It’s taken me many months to track this one down but I finally nailed it, if you’ll excuse the rather suggestive expression, last weekend. Ever since it stormed Cannes in May and in an unprecedented move secured the prestigious Palme d’Or shared between the two lead actresses and the film’s director this has been a priority on my cinematic sensors, but alas it eluded me at both the Toronto and London festivals due to alternate priorities, as I figured that such a high-profile film was bound to get UK distribution at some stage. So, scanning last weekend’s release schedule I was pleasantly aroused to see that it was playing at my local Cineworld, quite a surprise as a three-hour subtitled so-called ‘gay’ drama isn’t exactly their métier, as I assumed I would have to journey to a Picturehouse or Curzon site to finally see what all the controversial, panting buzz was about. In what is perhaps the most brilliant scrabble scoring cast list Blue Is The Warmest Colour is the story of Adèle (a phenomenal breakthrough performance from Adèle Exarchopoulos), a fifteen year old French college student who instigates a hesitant romance with Emma (Léa Seydoux) a slightly older, more mature blue coiffured openly gay fine artist. That’s it really when it comes to the plot, it’s very much a melodrama focusing on Adèle’s sexual awakening and her romantic relationship moving from a tentative teenage lust into complicated adulthood amour, although in terms of context I should also mention that producer & director Abdellatif Kechiche has adapted his film from the 2010 graphic novel Le Bleu est une couleur chaude by Julie Maroh. The author is determinedly not happy with the film, a position shared by Seydoux or Exarchopoulos although their antipathy toward their acier auteur has somewhat cooled since complaints emerged over his alleged unprofessional and wretched behavior, with his crew also voicing concerns over his gruelling shooting practices and Union baiting violations. Fiction and non-fiction collide as clearly this film has passionate elements coalescing around its tear streaked core, with a pulsing passion embracing its ideological, narrative, visual and production levels.
My expectations were high given the overwhelming praise the film has received in tandem with concerns over its tyrannical manufacture and muddied sexual politics, so I’m not being prurient when I assert that this is one of the most intimate films I’ve seen in quite a while and no I’m not simply referring to the explicit fucking (which we will get to eventually) but more Blue’s overall empathic sense of a single character’s life and loves. Adèle is framed constantly in close-up, even when sleeping, traveling to college on the bus or simply going about her daily business, and make no mistake that although the two leads are sharing the kudos (quite rightly I have to stress) this is defiantly Adèle’s story as opposed to Adèle and Emma’s story, as she is in every single scene and the entire film plays from her perspective. Over the course of three hours you the film sculpts Adele as confidant, to see and struggle with her through an intense process of empathy which is forced and forged by the camera placement, further enhanced by the lack of an extraneous umbilical slicing musical score. This visual closeness has caused some consternation which again I’ll cover a little later, but in terms of other designs food and consumption is also a constant motif, I know the French are famed as a nation of gourmets but be warned that this film may decimate any potential diet, with the constant framing of events and character progression over family meals, dinner parties and café encounters which suggest our desires linked to the satisfaction of biological urges, elements which are essential to survival, both chemical and spiritual.
Many of these scenes are also pregnant with sociological charge , as Adèle’s romance with the artistically attuned Emma suggests an intellectual mentoring of sorts, small divisions which are gently manipulated in a cluster of domestic scenes - Adèle’s upper working class parents serve a traditional bolognaise while she keeps their intoxicating relationship secret (Emma poses as a student helping with her studies) whilst Emma’s parents serve a fine chardonnay and luxuriant shellfish as bourgeois bohemians who respect their daughters sexual identity, openly supporting her unorthodox identity. It wouldn’t be a French film without an Existentialist discussion at some point and what do you know at the start of the romance that’s exactly what we get, but not in a pretentious posturing mode but as example of Emma’s world view and credo, of being true to one’s self and schema in a ideological imperative. As a straight male viewer it also provided an illuminating insight into areas of human experience which we heterosexuals may not consider, how the most elemental of romantic entanglements can be complicated by a gay identity; meeting your significant others family and friends; public displays of affection; musing a potential long-term future together and the possible rearing of children. On a construction level the film has also received some mild criticism for its rather basilar attitude to story ellipses and the movement of time, with cuts of months and potentially years in the narrative not being signalled with a usual slow dissolve or other signalling techniques such as dialogue exchanges or seasonal montages, on the contrary I liked this loose and slightly distracted approach which gives the film a spritely quality, a sense of vivacious movement which is captured in a number of scenes through Adèle’s fondness for dancing, an expression of her spirit bathed in poignée d’amour.
