Blue is the Warmest Colourby Kavish Chetty / 01.11.2013
Blue is the Warmest Colour is acted out with superb, raw intensity: its everyday episodes of emotion elaborating from this intimacy outward into magnificent themes of sexual discovery, romantic secrecy, betrayal, social anxiety, power imbalance and outsider-hood; the whole drama of years in which love lurches from utopia to chaos. If the first act of this three-hour quotidian-epic captures the ravening of virginal romance – wet, meshed bodies in endless collision – the second-stage expands the borders of love beyond hypnotic bodies, as this restless and complex thing begins to be tamed into a repeatable phenomenon by the orders of cohabitation, mutual finance, the convergence of social worlds… predictably, a drift settles in and an exquisite melancholia becomes the film’s principal tone. But the real charms of Blue – its themes of which are far from unique in the cinema of romance awry – is its intimacy: soft-focus, close-ups that bring out an expressive charisma in the faces of its lead actresses; their hesitation, nervousness, arousal. This is an exploratory film, mapping out the responsive terrain of mouths, eyes, cheeks.
Before we return to these pink mouths, and pools of eye, a word on the atmosphere with which Blue travels. Doubtless, everyone who is aware of it is aware of its near ten-minute lesbian sex-scene, a mere fraction of the film’s grander arc, which has nevertheless become the obsessed-upon subject of any prologue which opens review or critique. Julie Maroh – authoress of the graphic novel from which the film adapts, Le bleu est une couleur chaude (2010) – has described the scene as “a brutal and surgical display” and elsewhere in the media, banal rehearsals as to its proximity to pornography play themselves out. Or, to a lesser extent, you may have heard that after being adorned with this year’s Palme d’Or, a clutch of accusations has been circulating between director Abdellatif Kechiche, and his principal actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos (Adèle) and Léa Seydoux (Emma). The former has marked Seydoux as an “arrogant, spoiled child”, and she has expressed hostility to his dictatorial demands and methods, saying the production process was “horrible”, and that the sex scene in particular was “humiliating… I was feeling like a prostitute”. A curious fact: three “hetters” are play-acting at the most vulnerable intimacies of lesbian romance – coupling this to Maroh’s stated displeasure at how the film turned out, I wonder, perhaps aimlessly, as to what Blue would have looked like had it not been pushed through a male directorial prism, or filtered through heterosexual actresses’ interpretation of gay sex. The film, to my mind, seems more balanced in its equations than the enflamed remarks of its producers and practitioners make out.
Blue is a film about a queer romance and its unhappily ever aftermath. It is a coming-of-age drama, which proceeds with a (seeming) narrative honesty; coming-of-age means a coming-of-sexuality, or the coming of an age in which coming itself defines the age; a coming-of-coming, if you will, and the intensities of orgasm (sensually, visually) and the valences of female climax (discursively) occupy its imagination. Adèle is a fifteen year-old high-school student, caught in the usual vortices of this time of life: burgeoning sexual consciousness, boredom, the “liminal space” of becoming adult, social friction with her class-mates at their working-class school in the French city of Lille. She is gorgeous, in a shy, unaware kind of way, with her high, messy pony-tails and intriguing features unspoiled with make-up. Adèle dreams of becoming a teacher, a fantasy harboured in-between hook-ups with cute boys, and the banal family rituals of spaghetti-dinners, where dialogue is surrendered to the holy static of the television set. But it is when she first glimpses the electric-blue hair of college arts student, Emma, that the axis of her life is tilted irrescuably toward love and its many ravages.
Adèle succumbs quickly to the seductions of this older girl, with her practiced “cool”, and this asymmetry is the first mark of a love that is not conducted on equal terms. Adèle must acclimate to Emma’s social world, a culture of bourgeois artists and other surrogates of hipster; a culture in which enlightened, male misogynists grimly philosophise on the female orgasm, and how women are able to “attain different levels of reality” through the clitoris. She must endure the anxiety of this contact; also the condition of having to hide her Sapphic lover from her parents. She becomes – over the course of years in which the film plays out – submerged in all the glory and murk, not only of love, but the thrilled stupor of modern life itself: careers, affairs, domesticity; domains in which the inaugural bliss of love come to be eclipsed. In an early scene, Adèle is bullied by a literal ring of class-mates, encircling her, wolfishly turning on her for being a (perceived) lesbian. It’s a scene of painful emotion, the camera closing-in on her inquisitors’ bellicose expressions, the terror of being discovered registering in her trembling own. This is one of many moments in which faces become brilliantly expressive, a form of cinematic intimacy that out-masters Malick’s more pretentious use in To the Wonder.
Adèle’s face: plump culvert of pink lip; sort-of shy smile, her mouth softly agape with youth-y wonder; eyes, day-dreamily large and moist with imagination. Or, in moments of crisis: drools of snot glisten from nostril to lip, the mouth in disarray; a pair of quivered lips. Exarchopoulos is an actress of extraordinary command, and co-star Seydoux, as Emma, also plays her face with real charismas of affection, alienation and anger. For the purposes of sex, the camera draws outward to take in slim anatomies and perfect skin. The “centerpiece” sex scene is both erotic and comic. It comes close to redeeming “scissoring”, dripping vulvae urgently brushed together, from the satires of pop-culture – but not quite. It’s a divided experience: one that feels real because it looks tender and desperate, but has not totally exorcised the repertoire of porno – the actresses move with gymnastic prowess through frottage and fingering, soixante-neuf and scissoring; a choreography of inner-thighs, collarbone-kisses… it variously arouses and amuses, and I defer the challenge of its interpretation to other critics.
But Blue is not without its resignations to cliché: a scene in which Adèle is taught how to suck out oysters acts as a vulgar metaphor for her training in oral sex; in an art gallery, the lecherous camera hangs about the buttocks of nude sculptures; Sartre, in typical French fashion, is quickly name-dropped to show off Emma’s existentialist-credentials, a move which Woody Allen would doubtlessly enjoy. Even the whole make-up of its overlong plot is trope-ish and I will risk the anger of cinephiles by saying that I think Blue Valentine is the better film, or if not a very strong companion piece. So, at last, Blue is the Warmest Colour is certainly brilliant, if conflicted; a rewarding, sometimes-boring, microscopy of love: homosexual love, the trials of courtship, the hypnosis of power and prestige, the vicissitudes of modern French life – and finally, the pain and agonies which are the underside of all romance, especially at its tormented moment of dissolution.