Its reputation precedes it. It won the Palme d’Or. Everyone involved with the production (stars, director) keep giving interviews where they talk about what a horrible experience it was, and everyone throws everyone else under the bus. Implosion! Stop talking! Stop it! It already attracted publicity because of the explicit sex scenes, the fact that it was a male director (Abdellatif Kechiche) helming a lesbian story (landmines abound), and also the fact that the author of the graphic novel on which the film is based wrote an essay criticizing the film. Wow, it sounds like everyone had a SUPER fun time making the movie! It’s all been pretty entertaining, actually, and all of this has gone down in a very public manner, and seeped into my consciousness before I even saw the film. I went into it trying to set aside all of this bullshit (because really, it is bull shit) so that I could actually view it for myself and make up my own damn mind.
Blue is the Warmest Color is emotional, intellectual, sexual, with a blend of way-too-obvious symbolism (enough with the blue color everywhere, stop it) and casual natural behavior not usually seen onscreen. You know, closeups of a lead actress chewing a hamburger, with crumbs on her chin, and sauce on the side of her mouth. You just don’t see stuff like that in mainstream films, and maybe some people would say, “Thank goodness” but I found it refreshing. Beautiful, actually. There’s a lot of sex in the film, for sure, and I found the sex scenes to be the least interesting/original thing about it. You know, whatever: People have sex. Men, women, this part goes here, this feels good, this is what people do. Kama Sutra notwithstanding, there aren’t 5,000,000 things that people do in bed. We all do pretty much the same stuff, and it’s a big deal only because our culture is weird about sex, both exhibitionistic and prudish. Two women falling in love and having tons of sex doesn’t seem all that revelatory to me. It is what people do. Although, to be fair, women having sex with one another is often used in exploitive ways, used to titillate a male audience. But that is not what is going on in Blue is the Warmest Color.
This is not a portrait of a relationship. This is an encyclopedia entry on a relationship. It delves into the everyday rhythms of love, the minute changes and shifts in perception, the way love heats up and cools off, thethings that come up that seem minor, the things you don’t recognize as red flags, and then explode into something huge, an unpassable abyss. And it is on that encyclopedic exhaustive level that the film really really works.
What seems pedestrian is the thing that binds us all. When we fall in love, it’s not the sex so much, not initially. It’s the feeling of being drawn to another human being’s mind, the way they talk, their interests, their pet peeves, their sense of humor. This is often the element of falling in love that films miss, which has always seemed strange to me. It’s the most interesting part about love. And when a film captures that – the everyday and yet magical (in the true sense of the word) sense of actually getting inside the experience of another human being, and finding yourself captivated, challenged, turned on – it’s like trapping lightning in a bottle.
By the end of the film, I was wrung dry. I have been there. I’m straight, but no matter: I have been there. I have gone through that. I know that.
Our protagonist, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopolous) is a high school student who lives with her parents. She is studying literature. She is an only child. She loves books, takes literature personally, finds lessons and meanings for her own life in all of her assignments. We learn later she wants to be a teacher, preferably of nursery school age kids. This may come as a surprise, but then it makes total sense once we see her actually doing that job, some years later. She loves it, she’s good at it. Being around little kids, helping them grow, learn, open their minds, is a perfect employment for someone like Adèle. It fits. Adèle is beautiful, in a fresh-faced unconscious way, her hair piled into a messy ponytail, racing for the bus. Her friends are all boy crazy, and Adèle just doesn’t seem to be interested, although she does go on a date with a boy from school. He is into music, she is into literature, and they talk about those things, as they wolf down subway sandwiches at an outdoor cafe. I keep harping on the eating, but there’s a lot of eating in the film. Adèle’s appetite is voracious, and she has no sense that she should try to be more delicate or picking at her salad while on a date with a boy. She’s too much herself for that. (All of this is implied, it’s not really in the script.) She ends up breaking this boy’s heart. She just can’t seem to get interested in him, although she likes him. Their breakup scene, on a bench outside, is painful. He can’t believe it. He thought they got along so well. What happened? Adèle doesn’t know. All of this takes up the first hour of the film. The film demands that you submit to its pace, to its concerns and interests.
Meanwhile, one day, hurrying to school across a crowded intersection, she catches a glimpse of a blue-haired older girl (Léa Seydoux), walking across the street, her arm around another girl. Something about this blue-haired angel, with the fox-like face and intelligent eyes, stops Adèle in her tracks. Later, Adèle sees her again, in a lesbian bar Adèle finds herself in, while going out with some school friends. This time the two talk. The blue-haired girl’s name is Emma. She is in college, studying to be an artist. The two talk. They don’t talk about much, but it’s a perfect representation of a first meeting, something both will look back on with awe and wonder: How did we go so far from that first conversation? Adèle is young, but not particularly naive. She may not have life experience, but being a voracious reader is a substitute for experience. I loved that aspect of the film, as a big reader myself. It understands that literature can be a full-immersion experience, giving you glimpses into a world outside your own. It can prepare you for life.
But nothing can prepare you, not really, for the full impact of first love, which is what Blue is the Warmest Color dissects, examines from every angle, pulls back, zooms in. What a treat!
