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Blue is the Warmest Colour

November 1, 2013
Blue is the Warmest Colour

The latest winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes is one of the most controversial films of the year, but we’ll get to that. At heart, Blue is the Warmest Colour is a superbly-acted and — for the most part — artfully-directed coming-of-age romance by Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche, co-written by his collaborator Ghalia Lacroix. A dramatic film about a young woman finding herself is rare enough, and one about exploring her sexuality even rarer, but Blue probes into corners of the love story that are more commonly ignored, and finds some genuine insight there. That said, it’s fully three hours long, and certain sequences feature graphic sexual content. Like, a lot.

The film is very loosely adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Le Bleu est une couleur chaude — itself adapted into English as Blue Angel — and follows some of the same contours. The young Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) feels out of place at her high school. Under pressure from her sex-obsessed friends she starts a relationship with a boy, but soon breaks it off. Her budding curiosity about other women leads her to visit a lesbian bar, where she meets the blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux), in her fourth year of her university studies as a painter and graphic artist. They strike up a friendship, which soon blossoms into love.

It’s here that the film’s infamous sex scenes take place, and they’re not kidding around. The first, and longest, goes on until it gets uncomfortable, and then keeps right on going. It’s never quite pornographic; there is no emphasis on disembodied parts, placed on display for the camera’s eye. There is more of an attempt to focus on the emotional content, although even that is somewhat coldly and clinically lustful.

Still, it does start to feel very awkward, especially when the audience starts patchily giggling, and I spent the half-hour containing these scenes hoping for the onset of lesbian bed death, which of course is bound to set in eventually. When it does, Adèle is living with Emma and posing for her paintings. She’s working as a schoolteacher, as she’d wanted, and Emma’s career is taking off. Adèle remains — aside from her publicly-closeted sexuality and passion for Emma — rather conservative and bourgeois, while Emma remains within her own eclectic lifestyle. Adèle starts to feel more and more out of place, both among Emma’s intellectual friends and her own colleagues. And so things naturally begin to fall apart.

The biggest divergence from the usual arc, is that we follow Adèle through the long, slow tail of recovery from the relationship as she returns to her feelings for Emma over and over again. And it is only at the end of this tail that her real personal growth leads to an actual coming-of-age.

Kechiche is right to give this story the full years it takes for this change to really set in; contrary to Hollywood, it doesn’t happen over the course of a summer or a senior year. And Exarchopoulos does a fantastic job of drawing Adèle’s arc from its girlish beginnings until she grows into herself as a young woman, both in how she changes and how she stays — sometimes charmingly, sometimes maddeningly — the same as she ever was. We see the full, broad sweep of a teenager’s emotional growth into a young woman, with gentle hints at where her story may go from here.

That said, there’s a lot of slack that feels like it could be tightened up. Her manner with her students may evolve, especially as she goes through the toughest parts of her breakup, but there’s a lot more included from the copious dailies than probably there needs to be to get the point across.

But while the third-act may be the greatest source of excess material, it’s the sex scenes that most desperately need pruning. I tried, in vain, to find some excuse for them; do they form a visual rhyme or referent for something else? do they illustrate some part of Adèle and Emma’s emotional development? No explanation could justify their length.

It very quickly started to feel like something I shouldn’t be watching, not out of some prudery, but out of a sense of privacy. We, as an audience, are inherently interlopers in this scene, and once we’ve passed the point of communicating the emotional content we function merely as voyeurs satisfying our own prurient interests rather than advancing any aspect of the characters. In fact, the sense of voyeurism was not completely unlike watching Compliance, though not quite so creepy as in that case.

The idea has been advanced that the intensity of the sex scenes is a reflection of the intensity of the rest of the relationship between Adèle and Emma, and that it would be somehow dishonest not to depict it in full. But I still can’t account for the length; the same idea could have been more tastefully presented in a fraction of the time.

And then there’s the disapproval from Maroh herself. Of course, her opinion is not law, but the fact is that Kechiche specifically chose to depart from her approach. Not only that, he included a monologue about how “female artists never depict female pleasure”, which ends up feeling like an attempt to preemptively cut off this response, which suggests an awareness that he was crossing a line in the first place, backed up by an attempt to undercut and delegitimize Maroh’s own artistic voice as a woman. It positions Kechiche as Kwisatz Haderach to Maroh’s mere Bene Gesserit sisterhood.

And so, unable to justify their existence, I am forced to conclude that the sex scenes function largely as a way of garnering buzz. If they were cut back to a more appropriate — and still NC-17-worthy — length, the rest of the film would be much less remarkable. It’s an overlong lesbian coming-of-age story with some excellent structure and two wonderful performances, but ultimately not quite reaching real greatness. Including the sex scenes at their current length feels like a cheap, ill-fitting grab at notoriety, which seems to have paid off at the cost of lessening the film as a whole.

Worth It: still yes, but could have and should have been better.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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