Blue is the Warmest Color
Is there such a thing as love at first sight? That’s a question raised in the opening scene of "Blue Is The Warmest Color," Abdellatif Kechiche’s intense romantic drama that took the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
It occurs in a high school lit class where a teacher attempts to hold the attention of his students with a discussion of a novel by Pierre de Marivaux, with little success. They are either distracted or, in the case of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), daydreaming. Days later, Adèle is heading to meet her new boyfriend Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte) and passes Emma (Léa Seydoux ) walking with a girlfriend. The two exchange glances, and suddenly Adèle is disoriented, as if struck by a mysterious force. That night when she masturbates, she fantasizes on the blue-haired woman she saw in the street.
In France, where the film was released earlier this month, the title is "La Vie d’Adèle-Chapitres 1 et 2" -- an apt description of this three-hour epic, which follows Adèle’s realization about her sexuality and her long-term relationship with Emma that lasts a half-dozen years or so. Told almost completely in close-ups, Kechiche gives the story a claustrophobic intimacy, which extends to the bedroom scenes as well. The film’s notoriety (and NC-17 rating) stems from the sex scenes that dot the central portion of the film. One, some seven minutes long, brought some giddy unease from the preview audience I watched the film with.
The film’s steamy scenes also brought unease to Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel that shares the film’s title. Following the film’s huge success at Cannes, Maroh poo-poohed the movie, suggesting that Kechiche exploited the film’s lead actresses by presenting them as male fantasies of lesbian sex (in other words, porn).
There is likely truth to that, but these sequences prove crucial in understanding what drives these women together, and why Adèle is crippled at the film’s end. Without the graphic sex, the film just wouldn’t make sense.
Those sex sequences hit the audiences at Cannes with the force that similar ones in Bernardo Bertolucci’s "Last Tango in Paris" did a generation ago. Sexual depictions such as these remain the great taboo in films, even when they are necessary to illustrate a central theme -- in this case, the notion of "l’amour fou," the undefined condition that Adèle becomes obsessed with.
This leads to wrenching sequences where her daily struggle with her loss and guilt are illustrated once the sex has faded and the couple break up. One scene has Adèle saying goodbye at a term’s end to her first-grade students (she follows through on her plan to become a teacher) and their parents, only to break down once alone in the classroom. Kechiche doesn’t give her the comfort of a long-shot; as she weeps, her mascara runs, her grief overwhelms her, and the camera captures her with cool intensity.
While both Exarchopoulos and Seydoux shared a prize at Cannes (along with Kechiche), the film clearly belongs to Exarchopoulos. From the start, she appears a bit lost, instinctively searching for answers to her emotional needs. This leads her to visiting a lesbian bar, where she meets Emma and has a playful conversation.
When Emma turns up outside the high school the next day, Adèle’s catty girlfriends turn on her in a scene where their chiding turns nasty, which points out the class issues that make for the film’s subtext. Adèle is from a lower-class background, while Emma, a slightly older art student with talent and ambition, comes from an educated, tended family. When Emma takes Adèle home for dinner, they’re supportive; when Adèle brings Emma home (for a spaghetti dinner), Emma invents an imaginary boyfriend to cover their relationship. When they sleep together in Adèle’s room, she holds her hand over Emma’s mouth to keep her from making noise when they have sex.
In the film’s crucial scene -- an argument that explodes the relationship -- it is clear that Emma holds the cards. At moments like these, the film recalls Fassbinder in the way it depicts the couple’s economic and emotional dynamic. The audience’s sympathies are clearly with Adèle, who hasn’t the ability to cope with Emma’s cruel response to the infidelity that pushes them apart. Just as she is at the start of the film, Adèle becomes a little, lost girl.
There are a lot of tears shed throughout (mostly by Adèle, but also Emma and even Thomas (the boy Adèle has a brief fling with early on), and Kechiche photographs them with almost a fetishist intensity: droplets fall from the actors’ eyes on cue to register an emotional effect.
But nothing really prepares you for the depths of Adèle’s despair, and Exarchopoulos portrays it with such feeling that it is difficult not to empathize. There’s a moment when the couple meet years after their break-up, yet the passion is still there. Adèle doesn’t hold back, ravishing Emma’s hands with such abandonment that it is painful to watch, and Emma nearly succumbs. They are in a coffee bar, but the audience doesn’t realize they’re being watched until later, after Emma leaves and Adèle catches the eye of two women at the bar.
This one scene crystalizes the film’s intensity -- there are no boundaries for Adèle, only pain and need, which she willingly plays out publicly.
Like "Last Tango in Paris," "Blue is the Warmest Color" ends up not being about sex, but about the loneliness that comes when relationships fail. Emma can cope, Adèle can’t. In lesser hands, this digressive, messy movie would only hint at the pain that can come when "love at first sight" fails; but Kechiche and these extraordinary actresses bring it wrenchingly to life. Never has "l’amour fou" been so hauntingly displayed. Sex is the great leveler, leaving heartbreak in its wake.