The two girls’ first conversation takes place on a park bench, drowning in golden sunset light. There is sexual tension, but Adèle doesn’t quite recognize it as such, not at first. What they talk about is themselves, their interests, what they are working on. Emma is a painter and illustrator, with an interest in Sartre and the existentialists. The two discuss literature, with a seriousness that was soothing to witness, as a book-lover. So often book-lovers are portrayed in films as snobby elitists, or – worse – it’s never referenced at all. In my life, when I have gone to a man’s apartment for the first time, the first thing I am drawn to are his bookshelves. What does he read? What does he like? And why? My books have helped shape me, and the same is true for others. It’s fascinating. It’s HOW I have fallen in love, often. Maybe it’s assumed by film-makers that this won’t be relevant to most audiences, but it’s relevant to ME, and often I’ve watched films thinking, “Have any of these people ever read a BOOK? God. Do they have any interests outside themselves?”
Blue is the Warmest Color is the story of a relationship between two women who have intense interests outside themselves. They care about things. Things that have nothing to do with their sexuality, their romance, their own small lives. They talk about books, they talk about art, they talk about food and music and history and politics. Scene after scene after scene unfolds, as the young women grow closer, find one another, grasp onto one another, and hold on tight. Love is there. Something has been unleashed. It is certainly Adèle’s first sexual experience that has any meaning for her, and you get the sense that Emma has never fallen in love. Until now. There is a kindness in the film, a gentleness, in direct contrast with the slapping-grinding-rough passion of their lovemaking. Emma is out to her parents, and she invites Adèle to have supper there. Adèle is not accustomed to being out, she’s not sure what that means, but it’s relaxing to be able to be introduced as “my new girlfriend” and not have to feel weird about it. Emma’s parents are French intellectuals and foodies, and it’s a whole new world for Adèle, whose background is more modest. When Adèle says she wants to be a teacher, preferably in a preschool, you can see that Emma’s parents are a bit taken aback. But they’re not assholes about it. However, that’s a red flag, something that will come up much later in the film, when Emma seems to think Adèle should have more ambition, to do something with her writing, to try to get published, to WANT more. Adèle is baffled. She writes, yes, but only in a diary. She has no desire to be a famous writer. She wants to teach kids. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Scenes unfold at a leisurely pace. Behavior is noted, captured, lingered on. Every glance, emotional shift, thought is there, for us to think about, wonder about. What will be the downfall? These women are tight with one another. Their relationship lasts a couple of years. They move in together. Adèle is busy at the preschool, and we see her walking the kids through the alphabet, teaching them dances for a public performance, reading out loud to them. We see Emma’s reputation as an illustrator start to take off. She graduates from her art program, and Adèle throws a party for Emma in their backyard. She is busy cooking, and pouring champagne, making sure the guests are happy. Adèle is a natural homemaker, there’s no other way to put it. The film is subtle in suggesting this, but it’s there: Emma is the stereotypical male, out in the world, creating a career, making contacts. Adèle keeps the home fires burning. These are portrayed as the natural roles that these two women inhabit, it comes naturally, Adèle is happy to cook and clean and keep the guests happy. But Emma, watching her bustling around, has other concerns about it. Why doesn’t her girlfriend believe in herself more, why doesn’t she try to do something with her writing? Shouldn’t she be more … interesting? She’s so interesting in private, why does she hide that when hanging out with artistic people?
But we see it from Adèle’s point of view. She’s not an artist. She doesn’t want to be one. Stop pressuring me to be more, to be different, it makes me feel bad about myself. Emma’s friends are not assholes, either. Nobody is an asshole here. They love Adèle, they love her cooking, and they love that she has made their good friend Emma so happy. There are in-depth snapshots of some of these people, one of Emma’s friends who is pregnant, and a guy who is an actor (he and Adèle have a lovely and interesting scene together, a chit-chat-at-a-party scene that totally captures what it feels like to meet someone new, to try to make conversation, to be friendly and open.) He doesn’t seem to judge Adèle as “lesser” because she spends all of her time playing hippity-hop with four-year-olds. He sees her as a person. In another film, a more cynical film, Adèle would have had sex with actor-guy in the party bathroom, because after all that pussy she misses some cock! (Hi there, The Kids Are All Right!) And while infidelity does come up in the relationship, it comes from the same place that most infidelity comes from: an underlying sense of boredom and restlessness, as you settle down into monogamy. Adèle senses that Emma is somewhat uninterested in what she does for work. Emma thinks Adèle could do better for herself, challenge herself, go out on a limb. Emma presents this as “I just want you to be happy” but you do get the sense that Emma may be concerned that her FRIENDS don’t think Adèle is good enough for her. This is never said explicitly, but it’s there, and Adèle feels it.
And there’s nothing more toxic for a relationship than that attitude.
Over the course of the film, Emma’s blue hair starts to slowly return to its natural blonde, a sign that the magic is slowly dissipating.
The breakup, when it comes, is a masterpiece of acting. It goes down the way breakups go down in life, but in a way we rarely see in film. It is jagged, painful, horrifying. They cling to one another like drowning women, so frightened that even though they love each other so much, they are both going DOWN. Things are said that cannot be unsaid. They have crossed a line. The pain, on both sides, of having to let the relationship go, is excruciating. Both actresses are superb. Seriously. Hats off. The film, delicate and plodding as it is, interested in every nuance, every shade of Love, has done its work, so when the couple starts to fall apart, it’s devastating for us out there in the audience. We’ve spent so much time with these women. We love both of them. This breakup is going to be rough.
So I understand that there was a lot of backstage drama, and I understand that the actresses hated the director (and it sounds like for pretty good reasons), and I get that the director feels betrayed and embarrassed and pissed off. I’ve read all the stories.
Ultimately, they are irrelevant.
These three artists have created something that vibrates with what feels like, what looks like, what IS real life. It is a tremendous accomplishment.