by their world.
Adèle’s sense of being out of her depth continues for some time. In the film’s grand set piece, Emma hosts a party for her hipster friends, with all the trappings of an art school party: fairy lights in the garden, a projector playing Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, and students arguing loudly and theatrically about art and sex. It’s the kind of party I loved going to as a student, and Kechiche seems to love it too, though he’s open-minded enough to reveal Emma’s pretensions, and the way in which arty liberals often end up excluding the people they imagine they include. While Emma is in her element, Adèle is overwhelmed, scuttling back and forth with huge bowls of her father’s spaghetti recipe, as if food was the only thing she felt able to offer to the gathering. In later scenes, alone in bed together, Emma wishes aloud that Adèle would do something other than teach. It sounds supportive, but the writing and performance suggests a degree of embarrassment on Emma’s part at having a girlfriend with a “normal” job and no apparent artistic aspirations.
The relationship unravels spectacularly after Adèle admits to sleeping with a male colleague. (Interestingly, Adèle never feels the need to define her own sexuality, and her attraction to men and women passes mostly without comment throughout). Emma kicks her out with a savagery and possessiveness that we always knew she had in her. The break-up becomes, just as the relationship was, all about Emma, and with very little effort on her part to see life from Adèle’s point of view. Fortunately for Adèle (and for us), the camera stays with her, and we follow her as she wanders, devastated, into a new and profoundly lonely part of her life.
If you weren’t already in love with Adèle (the character or the actor) by this point, this is the moment where you fall for her, hook line and sinker. While some of Kechiche’s directorial choices are questionable (I’m not sure we needed quite so many shots of Exarchopoulos’ pert ass while she was in the shower or sleeping – and what became of Adèle’s parents?), he succeeds in bringing us so fully and empathetically into Adèle’s consciousness that you feel as if her pain (and occasional moments of joy) are your own. There’s nothing new about stories of young people and heartache, but Blue is charged with so much sincerity and compassion for its young heroine that it demands to be taken seriously.
The film ends on something of a question mark, with Adèle’s future still undecided, and the “Parts 1 and 2” of the film’s original title suggest that more might be to follow. I for one certainly hope so – I left the film wanting to keep following Adèle, still feeling heartbroken for her loss, worrying for her and wishing her well for her future. I’ve never been brought back to reality quite as sharply as I was to see Ms Exarchopoulos herself at the Film Festival screening I attended, nonchalantly taking her seat on stage, wrapped in an overly-large camel cashmere coat (on loan, I’m guessing, from a friend to protect her against the London cold), chewing gum as she answered questions about the film. The spell of the film was broken – Adèle the movie character didn’t exist – though it’s a realisation I resented at the time.
A few months on, I’m just grateful that this wonderful film got made, and that Exarchopoulos and Seydoux trusted Kechiche sufficiently to let him exploit them in the sake of great art. The actors have since gone on record criticising Kechiche’s filming style, describing the experience as “horrible” and saying they’ll never work with him again. I hope, at least for Exarchopoulos’ sake, that we get to see Parts 3 and 4 of Adèle’s story. It’s the stuff that life and great art is made of.