By Stephanie Foul
Movies that give a blow to the face don’t come that often. This film delivers punch, excitement, a visceral experience of the human condition and a story that reaches home during its entire running time.
You might expect me to comment on the latest 3-D release Gravity, whose cinematic prowess has astounded audiences and critics alike. No, look instead at the recent Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner, Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle, Chapitres 1 et 2).
Blue is the Warmest Color is Abdellatif Kechiche’s fifth film and certainly his most controversial. Already an acclaimed director and compared to French cinema legend Maurice Pialat (1927-2002) for his naturalistic style, Kechiche’s cinema has finally come into his own with L’Esquive (2003), which depicted surburban kids from poor French districts setting up a representation of a Marivaux play.
That film ignited what came to be known as his formula for his subsequent works The Secret of The Grain (2007), Black Venus (2010) and finally his latest opus. Kechiche’s cinema mixes social commentary, demonstrated by the portrayal of lower-middle class groups and characters of North African descent, an obvious love for the French language and its theatrical culture.
L’Esquive and Blue both use references to Marivaux as guidelines to their characters’ turmoils with female characters taking the forefront and his characters gathering for a massive food fest. About that last point, Kechiche says food plays a huge part in loosening up his characters whether they dig into a fish couscous in Secret of the Grain, ingest enormous quantities of spaghetti, or stuff themselves with kebabs and delight in the methods of eating oysters.
Organic and realistic are the best adjectives to describe Kechiche’s cinema. His works aren’t the kind you just sit back to watch passively. Au contraire! His cinema requires a constant battle to embrace its throat-grabbing authenticity, in contrast to the typical French commercial and art house productions.
And what a film it is! Blue is the Warmest Color takes place in the Northern French city Lille. Adèle, a 15-year old teenager is more than your typical awkward teenager: recklessly spontaneous, clumsy, insecure, curious and conflicted in her true desires and others’ expectations of her actions. But so painfully real! I had never encountered such a realistic portrayal of the difficulties of teenage life, coupled with the hopeless desperation of first love and first sexual discoveries.
But what Kechiche superbly captures is Adèle’s appetite for life, shown thanks to numerous close-ups (other Kechiche motif) of her mouth. Adele unashamedly burps, sucks, smokes, whines, sighs and kisses. Another theme held dear by Kechiche is the power of education and transmission, with Adele having ambitions of becoming a schoolteacher and dedicating her job to children. Adele is played by Adele Exarchopoulos, a nineteen-year-old breakthrough actress who appears seamlessly comfortable in front of the camera, aging with incredible ease and maturity. You don’t just watch a character brought to life, but her performance and character so come into one that you’re watching HER!
Throughout the course of the film, I was sucked straight away into her fears, hesitating moves, glances, and her complexities. Adele is such a dense character in the sense that she’s beautifully imperfect and unexpected. The three-hour long time is needed to have a complete insight into her life, but also the social and cultural barriers that constrain her desire for Emma and her timid ambitions.
The first part of the film breathtakingly sets the bar high, as Adèle wonders about her first sexual experience with a handsome but uninteresting fellow student named Thomas. Despite having gone out with him without feeling a connection other than regret, she feels empty. Then, with just one look, she falls madly in love with blue-haired and fine arts student Emma played by Léa Seydoux. She magnetizes the screen surrounded in “warm” shades of blue and embodying a sensual eerie-like creature.
The film then covers all the stages of their relationships, from seduction to their first kiss, from sex to routine and ultimately from their shattering break-up to its aftermath. Kechiche plunges full throttle into all the scenes, not shying away from some of the most explicit sex scenes ever shot on celluloid.
Having each scene shot with equal density is masterful and makes the film profoundly generous in its scope, but it also creates a tiring sensation over time. Without a doubt, the director’s introspective close-ups and extended shots are spellbinding in fully engaging the viewer into such a cinematic feast. But the film starts to wane and loses its fantastic rhythm in the middle.
Whilst being very “Kechichian” and a loose adaptation of Julie Maroh’s “ graphic novel, the film suffers from showing a true lesbian perspective. Not much is said about her family’s discovery of her sexuality (which is to be included in the DVD’s director’s cut). Adèle’s daily life as a gay woman and struggles she faces in accepting her sexuality once she has consummated her love affair with Emma. The sex scenes, which have caught everyone’s attention and have even limited the film’s appeal to certain audiences, are incredibly audacious and provocative, but are filmed in a decorative manner.
Directors stuck on their aesthetic style can over-indulge at the expense of substance. While Blue feels at times over-stuffed with its display of food, its not-so-subtle portrayal of different social classes as threat to the relationship, and its razor-edge intensity, it has truly stood the test of days as an engrossing cinematic experience and a highly rewarding coming-of-age story.
By its bold analysis of insecurity, social and sexual inadequacy, the power of educational transmission and a character coming to terms with her life, goals and dreams, Blue regrettably outweighs the canon of the lesbian love story, yet turns itself into a powerful and empowering statement.
A truly great film can be measured by its ability to trigger a wave of overwhelmingly emotional responses. Blue hits that mark by having its viewers relate to Adele’s story thanks to the leading actress’ powerhouse performance. Kechiche definitely has a knack for finding diamond-in-the-rough like actresses and turning them into household names, but his latest muse goes deeper than her predecessors Sara Forestier (L’Esquive) and Hafzia Herzi (Secret of the Grain) with her physical and emotional abandon to the role.