Blue is the Warmest Color Not a Masterpiece but More than a Sex Film

Blue is the Warmest Color: La Vie d’Adèle  (2013)
Directed by Adbellatif Kechiche
Sundance Classics, 179 mins. NC-17 (graphic sex)
In French (English subtitles)
* * * ½

The color blue is associated with valor, harmony, faithfulness, and confidence. It also signifies sadness and depression, Blue is the Warmest Color has very few of the first qualities, but quite a few of the latter.

Anyone who has heard of this film knows that it has generated controversy on several levels. First, it’s the first adapted graphic novel to ever win France’s coveted Palme d’Or, which it carried off at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Second, it’s based on a very graphic graphic novel. Here in the Land of Bible Readers Who Can’t Mind Their Own Damn Business (USA), any movie with nudity and people actually making love generates backlash. Add to the mix that genitalia (prosthetics, allegedly) are shown and that the people making love are two women, and hell hath no fury like a Puritan seeking to stamp out sexual pleasure.

You’ll probably have to find an independent cinema in a liberal town to see this one as, to be frank, the only way sex gets more vivid than what’s on the screen is if you’re actually having sex while in the theater. There is a seven-minute all-parts-bared, no-holds-barred scene between the film’s lead actresses that leaves very little to the imagination. This of course, has led to charges that the project is simply well scripted pornography–mostly leveled by those who’ve not seen it.

The basic plot is quite simple: boy meet girl, who meets girl and dumps boy. Girl eventually loses girl and spends a lot of time trying (and largely failing) to get over the loss. But it’s more than this. The film centers on Adèle (the radiant Adèle Exarchopoulos), a high school junior coming of age, confused about her sexuality, and  encouraged by her girl posse to bed down with a handsome senior guy who has been eyeing her. She does so even though she’s been having erotic dreams over a blue-haired woman she’s seen on the street. Adèle’s attempt to “go straight” does not go well. Not at all like what happens when she meets blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux), who turns out to be a fourth-year art school student and painter. To say that they have hot sex and that Adèle is into Emma’s body is a bit like saying that gourmands like food–a strangely appropriate analogy!

Blue is the Warmest Color is about way more than sex. Among the unstated, but clearly centered questions in the film is: What do you do when you meet the girl of your dreams and she turns out to be wildly inappropriate for you in just about every way except physically? Adèle and Emma are a gorgeous couple, but Adèle is immature, awkward, a dilettante, and spontaneous; Emma is cerebral, has been around the proverbial block, focused, and has a business plan for promoting her work. Moreover, Adèle, who longs to teach young children, is voracious in everything that interests her. When Adèle eats, cooks, reads French literature, dances, teaches, or has sex, she is laser-like in focus and a free-range animal in spirit. She also knows of no other artist than Picasso, a bit of an obstacle for Emma, who admires Egon Schiele and poses Adèle as Schiele might. And Adèle knows she’s way out of her depth when Emma’s art school friends are around and the conversation turns to anything other than food or the novels she likes. Among Adèle’s problems is that she simply can’t get her mind around things that don’t move her. Another is that she retains the spontaneity-bordering-on-recklessness that is part of the makeup of people of her age group (17-21).

Adèle grows into young adulthood and becomes a teacher, but does she yet know who she is? She has known deep heartache, but can she cope and does she have the capacity to move on? She has mastered joy, but can she navigate melancholia?

This is a very good film, though by no means a masterpiece. Kudos go to Exarchopoulos and Seydoux for bold performances that lay bare both body and soul. The buzz is that neither woman is a lesbian off-screen. If that’s true, a whole bunch of listless, unconvincing cold fish Hollywood lovers need to take passion lessons from these two. Among the possible problems, though, is that Kechiche’s voyeuristic direction invites critiques of the male gaze. I’d be tempted to give him a pass on that one, but not the film’s length. I generally appreciate the unhurried pacing of French cinema, but all complex stories elide time and a director must ultimately decide what to cut. Blue could lose almost an hour with little effort whatsoever. When we see Adèle eat spaghetti once, we know she loves it; we don’t need to see that scene repeated. Nor do we need to see her doing African dances with her pupils more than once. How long must the camera dwell on a tear-drenched face and runny nose before the audience knows the person is sad? When does an awkward moment become a drawn-out boring one? And, in the film’s last quarter, how long must we watch someone too depressed to do much before we realize she’s stuck? Blue is the Warmest Color is best when the heat is turned up; once the flames go down, it’s a bit like a sparse two-verse Delta blues song dragged out by an overlong guitar solo. --Rob Weir

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