Film Review: ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ and the pain of loving

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BLUEITWC_Poster_1080x1600There is a lot of noise surrounding this year’s Palme d’Or-crowned Blue is the Warmest Color. As it finally hits theaters in the U.S., it arrives on the heels of actress Léa Seydoux publicly feuding with director Abdellatif Kechiche. Seydoux has bemoaned the director’s treatment of her and lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos during the lengthy production of the film. In turn, Kechiche has become incredibly defensiveMaybe it has something to do with the Steven Spielberg-led jury— in a move away from protocol— deciding to bestow the Palme on not only the film but also on Seydoux and Exarchopoulos
None of that matters. Titled La vie d’Adèle, Chapitre 1 & 2 in French, the film follows a young girl’s bold exploration of love and stands on its own merits beyond politically correct awards and bitter behind-the-scenes clashes. Adèle (Exarchopoulos) is still in high school when she first lays eyes on Emma (Seydoux), who’s close to finishing her fine arts degree in college. Though involved in a sexual relationship with a boy from class, Adèle grows obsessed with the vision of Emma, who she had only glanced on the street, in passing. With her shock of haphazardly dyed blue hair and her arm around the shoulders of a girl, Adèle cannot seem to shake Emma from her head. One night, after another chance encounter, she follows Emma to a lesbian bar. Sitting alone at the bar, fending off advances from other women, Adèle locks eyes with Emma, and Emma wanders over. She warns Adèle about having entered the bar alone with a crooked, interested smile, as they brew up a casual but cute, getting-to-know-you dialogue. They have an intimate chemistry, and when a gang of Emma’s girlfriends interrupt to coax Emma to a club, it’s as if a protective bubble around them has burst. still2 What follows is not so much Adèle’s “sexual awakening” as it is her finding herself caught up in her own feelings for this fantastical pixie-like creature. The unfolding tragedy of this film is that Emma, who has a profound intellectual outlook as an artist, does not return the same level of love. The relationship feels doomed from the beginning, but the viewer will hardly notice, as the film so neatly packs you into the primal experience of Adèle. Before the behind-the-scenes quarrel stole the film’s thunder, a lot of the buzz that seemed to threaten to overshadow the cinematic drama of Blue is the Warmest Color focused on the lengthy, explicit sex scenes between the women. I once heard the film’s first sex scene was 15 minutes long, then it was 10, then eight, but it’s less. Kechiche, who worked with a total of five editors, knows how to hold a scene for maximum impact. It’s a three-hour film that seems to defy time by offering moments where time seems to hold still. He also cannot be accused of allowing scenes to move too slow. He understands the impact of patient, dramatic build-up. Some scenes are almost musical crescendos. They can be as tender as Adèle’s and Emma’s first conversation, and as rough as the argument that inevitably ends their relationship. Though the sex seems to get all the attention, what with the film’s NC-17 rating, Kechiche is only applying the same detailed, uncompromising attention he uses in every scene of the film. He lingers on silent glances loaded with revelation. To Kechiche, reaction shots seem to hold more depth than dialogue. There is a moment when the camera lingers on Adèle’s face, in the afterglow of her first sexual experience with Emma, where she does nothing but stare at Emma’s crotch, her face loaded with amusement and disbelief. Cinematographer Sofian El Fani knows how to focus on Exarchopoulos’ face throughout the film, and the actress rises to the task. Her lips in a perpetual open-mouthed pout, her doe-like eyes and her thick hair an amorphous, ever shifting puff makes Adèle look like a subject in an Egon Schiele painting. It’s no wonder Adèle becomes Emma’s muse. Still 3 As the film carries on, Adèle works to hide the relationship from suspicious, bullying classmates and her straight-laced family. Meanwhile, Emma and her bohemian friends keep it casual and open. Despite the seemingly progressive quality of the relationship in Emma’s world, it also hints at its triviality to the elder, more experienced half of the couple. After Adèle cooks dinner for Emma and her friends, Emma makes a