photo: Quat’sous Films
For the first time ever this year, the Palme d’Or was awarded to the two leads of Blue is the Warmest Colour as well as the director, who is usually the sole recipient. This is understandable given the immense burden on the two: the emotional intensity of a three hour film which they carry with investment and consistency that is undeniably admirable. Much has been made of the improvisation and use of b-roll footage in the film, considering which it is hard not to feel like Adèle Exarchopoulos (Adèle) and Léa Seydoux (Emma) did most of the hard work involved in producing such a highly-praised piece of cinema. The film’s French title (La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2) gives a better idea of its content than the dreamy English alternative. We follow Adèle so closely from start to finish that it begins to feel almost pervertedly voyeuristic. We begin to be as annoyed by her quirks as we would by a close friend’s.
This film is essentially that classic combination a coming of age story and a love story. For the first hour or so, writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche’s film feels eerily accurate. Wonderfully drawn scenes convey the utter anxiety, self-doubt and constant feeling of unease that can make up so much of our late teen years. Adèle Exarchopoulos seems utterly herself (and often wasn’t acting, it would appear). Her fumbling early engagement with a cool older boy, first confusing kiss with a girl and eventual encounter with Emma all play out utterly naturally and normally. If there’s anything we should praise Kechiche for it is his absolutely matter-of-fact portrayal of a non hetero-normative relationship. That the two leads are girls is almost entirely incidental to their emotional narrative, and their story plays out like any straight couple’s would. This doesn’t mean that the film is naive though – Adèle feels the confusion and embarrassment of admitting her attraction to women, especially in a rather homophobic country like France, in all the ways we might expect her to.
However, after the initial blossom of love and sexual awakening (and that unflinchingly graphic ten-minute sex scene – illuminating, but troubling from a feminist stand-point), the film seems to lose a little of it’s magic. The French title should have been a warning – this could easily have been two films. The long, establishing scenes which earlier seemed meticulous and fascinating begin to drag. The constant presence of Adèle’s gormless face, and it’s infuriating mis-placed strand of hair, begins to seem annoying and tedious. Sometimes it feels as though the viewer is living out the slow demise of the relationship in real-time as it’s third member. There are still some incredible scenes, the big fight in particular, but others start to seem trite. The film is full of rather a lot of heavy-handed allusion and symbolism: much is made of the consumption oysters; two family meals are almost painfully, patronizingly obvious mirrors of each other; Emma’s art moves from Blue to Red just as her hair loses its tint.
Ultimately the film feels just left of perfect, and it’s hard not to feel like so much of its praise has been due to the fact that it explores a lesbian relationship. Perhaps if they had been a straight couple the film wouldn’t seem so spectacular. The reality of the immensely invasive male gaze of the camera also becomes hard to ignore.It all just feels a little too indulgent, and perhaps would have benefited from some stricter editing. Nothing could take away from the strength of the two leads though, who will no doubt leave a lasting impression on any viewer, Léa Seydoux in particular.
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Courting both celebration and controversy upon its debut at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the French Palme d’Or winner was difficult to approach with an entirely open mind. Stories of director Abdellatif Kechiche forcing lead actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux into a gruelling ten-day shoot dedicated to a single (now infamous) sex scene, and denying his stars the luxury of stage fighting when it came to take after take of a crucial slap, somewhat tarnished the viewing experience. When Exarchopoulos bursts into tears after being struck across the face by her lover, we’re not watching her act; we’re watching genuine tears of pain and exhaustion. This isn’t movie magic; it’s emotional porn.
Elsewhere, however, Blue is the Warmest Colour somehow provides both – the explicitness and the enchantment – to far less uncomfortable effect. The film has been almost universally acclaimed for its depiction of falling in and out of love, and it is difficult to think of another film that charts either journey better. This is in part thanks to its epic three-hour running length, an indulgence which allows the growth and deterioration of the central relationship to breathe in some places, and to drag in others. Time is also the issue with the love scene at the centre of the film: the graphic nature of the scene is justified, as it is equal to the brutal emotional honesty elsewhere, but the length of the sequence is not.
Adèle Exarchopoulos features in almost every frame of this protracted drama, playing a character of the same name (the French title translates as The Life of Adèle, Chapters 1 and 2) and she gives a mesmerisingly uninhibited performance from start to finish. That said, her default expression of moody gormlessness becomes rather wearing after the first hour and a half. More exciting to watch is Seydoux as the older, out-and-proud art student Emma. With a blue crop the same shade as her eyes and a talent for glancing at other characters in a sidelong way that is both seductive and disarming, it is not difficult, whatever your orientation, to believe that confused, fifteen-year-old Adèle would fall in love at first sight with this androgynous beauty.
The relationship that follows their first fateful encounter is as much about class as it is about sexuality, and is much more universal than it is specific to either of these themes. Nothing much happens, and yet everything does. Kechiche loses one star out of five for his subtle voyeurism, indulgent running-time and underhand directorial techniques, but none for his and his lead actresses’ depiction of love as intense, pure, erotic, cataclysmic and fragile. In short: love as every shade of blue.