The Colour of Love?

Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle: chapitres 1 et 2)
(France, 179 min.)
Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche, Writ. Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix
Starring: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux
Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Color.
Blue is the warmest colour, but this sensuous love epic is one hot film. Blue is the Warmest Color is certainly a top commodity after its sensational run at major film festivals, which began with a unanimous coup of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The Cannes Prize elicited just as much buzz amongst art-house aficionados as did the controversial sex scenes that made headlines earlier in the festival. The crux of Blue’s Palme win is that the Cannes jury, headed by Steven Spielberg, confidently gave the prize to the film’s two stars, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, in addition to director Abdellatif Kechiche. Cannes, the penultimate auteur film festival, thus trumped the boldness of the racy French flick that was the festival’s own thunder. Spielberg et al gave the right verdict, though, for the casting is the heart of Blue of the Warmest Color. The performances by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are stirring revelations.

Exarchopoulos stars as in the title role of Adèle. Adèle, a fifteen-year-old and a junior in high school, is at a turning point on the road to adulthood. She’s going out with a boy from school (Jérémie Laheurte) and trying the things that many kids do at her age. However, a passing glance from a blue-haired beauty in the street (Seydoux) hits Adèle with a jolt she’s never felt before. It might be love at first sight or the rumblings of a sexual awakening, although neither one is mutually exclusive in this provocative coming-of-age tale.

The glance between Adèle  and Emma—a beautifully choreographed swoon of a shot—comes as no surprise given the fine bit of foreshadowing that alludes to it before. Adèle, an avid reader and smart pupil in literature, studies Marivaux’s La vie de Marianne in class. The teacher refers to the inevitability of tragedy, and the lesson’s allusions to love and loss seem to strike the spunky Adèle with special force.

One cannot overlook the prominence of Marivaux in Adèle’s sexual awakening. Director Abdellatif Kechiche seems to have an affinity for the author, as his 2003 film Games of Love and Chance (L’esquive) enjoys a ripe meta-theatricality by using Marivaux’s drama as a setting for students in a banlieue making a play of their social situation. (Games truly is a must-see for any fans of Blue is the Warmest Color and/or quality films in general.) Kechiche plays with language in Games of Love and Chance by toppling the witty marivaudage of the author and replacing it with cuss-laden vernacular à la “The Wire” that lets the kids enact the play in their own language. Kechiche similarly unfolds Blue is the Warmest Color with ultra-literary consciousness. Like the unfinished book Adèle reads, Blue feels like a film awaiting new chapters. The film’s original title, after all, is La vie d’ Adèle: chapitres 1 & 2.
Blue is the Warmest Color develops with a enchanting oblivion to place and time as the film eschews virtually any token with which one can situate the film. It’s a timeless and transcendental tale. The universality of Blue is the Warmest Color is especially remarkable since the only thing explicit in the dramatization of the relationship of Adèle and Emma is the physicality of their romance. The actresses boldly jump into a series of extensive hardcore love scenes that reveal the arc of their relationship. The first coupling is a moment of discovery: Adèle fumbles awkwardly before finding herself within her deep connection to Emma.

The sex of Blue is the Warmest Color is as bold as sex in the movies can be. The intensity of the the sex scenes of Blue offers lengthy interludes of extreme passion. (When Adèle and Emma look back on their relationship, it’s the hunger of their physical attraction that they remember most.) The blunt physicality of the scenes might be too much for some viewers—Sunday’s screening featured a healthy peppering of giggles—but Kechiche pushes the actresses beyond risqué territory as they do anything and everything to convey the girls enrapt in the all-consuming power of love. It might be the frankest depiction of lesbian love to hit the cinemas with such force, but it’s a love like any other.