speech, stating, “I’d especially like to thank my muse … who makes me happy today, Adèle.” The temporal quality of that statement is not lost on Adèle, and the first dagger subtly plunges into her heart. As the hip dinner guests wolf down the meal of spaghetti alla bolognese Adèle has cooked for the occasion, Emma brings up the question whether pleasure is a shared experience. Joachim (Stéphane Mercoyrol), who admits to his bisexuality, speaks of his limited masculine pleasure compared to what appears to him is the rather mystical experience of female orgasm. “We attain differing realities over and above orgasm,” he says. “Insofar as I’m a man, everything I’ve glimpsed is frustrated by the limits of male sexuality.” With this speech also arrives Kechiche’s redemption as a director accused of offering a queer film with a heterosexual, alleged pornographic, gaze. Still 5A lot gels together with this game-changing speech at the center of the film. This is more than a man allowing his camera to linger long on sex between two young women, edited to offer a variety of positions, some of which never appear in mainstream films. On a more contextual level to the central drama, Adèle overhears Joachim’s statements as another dinner guest, an actor named Samir (Salim Kechiouche), compliments her on her “yummy” pasta. As Joachim says he can never experience the ecstasy depicted in the woman’s gaze captured in Emma’s paintings, Samir prods Adèle about her relationship with Emma. “Is this the first time she’s been with a woman? Is it different? Does she want to have children?” It’s almost the base version of Joachim’s statements, and Adèle seems to brush it all off, though actually she takes it very much to heart. This scene and its layers of narrative, both external and internal, speaks to the complexity of Blue is the Warmest Color. The English title hints at this, by attributing warmth to a color commonly associated with coldness. It’s not about irony or contrast. It’s about loving someone so hard that it hurts. The French psychoanalyst turned theorist Jacques Lacan took Freud’s pleasure principle to another level when he employed the French version of orgasm, le jouissance, to describe taking something enjoyable, and using up all the pleasure to the point that it turns into pain. It’s a drive for pleasure that becomes pain, a mix of revelation and ecstasy. That’s the jouissance Adèle endures by overhearing the one conversation while partaking in another that asks her to consider children. It also takes care of the male gaze so often questioned when it comes to this brilliant movie. still1 In the documentary Zizek! noted Lacanian Slavoj Zizek shrugged off sex as mutual masturbation. It’s not incidental that Kechiche chose to illustrate his story of pained love with two women. During one sexual liaison, both thrust their crotches into one another in a moment of passion and ecstasy. Seeking more connection, they clasp hands. The notion cannot be more literal than this. To Zizek, sex is two people wrestling to achieve the most pleasure from the other. The romantic notion of shared pleasure is just that: a romantic notion. Beyond sex scenes as described above, Blue is the Warmest Color calls for a subtle awareness and a maturity in experience that merits the NC-17 rating. To some, the film will end on a rather abrupt note. But it actually marks another heartbreaking moment of jouissance where Adèle comes to realize love is never equal or shared at the same level. Still 4When Emma tells her, “I will have infinite tenderness for you” it’s different from what Adèle feels. This is not a film so much about gay love as it as about love in itself. Adèle is not sexually confused. She loves Emma in a manner that defies gender. That the actresses can convey this while under the meticulous direction of a man speaks to the power of Blue is the Warmest Color. The full-frontal nudity, the sex and the masturbation, juxtaposed with Adèle teaching pre-school children or her wolfing down dinner while talking with her mouth full with her father shows intimacy and life. This is far from some abstract art film. It conveys life much more honestly than many romantic films out of Hollywood, which only seem to instill some false sense of expectation. This is the real deal. Far deeper than girl-on-girl porn turned drama, Blue is the Warmest Color stands on its own merits as a progressive essay on the elusive sensation of love that defies the hetero-normative constructs of what a relationship is supposed to be.

