** (2 stars – above average viewing)
d – Abdellatif Kechiche
w – Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix (Based on the Comic Book by Julie Maroh)
ph – Sofian El Fani
ad – Julia Lemaire
ed – Sophie Brunet, Ghalia Lacroix, Albertine Lastera, Jean-Marie Lengelle, Camille Toubkis
p – Abdellatif Kechiche, Brahim Chioua, Vincent Maraval
Cast: Adele Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux, Salim Kechiouche, Aurélien Recoing, Catherine Salee, Anne Loiret, Benoît Pilot
Mainstream society is currently at the point with homosexuality where, after all the arguments and politics and bylaws and moralizing, we have surmised what was always the inevitable: that it is just as limiting as heterosexuality. Therefore, a relationship drama involving two women would need to be about something more than just that, especially one that is 179 minutes long.
Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color, which was the underdog winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has become notoriously prominent around the world for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality. But for, instead, a bitter scuffle in the press involving Mr Kechiche and his star Lea Seydoux concerning mistreatment on the set, particularly involving a now infamous 10 minutes (altogether) of lesbian sex scenes with her co-star, 19-year-old Adele Exarchopoulos.
What this resulted in – along with some angry critical reviews and a denunciation from the writer of the original comic book – is Mr Kechiche being accused of making a lesbian drama from an “objective male gaze”. I will state here and now that that was not my experience as a viewer. People who have indicted the notorious sex-scene as high-caliber lesbian pornography designed for men have clearly never seen any. This is far more intimate and that is what is uncomfortable about it. The scene, and many others, seems nonessential in retrospect not because of gratuity but because of conventionality. And herein lies the film’s problem: at 179 minutes, it doesn’t add up to much.
Adele (Exarchopoulos) is a 15-year-old high school student who loves great art and literature. But she feels uneasy sexually in her own skin, despite being confident at almost everything else. She tries dating sexy schoolmate Thomas (Jeremie Laheurte) but gets bored almost immediately. One day, on a street corner, she glimpses blue-haired art student Emma (Seydoux) who, for the tiniest instant, notices her back. No matter how small the encounter, Adele is shaken to the bone and can’t get Emma out of her mind. The girls meet again on Emma’s timid first trip to a lesbian bar (of which claims of exaggeration I will herewith agree), and love blooms.
They have sex and begin dating. Yet in distinction to the elder, more multicultural Emma, Adele never completely unwinds into her sexual identity, and is still protecting it cautiously. It is at this point that the timeline shifts and we skip ahead a few years to see the couple living together with Emma as a working artist and Adele as a primary school teacher.
Mr Kechiche’s previous film Black Venus (2010) was terrible; the film before that, The Secret of the Grain (2008), was wonderful. There is not a minute of Blue is the Warmest Color that isn’t engaging. He shoots the film in his typical widescreen, handled, zoomed-in close-ups that hover around the actors like gnats. He is not interested in setting but rather the cinematic life that we keep behind the façade. He instructed the cast to never learn the script but to make up the dialogue as they see fit and would often demand incessant takes they go on for days and days. The reason the character of Adele is named so is because the cast and crew got so used to using the actress’ actual name due to the spur-of-the-moment shooting schedule.
This method of shooting would be more affecting if his compositions weren’t so classical. If the image itself becomes, after 3 hours, dull and repetitive then the audience instinctively turns to the word. When the word is also lifeless, there’s a problem. But what this method does seem to constantly assure with Mr Kechiche’s films the beguiling performances he is able to extract.
Much of the earlier scenes beautifully show us the indecorousness of the kind of girl Adele would be. For instance, the director offers many close-ups of Adele eating, almost never closing her mouth. At the same time, both Mr Kechiche and Ms Exarchopoulos are fluently able to convey the innocent astuteness that Adele possesses, always knowing when something isn’t working and sewing it up as best she can, even if her timing isn’t always precise. When she finally breaks-up up with Thomas, we realize that is the first time she’s really seen him. It is when that astuteness betrays her that the film is the most heartbreaking. The best scene in the film occurs in a high school bathroom where Adele, upon receiving some unwelcome words from another girl, contemplates the ambiguity of her perceived adulthood.
It is in scenes like this where one can see how remarkable Ms Exarchopoulos’ performance really is. Not only does she seem to effortlessly exude the sexiness that would’ve required Emma to notice her on that street corner, but the way she exquisitely illustrates her growth over the course of the film is something that many actresses much older than her still struggle with. She spends most of the last hour of the film crying her eyes out and we feel the pain for every second. That final hour of the film becomes about Adele’s own disappointment to comprehend what love is from what she perceives it is.
This culminates in a harrowing argument between the two women – another scene that falls under Ms Seydoux accusations of mistreatment. This is all rather amusing because it happens to show how talented Ms Seydoux really is. It is not surprising that Steven Spielberg, president of the Cannes Festival Jury this year, awarded the Palme d’Or, for the first time in history, not only to Mr Kechiche, but to his leading ladies as well.
One only wishes it were less straightforward that it is. Conventionality isn’t ever inherently bad, but in the case of Blue is the Warmest Color the conventionality seems more like a rut that the film is stuck in. Blue is the Warmest Color is a fleet, at times dubious, but mostly captivating middle-of-the-road relationship drama. What the movie is about can be summed-up in a line from British comedienne Dawn French: “I am not, I repeat, NOT a lesbian – even though I'd like to be one when I grow up.”