Friday, November 29, 2013

Love: Blue is the Warmest Color

The simplest synopsis of Blue is the Warmest Color involves describing it as a character study. In an unending string of close-up shots, we sit dangerously close to a young girl named Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and watch as her life unfolds. As a teenager, Adèle is navigating the waters of sexual attraction.  She tries to heed the urges of her gossiping friends, picks up with boys and loses her virginity to one who seems to really like her. All the while, she fantasizes about one of those slow motion instances, in this case a chance passing with a mysterious girl with blue hair.  Their eyes met, something happened, and Adèle's understanding of herself shifted.  For the first hour of the film, we are left alone with Adèle to work things out.  The film is patiently anxious, wrapped up in a slow burn of angsty emotions and trapped in a limbo of what Adèle can and cannot find space to express.  She breaks the heart of a boy, we feel for him. She tests the waters with a flirtatious girl, and is crushed.  She pours over books, messily eats spaghetti, ties her hair back and adjusts it nervously.  

Director Abdellatif Kechiche allows Adèle to carve out her own space, and the objective camerawork never seems to pass judgment on her decisions. When Adèle finally does meet and speak to the blue haired girl of her dreams, the air changes.  The reality of Emma (Lea Seydoux) makes the already tight space of the film feel dizzy. There's a slippage that occurs, a disorientation that adjusts the way the viewer engages with Adèle's timeline. What had seemed stagnant and plodding is transformed, suddenly.  With Emma's arrival, time picks up speed, events become confusing. Friends are lost and gained, life events seem to come and go.  We wake up one day and find that Emma and Adèle are living together, that they have made a small life of their own.  The film's greatest triumph is the way it balances an individual character study with the love story of a couple. We watch as one girl becomes one of two, and the nuanced approach to attraction, the way time seems to stop when Adèle is away from Emma speaks to something universal.  Simply put: the quiet moments of the love story get something really right, and audiences should be able to relate regardless of orientation.  Our time spent with Adèle in isolation allows us to see the effect that Emma has on her, and vice versa.  There's a magnetic pull, and under its control Adèle is both liberated and trapped. Ultimately, the film seems interested in showing us the tremendous effect that a person can have on another's life.

Throughout most of its three hour duration, Blue is the Warmest Color moves steadily forward. For as many meditations on Exarchopoulos's face as we see, the film never really ground to a halt or wore at the limits of my patience.  There's little that's been added that feels at all extraneous to the central story. Adèle's life is Adèle's life, and what Kechiche decides to show us feels generally key to our understanding of her character and the ways her world is shaken by Emma's appearance.  It's worth noting that the Exarchopoulos's character shares her first name for a reason: the camera was set on her in off hours, too, and much of the film is improvised.  The original name was Clementine, but too much collected footage of Exarchopoulos when she ate or rode public transport resulted in a conflation of life and art.  There's something odd about this, something that feels both like a blurring of a cinema verite line and a cheater's move. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux each give tremendous, deceptively simple performances, but there's something about watching Adèle on screen that suggests both genius and real pain.  At points it feels less like acting than a curious form of manipulation, as though we are watching a real girl get put through the emotional wringer. 

Which leads us to the last bit. As seems to often be the case with Palme d'Or winners, Blue is the Warmest Color has attracted its fair share of controversy.  It seems that just about everyone involved in the production of the film has had their moments of disowning or speaking out against elements of it, of wanting to walk away from it like the thing itself itself were just a bad memory, a poorly chosen ex-lover.  Though claims of a fraught production have led to a fair amount of scrutiny, Blue wears the most glaring of its problems right on the surface.  For a great, often beautifully nuanced and subtle film, its sex scenes closely resemble unadulterated pornography.  As in, they are filmed not unlike what we have come to define as "porn." And when a middle-aged, male director turns his camera on two young girls ruthlessly and animalistically exploring one another's bodies, questions of necessity, voyeurism, and exploitation are unavoidable.      
To be fair, I admit that I did find the sex scenes to be a bit over the top, and generally just a snore. Though their treatment was in line with the objective lens of the film, there was something about the constant switching of positions, the duration of the events, and the sound mixing that went beyond presenting vital information about their individual characters (ie: proof of their intense, physical attraction, evidence of their level of comfort with one another, some releasing of carnal urges, etc) and began to work against the tonal qualities of the film.  In a story already so emotionally open, vulnerable, and tender, do we need a 10-minute love scene? Or, better question, do we need a 10-minute love scene filled with rim jobs and impish eyes peering up above the curvature of an ass?  I'm kinda like, meh? Maybe we don't?  Personally, I had to actively resist the urge to check the time or flip through my planner during that one in particular. Far from eliciting a puritanical response, it mostly felt as though the repetitive actions and fleshy monochrome had been dropped in as a carnal intermission from the real film. It felt like break time, and I thought it would be a good time for a bathroom or snack break, but didn't want to look like the prude rushing from the theater. Tough times. There was an accidental silliness to it that I found grating, and though the original graphic novel does indeed devote time to illustrating the physical bond between Adèle and Emma, I did question how essential the extended duration of the love scenes was to the film as a whole. 

 More distracting than that, though, the film loses a half point for me due to its insistence on seemingly using "the mouth" and "orality" as a theme. Adèle is always smacking on things, slurping, kissing, drinking, using her mouth to consume and express.  For a person who despises listening to other people's mouth noises, the attention to them here exceeded what I'm able to stand. I reached a comical level of irritation at a few points during Blue is the Warmest Color, when bowl after bowl of spaghetti was served, oysters consumed, cheeks kissed over and over in a succession of greetings.  Maybe I'm imagining it, but I don't think so: much like the weight of the sex scenes, the insistence on the sounds seemed forced, imposed, and too much for the emotional ephemera at the film's center.   Every time another plate of spaghetti was introduced, my skin began to crawl.    


  1. I watched an interview with Adele and she said Kechiche is crazy obsessed with watching people eat. On film and in real life. She has no idea why, but the dude loves it. So, yeah, I thought that was definitely an odd thing about the film. But still, I loved this movie to death. So raw and real.

  2. I did seem to notice that Adele was often eating which was weird, I did find it interesting at the time though, it kind of seemed like she was a more realistic person? Not sure. Good review!


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