Hans Morgenstern

Blue Is the Warmest Color is Rated NC-17 (you know the hype: the sex in this film is explicit. Regardless, its story has a subtlety that will only be picked up by the mature audience member), is in French with English Subtitles and runs 179 minutes. It is distributed by IFC Films who provided a preview screener for the purposes of this review. It is now slowly seeping into theaters. It opened this past Friday, Nov. 8 in my area of South Florida at the following theaters:

South Beach 18 – Miami Beach Gateway 4 – Fort Lauderdale

On Nov. 15, it opens further north in:

Parisian 20 – West Palm Beach Pompano 18 – Pompano Shadowood – Boca Raton

Update: The Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables has added the film to its calendar beginning Thursday, Nov. 21. See the cinema’s calendar here. Update 2: The Miami Beach Cinematheque has added the film to its calendar beginning Friday, Nov. 22. See the cinema’s calendar here. Update 3: The Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale has added the film to its calendar beginning Friday, Nov. 22. See the cinema’s calendar here. Update 4: O Cinema’s Wynwood location has added the film to its calendar beginning Friday, Nov. 29. See the cinema’s calendar here. It has already opened in some parts of the U.S., and it may already be playing at a theater near you or on its way there. Visit the film’s official website here and insert your zip code to find out.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

17 COMMENTS

  1. One of the most beautiful, moving romances I’ve seen in a long time. And I’m not just talking about lesbian romances, I’m just talking romances in general. Good review Hans.

    • Thanks, Dan. You get it. Love is so complex a thing that Hollywood continues to address with these cynical, idealized stories. God bless the French who, more often than not, know who to explore its complexities on so many levels.

  2. French have a wonderful way of putting across relationships that thrive around us. I remember another one that came this year ‘Adore’. Wonderful! Looking forward to this very eagerly.

    • I did see Adore. It was a very complicated story on many levels. Those women loved each other very much, though quite differently from this film. You are right about French filmmakers, they have offered many deep films about love over the years. French films also often efficiently tell powerful, focused stories with little concern for subplots. Blue Is the Warmest Color is one such example.

  3. ONE THE OTHER POST QUESTIONS OF IS EMMA STILL IN LOVE WITH ADELE?

    Hello all I have been going through the comments of each one of you and trying to understand the context. Honestly I am seeing this movie for the first time (January 5th 2018, I know how stupid to see the greatest movie after 5yrs, but I actually had no idea that it was so good, I had seen it pop up  couple of times in Google yearly list of gay movies but thought that since it’s a foreign language it won’t be that good considering that I have seen many others on the same gay topic). Although I do consider that, ‘love has no gender’ given the fact that the intense emotions and the purity of love is just breath taking. I had not really expected this thing to happen as I never thought that such epic reality could be subjected on the silver screen.  After seeing the movie I have no idea as to why I  really felt the heart breaking ache even though given the fact that I am not in love with someone as for now or past for a long period of time. These are the emotions that have been portrayed in immensely well and yes they do exist.

    And now coming back to the movie for the discussion, the Cafe seen where they engage in a sexual encounter and Emma reciprocates Adele shows she still care and love her.

    Secondly when Emma breaks the kiss and says I CAN’T, keeping her head down and tears starts rolling down shows that she loves Adele but may be too embarrassed or scared to admit the fact.

    Thirdly when Adele ask Emma that  ” do you still love me?” , to which Emma tearfully says NO.When they hug each other before Emma goes away.

    I think that eventually in their later years they both will hopefully understand that how much they meant to each other. Also that as for now since Adele is emotional and Emma is strong and in control of her emotions things are not proceeding for a reconciliation but what I further perceive is that there might a time come when Emma is emotionally vulnerable and in the same shoes as of Adele now. Because there is always a break point of holding your sh*t together and may try to get back in contact with Adele. It might be interesting though to see how Adele reciprocates to the advances of reconciliation by Emma. Or who knows by then Adele would have moved on and completely over Emma ( I am 50-50 about this fact because the amount of emotions they have for each other makes me wonder if they can really get over each other).

    Further what I can understand is that in any relationship there comes a time when you just lose interest and take your partner for granted. You tend to emotionally part away with your partner although for how long that depends individually.  But only later when you come to the terms of actual intensity of the other person’s importance you tend to realize that they mean a lot more than u had bargained.  I guess that a break or a pause   in relationship only makes you realize how much together you are meant to be.

    Also people do a lot of weird stuff when they are either insecure or emotionally distanced like Adele did, but on serious notion it doesn’t mean something. People most likely try to get intimate to escape either emotionally or physically. Like sex is not love but in love sex is a part of expressing it. Usually if I see Adele she obviously has a emotional and intimate relationship with women however she may have had reckless flings with either of gender but to get attached romantically (emotionally) is what she feels closer to woman than men.

