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Saturday, January 2, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Starring: Adele Exarchopolous, Lea Seydoux
Country: France/Belgium/Spain

From the moment it first screened in Cannes in 2013, where it would go on to win the Palme d’Or, Blue is the Warmest Color was so embroiled in controversy that it was difficult to separate those issues – at first it was the length and explicitness of the sex scenes which dominated the conversation; later it was the very public feud that developed between director Abdellatif Kechiche and star Lea Seydoux – from the actual film itself. Seen now, when passions have cooled and the controversy has faded away, it’s easier to see through those extraneous things to what was always there if you looked closely enough: a masterwork that is so raw it can sometimes be difficult to watch. Blue is the Warmest Color is a work of intense, spellbinding emotional honesty, a film that is messy around the edges just as life itself gets messier the longer it goes on, and which is built around one of the greatest performances of the last decade. It’s the kind of film that comes along only once in a great while and which maintains its impact even after multiple viewings.

Though the narrative isn’t very definitive in terms of the passage of time that it’s dealing with, it spans several years in the life of its protagonist, Adele (Adele Exarchopolous), beginning with her at the age of 15 and ending with her in her mid-20s, as she struggles to discover herself, negotiate peer relationships, and navigate the emotionally fraught territory of her first, and perhaps definitive, love. That first love is Emma (Lea Seydoux), an older art student who leaves her dumbstruck when she first spots her on the other side of a crosswalk. At that time Adele is in a relationship with a boy from school, a relationship that leaves her unsatisfied and confused as to why she’s unsatisfied, and her encounter with Emma is fleeting, two ships passing by chance. It’s only some time later, and after Adele has had what appears to be a revelation after being kissed by a female friend, that she and Emma meet again and become friends and then lovers.

Years pass. Emma is pursuing a professional career as an artist, struggling to break through and make her mark, Adele is working as a primary school teacher, and the two are living together. Although still deeply in love, the relationship has begun to buckle beneath the weight of the differences between their respective experiences and desires. The class differences that were present at the beginning of their relationship have only become more deeply ingrained with time and Adele’s working class ambitions are at odds with Emma’s desire to be an artist in a relationship with another artist. Moreover, Emma is frustrated by the fact that Adele remains closeted, and Adele is jealous of Emma’s friendship with Lise (Mona Walravens), an artist with whom she embarks on a project which begins to take up all of her time. Lonely and isolated and feeling entirely out of place in Emma’s circle of artistically-inclined friends, Adele gives in to a destructive impulse which will bring her relationship with Emma to a swift and brutal end. Years later, and still in love, Adele continues to hold out hope that they can return to the way things were - if only she can get Emma to see her.

Blue is the Warmest Color tells a story that revels in the ordinary, one might even argue banal, details of day-to-day life. It builds its rhythm by regularly checking in on Adele while she’s sleeping, while she’s eating, when she’s running for buses, and allowing the time in between to be filled with random interactions between her and friends, family, and Emma, allowing each kind of interaction to show a different side to Adele and demonstrate what she reveals of herself consistently and what she hides about herself depending on the company. Kechiche is keenly interested in the little nuances of how Adele lives her life, how she’s affected by her understanding of her sexuality, how her relationship with Emma at once frees and confines her, and in particular how nebulous her sense of self is as she emerges from adolescence into adulthood. While sex plays a key role in the story, and is depicted quite graphically at various points throughout the film, Kachiche’s use of sex is a lot less sensationalistic than it might at first appear. Considered in isolation, these scenes seem to exist merely to titillate and push the envelope; considered within the larger context of the film as a whole, they exist to show the depth and intensity of feeling between Adele and Emma and to chart how that insatiable need for each other seems to have dissipated (on Emma’s side, at least) over time. Blue is the Warmest Color is a story about love, but it isn’t necessarily a love story. It’s about how a young and intense love can cool as both parties grow up and grow in different directions, and how two people from different worlds can come together but still remain living in their separate worlds all along. It aims to show its protagonist, and its central relationship, with as much complexity as possible and though it is deeply felt, it is never sentimental and never romanticizes its characters or the relationship.

In the lead role, Exarchopolous, who was amazingly only 18 at the time of filming, delivers the performance of a lifetime, one which is so unaffected and emotionally naked that it is stunning. For much of the film, Adele is like an open wound, her thoughts and feelings playing across her face and announcing themselves through her body language, her sexuality expressed literally in scenes where she has physical contact with Emma and others, and figuratively in the way the film foregrounds food. Food is inextricably linked to Adele’s sexuality throughout the story, from the comfort foods she keeps under her bed and indulges in as she struggles to understand her sexual dissatisfaction with her boyfriend, to the oysters she has the first time she meets Emma’s parents and likes despite earlier protests that she hates seafood, to the spaghetti dish that she makes for a party for Emma, the same dish they have the first time Emma meets Adele’s parents and Adele passes Emma off as her tutor. The story is very much about what Adele hungers for and how she feeds herself – literally, sexually, emotionally, and intellectually. Though the narrative is sort of free flowing, Adele is nevertheless always driving it, and Exarchopolous carries the film, her vulnerability and uncertainty perfectly matching the cool confidence of Seydoux’s Emma. The two performances are so note perfect that it’s impossible to imagine any other actors in the roles, just as it’s impossible to imagine the story in the hands of any other director. Messy as it might be, on screen and off, Blue is the Warmest Color is a rich and affecting film that is so engrossing that you never feel the three hours of its running time. It’s an epic work told on an intimate scale, a masterpiece through and through.


Dell said...

A masterpiece indeed. Interesting point about the food. How it plays into things never occurred to me, but thinking backbon it, you are absolutely right. It is present and prominent in many of the film's most important scenes. Thanks for clueing me in on yet another layer. The only minor contention I have with you, very minor, is that Fabulous review of a fabulous film.

Dell said...

I hit thw wrong thing on my stupid phone. What I was trying to say was the only part where I disagree with you is that I never found it tough to watch. I was so enthralled with it, I breezed through the whole thing.

Norma Desmond said...

There are a couple of scenes (the break up, the scene where they meet again in the cafe) that I always find hard to watch - not because they aren't good, just because the emotions are so raw and the way Kechiche films it is so intimate that it feels like trespassing on private moments between two actual people, rather than watching scenes in a film.