And so we alight upon the films controversial explicit sex scenes. Well, the first thing to say is yes, they are extended and yes, the camera lingers over details for what seems like provocatively extended periods of time (the first encounter charts at about eight minutes I believe) and yes I did actually feel a little uncomfortable watching them, but not because I’m some prude or tittering adolescent which I understand plagued the films LFF public screening. No, I felt slightly uncomfortable because the scenes genuinely feel like an intrusion into an incredibly private and intimate relation between two people, I didn’t think it was even remotely lit or edited like a mainstream porn scene which some detractors have alleged, but as we have already built up an empathic rapport the scenes while powerfully charged do seem like a trespass would could have been curtailed to half the duration. We can understand why Kechiche lingers on these moments as they provoke an erotic charge and unequivocably instruct just how deep the well of passion is that both women draw upon, their sexual compatibility and passion, so they foreshadow the future problems of the emotional dimensions of their difficult romance. I can only speak as white, male, middle class straight observer – and almost every review I’ve read has seen the author take pains to contextualize their gender, class and sexual orientation which in itself is an interesting group response to a film – but I found the scenes essential as , and they also frame the future events of the film with a passionate authenticity. I have had these beliefs slightly challenged by an incredible review by Sophie Mayer in this month’s S&S however, its one of the best half-dozen film critiques I’ve read all year as it happens, where among a number of brilliantly astute observations – the rack focus from Adele to silent movie star and lesbian icon Louise Brooks during the dinner party scene, how the colour motif evident in the title migrates from Emma’s hair tints through the lighting patterns every time Adele directs her objectified gaze of desire – she slightly admonishes the film for its male perspective. For the uninitiated cinema has long enjoyed feminist born readings of texts, like the psychoanalytical model following Freud and Lacan’s models of consciousness feminist theory works from a position of gender inequality and patriarchal hegemony, and if you’re shaking your head in mock disbelief at the contention of these readings then I suggest you take more than a cursory look at just about any advert, music video or mainstream blockbuster these days. It’s brilliant to have your initial reactions challenged and that’s exactly what happens through this piece, as she points out that ’her body is subject to a constant disassemblage by framing and editing, reducing it to parts for consumption’ while the POV is directed from the (predominently) conventional male gaze of the audience.
With its designs echoing the realism of the Dardenne Brothers or the cinema of Ken Loach this is a powerful and affecting liaison and whatever its gender politics or potentially disquieting dimensions I found the film to be a deeply moving piece with a heartbreakingly poignant performance from Exarchopoulos, if she doesn’t walk away with just about every award that the foreign intelligentsia can offer then their really is no justice in this godforsaken world. Veering away from specifics but in Blue there is one absolutely devastating scene which was almost as difficult to watch as some of the gruelling sequences in 12 Years A Slave, with emotional torment and violence almost equalling the physical punishment that is inflected upon Soloman Grundy, I don’t wish to belittle the experiences of a man enslaved and tortured for a dozen years against a seemingly inconsequential cyclone of romantic turbulence but in terms of a wrenching force emanating from the screen then they are almost peers. It’s certainly one of the most essential films of the year from a cinephile perspective, although I don’t think it’s going to quite crack my top ten which I’m finalising at the moment it’s definitely glanced into the next tier of quality, so for what it’s worth Blue Is The Warmest Colour is a beautiful sapphire of a film, with a burning blue soul;