    On Emma I find it very difficult to as not to take into account that Adele is immature and in her first relationship she deserves a second chance, she kept on explaining Emma that it was out of loneliness and she doesn’t have any feelings towards that guy. Even after this genuine explanation Emma instead of understanding the causes of Adele’s infidelity she just snaps at her which is very stupid on her part as to, she seems to have much experience in having past relationships. There is ultimate lack of understanding and analysing on Emma’s part. On contrast, the track record of past relationships of Adele shows that she is an honest and a MUST KEEP  kinda girl.

    The sooner they realize it’s better. But like what you expect in reality doesn’t always happens so.

    Must admit that this movie has best soundtrack. 

    NOTE – Seeing this movie I am so scared to love anyone now as to the fear of such a pain and heartache. I think I can’t handle so much emotions. Reality hurts and it surely does, you give your 100% but if other doesn’t do so it exactly makes you in Adele’s position which is kinda scary.

    Please do give me feedback on what you think of my interpretation. Any further questions or discussions are welcome. 

    • I appreciate you coming here to express your affection for this movie. I see the film had just as much impact on you as it did me. I think what it gets right, as well as the movie ‘Call Me By Your Name,’ a recent queer movie I reviewed that will also probably get nominated for an Oscar, is the dynamic of loving someone and how different it is between the two halves of a couple. It’s often uneven. It hurts so bad but it can also feel so good. It’s always worth it and should never scare anyone away from it (it probably doesn’t because we keep doing it).

      • Yea interestingly I saw “Call me by your name ” firstly and then happened to see Blue. If I have to compare between the I guess I would pick Blue as it’s certainly is a masterpiece. I don’t think that I would be able to love a movie so much(before this my favorite movie is Titanic). But the emotions which I had seen in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME especially the end scene when the young guy cries is almost the same throughout in blue in Adele’s regard.
        I am also glad to hear from you that,you share the same ideas which I am having now. This movie is so thoughtful and triggering your thoughts.
        Also I would like to know your post years movie experience. I mean are you still in love with this movie like when you started this blog. How this movie has affected you etc?
        NOTE-I know my above question might scare you as it’s too personal to ask someone publicly on these blogs but I might be able to relate or have an idea of post movie life changing period. If I have the ability to see my future I would definitely want to as to acknowledge what this movie plays a role in my life and how it shapes me for future.

        TIA

        • I mean, there’s always something of a personal experience of writing movie reviews, so I have no shame in addressing your question. It’s important to be experienced before you enter into film criticism and you should use those experiences to tap into empathy for characters onscreen. I do still love ‘Blue is the Warmest Color.’ I often find myself defending it, as many are distracted by the carnal scenes of sex, but that’s part of this multi-dimensional relationship we see on screen. It speaks to the characters’ dynamic, feelings and also shows the importance of sex in filling out a romantic relationship. Sex has become such a trivialized thing and part of it has been the way it’s depicted in movies, which is almost never, especially when you consider Hollywood.

          I stand by this review. It got me lots of praise from other film critics and even got me work on other sites. I am very proud of it and happy that five years later it is still being discovered and referenced. Thank you for writing so thoughtfully about it.

          • So it is still a part hope it will mine be I mean I can say this dialogue from the movie, I will have infinite tenderness for Blue always, my whole life. Some things as so good that you can’t just let them go away. This is one surely. I have never attempted or discussed a movie like this before with anyone or anywhere so this is the first time. I am not emotional person either but you see the kind of emotions it embroiled in me is kinda strange. So finally I am not emotionally full proof 😂.

            About sex really why it’s such a big ordeal. It’s just overrated. To get into someone’s soul or to love someone so purely you have to have intimacy its a way of going deeper into someone’s heart, mind, body and soul. So otherwise how would you expect to make a emotional(emotional binding comes from physical closeness) connection with someone. So as I feel that those so called explicit scenes are a reality of depicting human love bond and therefore are crucial in understanding as to why both were so involved into each other’s life. When you have that level of experience as they both had in terms mean exact meaning of loving someone so truly deeply and madly that it hurts without them. They are in your blood, breathing every breath you take. You just can’t change your blood, can you?

          • “They are in your blood, breathing every breath you take. You just can’t change your blood, can you?” I love this. It’s true.

  4. Lol 😂 I have become a Philosopher, may be some day I would also write something like this who knows. Thanks for feed back. Happy new year 2018 to you.

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