Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013, Abdellatif Kechiche)
Blue Is the Warmest Color isn’t a story about a relationship. A relationship figures prominently therein: that between high school student and budding teacher Adèle (who shares a first name with the monumental actress portraying her, Adèle Exarchopoulos) and the experienced, confident artist Emma (Léa Seydoux, also brilliant) whose worldliness broadens the younger woman’s mind to life, excitement and romance heretofore unimagined. But we are not privy to Emma’s emotions and inner life the way we are to Adèle’s, so this is no straightforward chronicle of a love blooming and lost, however naturally and inevitably. No, this is an entrance into adulthood, a bearing witness to an almost literal shedding of the last vestiges of adolescence. The nature of the electricity encountered by Adèle, the joy and pain she experiences, is of less interest than how it affects her decisions, her worldview. I have not read Julie Maroh’s graphic novel, but this adaptation comes so clearly from the soul of someone, and I tend to assume it is her and not director Abdellatif Kechiche, even though he brings it to life vividly, with mostly impeccable judgment.
An unavoidable personal note: I related to Adèle to a staggering degree. Exarchopoulos’ performance is galvanizing, but the film was at times hard for me to watch because so many of her actions, reactions, behaviors, emotional responses, even just routines and experiences were so eerily familiar to me. Since I am a straight American male, I assume that’s not because I am her secret alter ego but because her journey is so elegantly, compassionately expressed. But I don’t even know where to begin: the constant toying with her messed-up hair, her complete and obvious discomfort in crowds of people (there is a scene in a bar and one in an art gallery that I am pretty sure I have lived through almost moment for moment), the feelings about literature and the analysis thereof, the solitude both self-imposed and unwanted, the joy and liberation she finds in the few places she feels truly comfortable (dancing with friends, floating in the ocean) and more than anything, the importance she places on her romantic and sexual life (without it being by any means the whole of her identity). I appreciated that the film never once played down how important these emotional revelations, beats and missteps are — in the last act, it doesn’t imply that she moves on past her grieving, just that the grief becomes another part of her. Frankly, it all seemed to happen almost too quickly — I cannot remember a three-hour film that felt shorter to me.
Kechiche’s major tactic, then, is to make Blue Is the Warmest Color feel as subjective as possible; this is best exemplified by the contrast between the intimate handheld shots that constitute most of the narrative and the occasional static moments of obvious, almost painterly beauty (thinking specifically of the park bench) that signify moments of ease, contentment, or newly unveiled possibility. The sex is important; the film has respect for lust, independently and within a deeply passionate relationship. Some felt it was shoehorned-in and pornographic, but frankly I’m relieved to see a film that shows gay or straight people having sex, clearly good sex at that, as part of a routine within and a sizable part of a relationship — as a normal, healthy thing to not just do but talk and think about. Not something that’s hidden and artificially divorced from everything else about their lives. That isn’t radical in the real world. In movies it is. Yes, it feels a bit tiresome that a film that hinges so much on lesbian sex is directed by a straight guy (and features two straight women), but such external concerns don’t hurt the narrative.
My only objection actually is that the sex seems to begin too suddenly. Key to Adèle’s characterization is that she’s tentative, not nearly as comfortable in her own skin as Emma, and yet as soon as we see them fuck for the first time it seems almost acrobatic; there’s no learning curve, which could have made for a poignant scene. There’s a reasonable argument to be made that porn is by nature artless, that adding graphic sex to a narrative film is just voyeurism. But all cinema is voyeurism, and the heartbreaking final scenes of Emma and Adèle’s two brief reunions would have so much less of their poignance if we did not see them together as a couple, not just people kissing but people having an intimate, complex, pleasurable life — and every emotional and physical outgrowth of that. The scene of the pair’s post-breakup reunion in a cafe, the best and most devastating moment of the film, is just unimaginable otherwise.
That particular scene also harks back a bit to a comparison that didn’t occur to me until then: Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, about adults coping with their own changes and inadequacies, and the unreasonable expectation of rigid permanence in love and life. The whole third act borrows a bit of that elliptical structure — of how a relationship that’s ended colors its inhabitants permanently, both independently and in how they observe one another. “You know me,” Adèle says at one point as she starts to cry, and somehow it’s the sweetest yet most heartbreaking thing she could say — in those three words she tells the whole story: Emma will always know her, will know her like few others will, and yet she’ll never know her again. That’s lost love itself defined about as eloquently as it ever could be.
I found the end of the film to be ultimately optimistic: Adèle is who she is — her solo walk away implies that she feels no need to compromise or reform herself for others, or to collapse into a world that she doesn’t want for herself. Among the great bits of insight here is how her life finally differs from Emma’s, and how their ideals and needs are what clash and lead to their disintegration. It isn’t a fight or the cheating that does it — it seems fairly clear that when Emma blows up, she’s projecting her own failings as much as she’s accusing Adèle — it’s that conversation they have earlier, when Adèle talks about how she finds happiness and contentment teaching and coming home to her girlfriend, while Emma can’t understand how she doesn’t long for more fulfillment and expression. Having been a (some would say unambitious) person ready to zero in on domesticated life with a partner for most of my adult life, I feel that completely. But I get Emma too; it would be awful for her to compromise herself. What these two had was a moment. Emma probably helped Adèle discover herself, find a sort of peace with who she is. It will always hurt to remember, and it will always feel a little too good to remember — but both will always be glad it happened. Moments are all we get in the end. For movie audiences, moments this harrowing, true, beautiful and deeply felt are meant to be explored, absorbed in, argued over, and savored.