Blue is the Warmest Color – Abdellatif Kechiche and the aching intimacy of love. (Film Review)
I wondered, after reading so many of the criticisms of Blue is the Warmest Color (note: almost all were written by straight people) if there had been any gay directors who have misrepresented straight sex through the ages in film. Gay actors and actresses have certainly played straight lovers in hetro sex scenes, sometimes well, sometimes poorly (sure, out of necessity) but the best director example I could come up with recently was Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, in which the camera stared longingly at Zach Ephron while turning Nicole Kidman into a porn star – no mean feat, given the profound a-sexuality of Ms Kidman – who I happen to like, by the way, but certainly makes straight sex look really really weird. When placed in that context, a three-hour lesbian film with graphic sex scenes that last over nine minutes in one particular case, played by two straight women with prosthetic vaginas on their bodies, written and directed by a straight man who only offends a tenth of the GBLT community can only be considered a rampaging success. Explicit sex scenes have always been controversial, and have always been immediately followed by cries of “this isn’t art” and “This isn’t necessary to the plot”. Even the complaints of the writer of the original graphic novel, the enormously talented Julie Maroh, was mostly annoyed because she had been ignored through filming, ignored in the speeches and heard male sniggering in the audiences when she attended the film. The controversies around Blue is the Warmest Color are a misplaced assault that evoke, despite his apparent disrespect of appropriate working conditions, some sympathies with Abdellatif Kechiche, who is very clearly trying to make something beautiful, when he throws up his arms and says, lets just pull the films off the shelves. However, like so many other films that started with sexual controversy, Blue is the Warmest colour will outlive its squabbles and have a long life that will make the current problems seem quaint in retrospect, when the world finally wakes up and realises lesbian sex is not about straight men.
Blue is the Warmest Color is a gently paced film, beautifully made, exquisitely acted, that chronicles the emotional growth of a young woman, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) as she developes her own emotional self-awareness and the intense relationship she has with another woman, Emma (Léa Seydoux) on this journey. There isn’t much more to claim than that, but despite the apparent thinness of the plot and the length of the film, the cameras slow, patient intimacy with Adèle makes for gripping viewing so that while the bulk of the film lies in the characterisation of Adèle, that characterisation is depicted as it should be, in the many small minor moments of life, that together form a personality and the tremendously normal but devastating occurrences that together form a character.
Time is justified if the film needs to be long, and the only reason a film needs to be long is if it is as short as it can be. If there is any genre that needs an overhaul it is the bildungsroman that has become so repeatedly about a sensitive young man finding his way in the world, that one starts to form the opinion that every male whose name rises above Facebook fame alone is going to need an early days bio pic. Traditionally, the bildungsroman was a phrase formed in 1819, meaning a young man whose goal is maturity, but who can only achieve this with great difficulty or stirring emotional cost, but times have changed, and we’re now interested in the coming-of-age of immigrant kids, females, African kids, Asian kids and GBLT kids. Surely the most interesting and important of all bildungsroman would be that of the trans-gendered person, but we’re yet to see that given a strong main stream three-hour attention, but when it happens (and it will happen) the three-hour length will be wholly justified by the sheer volume of what needs to be said. This is the context in which to see Blue is the Warmest Colour, and it is also the context in which to appreciate the length of the film, which is time-bound politically, in that it is a contemporary love-story the social pulse of which is beating in our very current day. This will not affect the longevity of the film – the brilliant performances see to that – but we will respond to Adèle’s closeting (for example) differently in the future when social transformation renders such tactics unnecessary.
But what Blue is the Warmest Colour really is, is a joyous celebration of intense love, along with all the heartache and desperation that its inevitable parting brings. Every scene is long and lingering, with the key to the success of the film residing in Kechiche’s artistic references via literature, Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne, sculpture and painting, the implication being art as the purest expression of borderless desire. Adèle and Emma, whose first conversation is around Sartre and the existential concept of existence preceding essence, are both lit inside by the passion they share, briefly touching a freedom neighter will be willing to take responsibility for in their day-to-day lives, and we watch in intimacy and desperate sadness the gruelling repetitions of teaching suck the life out of literature and battling gallery owners for the right to make paintings to that do not sell; both these problems subduing a passion that never needed to be stopped. But as the dinners with the young women’s families reveal, it is one thing to choose, and another entirely to take on the battle of defending that choice, a choice that only partially has to do with GBLT politics. It is the reconciling of what drives us to love with the courage to live what we project in that love, and Kechiche beautifully opens up the idea that love is about an expression of our finer selves, presenting something to the sacred other that represents who we wish we were, and perhaps who we really are underneath all the learned mechanisms of retreat.
What is overshadowed by the controversies, the immaculate performances and the stunning relationship the film has to art, is this weird sledge-hammer approach Kechiche sometimes takes in bludgeoning his audiences with his point, the most notable being the use of the colour blue in his film that borders on saturation. It’s not just this element, some of the artistic connections are so heavy-handed they become ridiculous, and while all the hub-bub around the film might justify Kechiche’s disdain for his audience, he’s fortunate in this respect that the hysteria plastered over this film distracts viewers from the weird affectation that sits awkwardly when posited against the sublime subtle character studies. The artistic influences are necessary, and properly extended so that they perform arts natural function in life, but the repetition and multi barreled straight shooting of Kechiche, serves to reveal how little he thinks of his audience’s mind – or perhaps it speaks to a sublimated fear of being misrepresented. In either case, our collective responses to the film have, unfortunately, left him completely justified. This is one of the best films of 2013, and one of the best films you will ever see.