The euphoria of first love and the pain of heartbreak, the discoveries of new ideas, food, art and sex are all part of Blue is the Warmest Colour, a film from Tunisian-French director, Abdellatif Kechiche. The winner of Cannes’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, and the international critics prize at the same festival, the film was hailed as a breakthrough, a graphic and emotional love story, the first same-sex feature ever to win the Palme, in the week after France legalized same-sex marriage.
Five months later, the celebration has cooled, with criticism focusing on the director’s indulgence and supposed predatory eye, bolstered by unflattering interviews from the actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux about his behaviour during the five-month shoot. But Blue is the Warmest Colour is too exceptional a film to be defined by its controversy.
Let’s start with the movie itself, a character study of several years in the life of a young woman named Adèle. Kechiche and co-screenwriter Ghalya Lacroix have substantially altered the story from its original source material, a tearjerker of a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, which begins with one character’s death. No one dies here. And the story’s new focus is education.
The opening scenes are in a high-school literature class in the northern French working-class town of Lille, where the students are studying Pierre de Marivaux’s unfinished early novel of sensibility, La Vie de Marianne (the French title of the film, translated as The Life of Adèle: Chapters 1 and 2, pays homage to Marivaux). The early scenes establish two of the film’s motifs: looking and being looked at, and appetite. Adèle’s gossipy classmate tells her not to look, but a hot boy is checking her out. Then there’s the eating: Adèle has a hearty appetite for her family’s favourite meal, spaghetti bolognese, gyro sandwiches and candy she hides in her bedroom.
Her appetite for sex takes a few scenes to develop. Partly in reaction to peer pressure, Adèle loses her virginity with the sweet, if book-averse school senior, but the experience leaves her flat. Then, one day, she catches sight of a pale, beautiful young woman (Seydoux) with a snub nose, confident gaze and blue-streaked boyish haircut. The woman’s arm is around another woman. Adèle is both distressed and excited by her reaction. Later, when Adèle wanders accidentally-on-purpose into a lesbian bar, she meets Emma, a fourth-year fine arts student, who is amused and moved by the teenager’s crush. They meet again; Emma sketches Adèle in the park, and feels her out emotionally before they take the leap.
Kechiche shoots typically in close-ups, with long talky scenes, that can turn emotionally from banal to loaded. The girls at Adèle’s school, for example, go from gossiping friends to threatening accusers when they suspect her sexual orientation. His close-ups are relentlessly intimate, immersing us in Adèle’s world, the hand-held camera studying the array of emotions and other things on the actress’s face: strands of hair stick to her cheeks, her nose leaks when she cries, and her mouth hangs open in a look of either surprise or hungry anticipation. With the more sophisticated Emma as the teacher, Adèle is an eager student.
The sex scenes are deliberately startling as a trumpet blast: a declaration of lust. There’s a plausible criticism that the women’s movements are too choreographed and the camera placement voyeuristic, but Kechiche deserves credit for throwing coyness and caution out the window. The sequence is rousing rather than than arousing. They women are avid for each other, investigating, experimenting, grabbing, as if racing through a manual of sex positions on a deadline. At the end of the round one, they look drained and exhausted by the intensity of their experience.
In the physical chemistry sweepstakes, they’ve hit the jackpot, which sets us up for the drop in the third hour of the movie when the affair disentangles. Several years somehow slip by, as Emma and Adèle move in together, and grow apart. Patronized by Emma’s sophisticated artist friends as a muse and cook, Adèle is isolated from her teaching colleagues by her same-sex relationship, and is desperate with loneliness. There’s a nasty breakup, a humiliating attempt at reconciliation, and life goes on. While she doesn’t tumble to the depths of her namesake in Francois Truffault’s tragedy of obsessive love The Story of Adèle H., she belongs to the same class of those who feel too much.
But did I mention the movie is not just about sex? Another subject is class differences. An early warning sign of storm clouds ahead are parallel visits to each of their parents: Emma’s accepting and sophisticated parents raise an eyebrow at Adèle’s pedestrian plan to be a teacher’s aide. At the home of Adèle’s unsophisticated parents, the usual spaghetti is served, dad expresses concern about the job market for artists and visibly relaxes when Emma blithely lies that she’s engaged to a businessman.
There’s student politics, music, philosophy – including a comparison of Jean-Paul Sartre and Bob Marley. And several classroom scenes of Adèle surrounded by children, a patient, caring teacher. Somewhat problematically, there’s also talk about art history. A party scene serves as a commentary on some of the controversies around the film. A bisexual male gallery owner waxes mystical about male artists’ devotion to the supposed mystery of females’ superior sexual pleasure, and asserts, absurdly, that: “Art by women never tackles female pleasure.” (Has he ever really looked at those Georgia O’Keefe flowers?) Is Kechiche satirizing the man’s pretentiousness or, as seems more likely, using him as a mouthpiece for poorly considered convictions? What’s truly unrealistic here is that the women artists and academics at the party fail to shoot him down.
As an artist, Kechiche tries to say and show too much but there’s a compelling audacity in his attempts to touch the raw nerve of experience. Whatever merit there is to the criticisms of his ideological correctness and professional behaviour, his focus on the character Adèle seems more like the director’s alter ego than the object of his desire, an outsider who overreaches and missteps, who gambles recklessly and tries to play the wild card.