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.
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.
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.
A 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.
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.
When 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.