MoviefiedNYC Review: Blue is the Warmest Color

Adèle Exarchoupolos, Lea Seydoux

With a sense of great apprehension, curiosity, and hope, I went to see Blue is the Warmest Color. My hope was that the film that won this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival would, quite simply, be the great film experience I’ve been longing for. My curiosity was due to the controversy that followed the film’s premiere at Cannes when Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel voiced opposition to director Abdellatif Kechiche’s (Black Venus) masculine depiction of sex as a “brutal, surgical, cold display of sex . . . which turned into porn.” My apprehension in seeing the film came out of that controversy, as I find myself at odds with unnecessary nudity and graphic sex in cinema. Blue is the Warmest Color managed to challenge my unease as the film surreptitiously surprised me, took me to someplace new, and affected me with something joyfully and painfully familiar: love.

Adapted from the graphic novel of the same name, Blue is the Warmest Color centers on Adèle played by Adèle Exarchoupolos, a working class teen, who longs to experience love for the first time. It’s a coming-of-age story that is set in motion when she meets a male classmate, Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte) who falls for her; they have sex, but she is eventually distracted by the erotic daydreams she has over a girl with blue hair she had encountered during a mutual gaze while passing on the street. Disillusioned and deeply saddened, she ends her relationship with Thomas.  Adèle eventually meets the blue-haired girl, Emma, played by Lea Seydoux (Midnight in Paris), an art student who is older, confident, and more experienced.

I am by no means a prude, but I find excessive nudity and sex in a film a distraction that takes me out of the reality on screen. In other words, once I see a pair of breasts, erect nipples, a penis, or the flash of an erect cock (which seems to be the trend of late), I am no longer invested in the film’s world; I am no longer watching a character, but rather I am looking at famous actor’s private parts. I don’t think that I am a victim of my country’s puritanical pattern and prurient disposition.  I’m pretty sure that most of us sexual beings do the same thing: case in point, Steve McQueen’s Shame was a tolerable film; Michael Fassbender, as always, turned in a good performance; but what remains on most people’s minds is how “freakin’ well endowed” Mr. Fassbender was. I heard this from the sophomoric moviegoers to the intellectual film attendees; the latter may have elected to overlook the large penis on screen out of academic propriety, but I’m pretty certain that in the privacy of their thoughts, their experience went like this: the film’s dark tone adequately reflects the character’s internal conflict; McQueen effectively uses—what’s this? Whoa! Michael Fassbender has a really long—dick! Is that real? Is he that long? Funny, I never think of actors as having large cocks—porn stars of course, but Oscar-nominated actors? 

Just as I so obviously digressed from my dissertation with coarse language and sexual internal thoughts on some film from 2012, I have taken us away from the current subject of Blue is the Warmest Color, and, yes, I was distracted by the film’s display of lesbian sex. For six-and-a-half minutes, I held my arms across my chest as if I were protecting myself from the potential discomfort or anger from the surrounding audience—especially the gray-haired woman sitting nearby. Perhaps I was shielding myself from the prospect of cinema crossing over into new territory—territory that I didn’t want it to go to (real sex performed onscreen by our Oscar-winning great actors?). Yes, yes, and yes. But, to my personal surprise, I ultimately found it beautifully effective—beautiful from a composition perspective, and effective from a uniquely intimate perspective. The bodies on screen remained the characters and not bodies of the actors. They were still Adèle and Emma surrendering to passionate love. The sex scene ended with what looked like a marble sculpture of two satiated bodies: two bodies in love, naked, and expressed. While the scene may have been choreographed (all sex scenes are), and carefully lit, the final result rested in my head as natural and completely truthful; it transcended beyond lesbian love into universal love that everyone can relate to regardless of their sexuality.

Another element that heightened the act of first-love sex, and increased the intimacy on screen, and gave it a sense of realism, was the absence of an overbearing romantic Hollywood score invading our ears. I think more distracting than the image of actors’ private parts on screen is the incessant over scoring of American films, the director’s patronizing need to indicate through sentimental music how the audience should feel.  Without this aural distraction, I was allowed to focus, in my own time, and connect and identify with Emma and Adèle, not as fellow homos, but as someone who remembers the experience and the joy of deep intimacy for the first time. 

Enough! I’ve devoted too much time to sex. Moving on, despite a few other sex scenes, most of the film’s three-hour running time is devoted to Adèle’s ten-year journey from a fifteen-year-old high school girl longing for love to her finding love with another woman and the eventual loss of that loving relationship and, all the while, wrestling with her own sexuality. At its center the film is about their relationship, but ultimately it’s about social class and the complications that their two divergent classes create: Adèle belongs to the working class. She is practical, she wants to be a teacher and nothing more, and her father insists that securing a good job is important. Adèle consumes her dinner almost ravenously in a manner that edges on the unrefined.  Emma (Seydoux) belongs to the upper class, which allows her the freedom to study something “impractical” like art; her family’s dinners center around fine meals that start with oysters, nice wine and intellectual discourse. While the differences are present enough to signify that this could be a problem, the conflict is subtle enough to lead us to believe that their social differences might possibly be lessened by their love.

Kechiche comments on the importance of the actresses’ mouths: “both characters’ mouths were decisive and for very human reasons. They provoke all sorts of feelings and sensations. Something in the face touches us: a nose, a mouth, whatever. For me this is the beginning of everything.” It is through Adèle’s and Emma’s mouths that we intimately connect with them, and experience the senses, be it physical or emotional: after Adèle breaks up with her boyfriend, she pulls out a box hidden under her bed that contains an assortment of candy bars. The camera lingers in close-up as she devours the candy bar that mingles with the tears rolling over her lips. Eating to lessen pain has never looked so authentic and relatable. Through Emma’s mouth we are able to connect emotionally and sense her attraction, love, and insatiable passion for Adèle, and ultimately pain. This is something that is usually achieved through the eyes, but in Blue is the Warmest Color it’s all through their mouths.  

Kechiche has successfully achieved an intimate and brutally honest picture of a relationship’s arc—with its early passions, discoveries and eventual pain. Through the film’s natural and carefully paced rhythm and long scenes, Kechiche develops a deep exploration of the characters’ lives and, in particular, Adèle’s growth from inexperienced teen to grown woman.

The film’s many extreme close-ups of the actresses’ faces allow the viewer to linger on every line, smile, emotion, running fluids; thereby, bringing the audience in closer proximity to the lovers as we might have the same visual intimacy permitted by our own lover.  All of this along with fantastic performances by both Exarchoupolos and Seydoux help create a film that uniquely connects the audience with the characters in a way that is seldom seen in most films. Kechiche has created one of the most uniquely satisfying films about love I’ve ever seen and certainly one of the most honest films to feature gay characters. They live beyond the end credits and linger in our minds.  Near the end of the film, Adèle walks away down a street, now a grown woman, a committed school teacher, and someone who has loved deeply. I can’t help but imagine (even wonder) where she is now and how she’s doing.

–John David West


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