‘Blue Is The Warmest Color’ is now playing at Chicago’s Landmark Century Cinemas, the AMC River East Cinemas, and Evanston’s Century 12 / CinéArts 6.
“Look, there’s only one question. ‘What is this really like?’ Never mind the conventions and the decisions we've all made together—and never mind, in fact, the script. What is it really like when this happens, when somebody seduces someone, when somebody kills someone, when somebody loses someone? What is it really like?” – Mike Nichols, interviewed by James Lipton on ‘Inside The Actor’s Studio.’
Blue Is The Warmest Color (La Vie D’Adèle: Chapitres 1 & 2) is going to be a tough film for American audiences – it’s a three-hour-long foreign film with subtitles, which cuts a surprisingly large swath of potential viewers out of the running almost immediately. And it’s receiving a lot of not-necessarily-constructive attention for the explicitness of its love scenes. But viewers who are uncowed by the length and the language, and are not only going to see just how hot the sex is, are going to find perhaps the most ferociously intimate and passionate movie on this side of Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris.
The film is all about Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and follows roughly a decade of her young life. We start with her ‘high school’ self; her first explorations of what girls her age allegedly should be doing (dating and screwing hot guys, then reporting the details to her girlfriends), as opposed to what her emotions are outrightly informing her to act on (she’s far more attracted to Béatrice [Alma Jodorowsky], a comely female classmate, than to her potential new boyfriend Thomas [Jérémie Laheurte]). Her class studies parallel her dilemma – Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne evokes love at first sight, and the psychological tug that emotional attraction wields in spite of practicality or convention, while Sophocles’ Antigone presents her with a model of a girl forced to make an adult decision that her youth has not necessarily prepared her for (with profound but inevitably tragic consequences). While crossing the street one day, she spies Emma (Léa Seydoux) walking arm-in-arm with her current girlfriend – Emma has short-cropped dyed-blue hair, a wry and toothy grin and an androgynous physical swagger - and Adèle’s heart and body literally lose their balance. (The great Stephanie Zacharek describes Emma as “a tropical bird crossed with the Artful Dodger.”) From self-consciously contrived intimacy with Thomas, to the emotional urgency of ingratiating herself with Béatrice, to this bolt from the blue (no pun intended), a huge wellspring of need and desire opens beneath Adèle’s young heart.
They, of course, eventually connect; most obviously in those steamy sex scenes, but also, more to the point, in genuine emotional and practical commitment to each other, forming a partnership that is both surprisingly conventional and individually daunting for each of them. There’s a pretty quick delineation of who the Supporter and the Supportee is here – Adèle tends the domestic side of the household while Emma, an up-and-coming painter, works to promote her art among her peers and purveyors. Adèle prepares all of the food for a reception for Emma, yet Emma chides her for not remembering who Egon Schiele is (“We talked about him!”). Adèle is clearly out of her depth amongst Emma’s upper-class intellectual acquaintances, but is well-liked by them for her candor, and they respect her ‘function’ as Emma’s muse. Adèle is pursuing her teaching credentials – she loves education and wants to teach small children - but Emma tends to be somewhat dismissive of Adèle’s modest aspirations, all but suggesting that she should be writing instead.
Emma’s preoccupations (with both her work and the rekindling of an old friendship with the earth-mother-y Lise [Mona Walravens]), and Adèle’s increasing sense of isolation, lead Adèle to understandably step out a little bit – but Emma, at the first whiff of potential betrayal, explodes with fury at Adèle’s indiscretions, and abruptly exiles Adèle from her life. If there’s a more gasp-inducing, heartbreaking sequence in recent film history than Emma’s rejection of Adèle, I sure can’t think of it. “What is it really like… when somebody loses someone...?” It’s like this.
It’s in this sequence, and the scenes that follow it, where Exarchopoulos convinced me of how good she really is, and, seemingly effortlessly, had been throughout. It’s a career-making performance. If there’s any justice, Adèle Exarchopoulos will never want for acting work ever again (and she’ll turn 20 in a few weeks!) (But, for the love of God, Adèle, stay in France! With too few exceptions to note, L.A. won’t have the slightest idea how to make the best of your talents. And, despite the successes of Marion Cotillard, Jean Dujardin, and Spielberg’s blessing at Cannes, I suspect the Oscars won’t go anywhere near this film – a nomination or two, perhaps, as lip service, but that’ll be it. It’s not eligible for Best Foreign Film because it didn’t open in France before September 1st - Cannes doesn't count.)
Seydoux’s performance tends to recede in the face of Exarchopoulos’ more dynamic character arc, but she does brilliant work here as well. Emma is who she is, and remains who she is throughout the film, even as we grow to resent her self-involvement and apparent hypocrisies; there are diminishing returns on Emma's likability throughout the last portions of the film. Seydoux makes big, deliberate decisions about Emma’s demeanor and attitudes, and then underplays a lot of it to open up space for Exarchopoulos. It’s both an self-assertive, and generous, performance.
The film is directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, a clearly talented French-Tunisian filmmaker who has already given us 2007’s The Secret Of The Grain (La Graine Et Le Mulet) and 2010’s Black Venus (Vénus Noire). Kechiche tends to make films that many view as longer than they need to be – when it’s an in-depth study of family dynamics, as in The Secret Of The Grain, one tends to appreciate the details that linger long enough to notice, and the extra-narrative human rhythms that don’t overtly move the story along. In Black Venus, these long, slow, deliberate sequences magnify our horror, and empathy, regarding the treatment of his protagonist, Sarah Baartman, who, historically, was known as the ‘Hottentot Venus’ in the early 1800s, and exhibited as an anthropological side-show under increasingly exploitative circumstances. In our film today, much has been made of Kechiche’s almost exclusive use of Steadicam medium close-ups, and how that choice (arguably) emphasizes the persistence of male objectification, or misplaced idealization, of intimate female experiences and behavior. I respect those who find this to be a detriment, but some of it, I think, is just a consequence of the use of Steadicam at all. No one complained about Benoit Jacquot’s almost identical visual strategy in last year’s Farewell, My Queen (also starring Seydoux, so she’s used to it), and there are countless defenders of Paul Greengrass’ liberal use of this in all of his films. I think it’s the intimacy and candor of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux’s performances that instill Kechiche’s (and cinematographer Sofian El Fani’s) visual narrative with all of that other baggage, not the shooting style in-and-of itself.
I found Blue Is The Warmest Color to be an irresistibly involving and profoundly moving examination of how people, consciously or serendipitously, or even obliviously, negotiate the forces of strong personal emotions like love, desire, or fear of abandonment, within a culture that isn’t stopping for anyone to recover their bearings. You either trust your heart or you don’t. You believe in yourself or you don’t. And those two statements have surprisingly little objective effect on whether you end up secure and happy, or adrift and wounded. The film is ultimately about a kind of personal courage, and Adèle is one of the most courageous film characters I’ve run across in quite a few years. I implore you to not cheat yourself of the opportunity to meet her.