Oddly enough, Blue is the Warmest Color feels at its most gratuitous and graphic in the moments that Kechiche zooms in on Adèle’s mouth with an icky and fetishistic eye. The camera loves Adèle’s mouth. It’s weirdly disgusting how much of the film trains its attention on the girl’s disorderly lips. Adèle loves to eat and she always chews with her mouth open: the scenes of her slurping away on plateful upon plateful of spaghetti are almost as gross as the close-up of the actress mashing away on a gyro during Adèle’s first date with Thomas. Kechiche also throws in a random moment of voyeurism as the audience watches Adèle sleep—she’s a mouth breather, naturally—and the camera locks on her gaping lips. Viewers might ask what the director aims to say with these unappetizing images. Perhaps they’re a visual equivalent to the appetite she satisfies with Emma.

The food, however, gives Blue is the Warmest Color one of its most satisfying motifs. Kechiche centres much of the film’s dynamics around food as Adèle and Emma come together. A sense of joie de vivre simmers in the communal servings of Adèle’s pasta Bolognese, prepared especially for Emma in celebration of her work. Similarly, a dinner date that introduces Adèle to Emma’s family, which goes much better than the humiliating date that introduces Emma to Adèle’s family, sees Emma teach Adèle the pleasure in shucking oysters. The tasty bivalves, Emma teases, have the same texture as another acquired delicacy. The spirited oyster-shucking scene highlights Adèle’s innocence and naïveté: the young girl has much to learn from the experienced Emma. Tom Jones has found an LGBT contemporary in this sensuous romance.
Kechiche saturates Blue is the Warmest Color with rich symbolism to accentuate Adèle’s maturation. Adapting the graphic novel by Julie Maroh, it’s only fitting that the film has such a strong visual sense. Virtually every composition in the film is drenched in the colour of Emma’s sky blue hair. Adèle’s infatuation with Emma floods her surroundings. This first love defines Adèle, and a rift between the two girls evokes the tragic drowning alluded to in the un-demarcated first chapter. The passion that fuels Adèle is that of the depths of The Deep Blue Sea.

The visual power of the film is needfully refreshing, for Blue is the Warmest Color is a mass of contradictions. As Adèle struggles with her fidelity to Emma—after all, she's just a young woman—Blue clouds Adèle's perception of her own identity as she wonders whethter she gay or not. Blue then presents a male counterpart as a potential love interest and teases that the man offers a potential solution to Adèle's dilemma. (The film thankfully leaves Adèle's arc of self-discovery open for a new turn in Chapter 3.) She also hides her sexuality from her peers once she becomes a teacher (Kechiche really has a thing for the teacher-student relationship) and the film turns its back on the love it seemed to celebrate in the first half. Similarly, the film omits any reference to Adèle's life when it moves into its second chapter. (The sections of the movie are not signalled, but they're easily felt.) Blue never lets the audience know whether Adèle became an outcast for coming out and proclaiming her love for Emma.

The passion of Adèle, however, fuels every frame of Blue is the Warmest Color as Exarchopoulos dives full throttle into this complex character. This performance is astonishing. Exarchopoulos smartly makes Adèle a product of youth. Too many films romanticize a tragic heroine wiser beyond her years, but Exarchopoulos’s perceptible innocence allows Blue is the Warmest Color to take the audience to extraordinary places as Adèle discovers the pleasures—and, more deeply, the pains—of first love. Her physical delivery of Adèle’s vulnerability is a jaw-dropping geyser of tears, runny snot, and raw heartfelt emotion. Seydoux (whom viewers might remember as Owen Wilson’s contemporary love interest in Midnight in Paris) plays the teacher to Adèle’s childlike student. Fiery and exotic, Seydoux straddles the difficult role of playing an open book with an air of mystery.

Blue is the Warmest Color would be an altogether different experience if the chemistry between the actresses was even the slightest bit off target. The chatter surrounding the physical barriers that the two actresses break are sure to bring attention to Blue is the Warmest Color, but the emotional boundaries that they move together deserve all the praise. Blue is the Warmest Color is a ravishing, albeit exhausting, odyssey into the throws of young love

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Blue is the Warmest Color screened at The ByTowne October 22 as the closing night selection of the Inside Out Film Festival.
It has a theatrical run in Ottawa at The ByTowne November 15-24.