Blue is the Warmest Colour
(La vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 et 2)
When a movie about beautiful young French lesbians arrives with “explicit love scenes” as the selling point, goes on to win the Palm D’Or, and is generally gushed over (ahem) by the critical establishment, you’d be forgiven that chins aren’t the only things being stroked. But Blue is the Warmest Colour very nearly lives up to the praise lavished upon it. It comes up short in certain areas, and it’s so very European it’s impossible not to think of Seinfeld’s Rochelle Rochelle at points during the proceedings. Nevertheless, Abdellatif Kechice’s film is enormously affecting and this is mainly down to outstanding performances from Adèle Exarchopoulos (as Adèle) and Léa Seydoux (as Emma).
“A young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk.” I’ve seen it suggested that Seinfeld’s Rochelle Rochelle is based on Emmanuelle, but that film never had the cachet of critically lauded smut; Seinfeld’s joke is you can justify going to see it because it’s art, honestly. In Blue there’s no travelling, although Adèle would like to visit New York. Whether Blue can justify its 180-minute running time is a different matter; during the first half I’d have said absolutely. The (strange, erotic) journey of Adèle as she awakens to a new side of her sexuality carries with it an unhurried tension as she first catches sight of then pursues Emma. The second half misses this somewhat; it’s not just because we’re seeing a reflection of the inevitable souring of a relationship between two very different people, but also because the trajectory is so familiar; there are fewer and fewer fully immersive scenes, and realisation dawns Kechice hasn’t granted us sufficient insight into their relationship.
Perhaps that’s intentional. After all, the film is purpose-built around Adèle and we only see Emma in scenes involving both of them. Perhaps he chooses the moments he does because this is Adèle’s perception of their relationship. Which amounts to canoodling on park benches, making love in heavily choreographed manner and behaving incredibly awkwardly whenever Emma has some friends round. Do we not see their daily lives because Adèle has barely a thought in the world about them? Is that why, when they meet again after three years, her first impulse towards Emma is sexual? Maybe, but its difficult to get a clear train on this.
Either it comes from a director following a clear process or he’s simply got lost in the editing suite. There are a number of conflicting impulses at work, and its difficult to divorce his indulging every opportunity for lingering close-ups of Excarchopoulos’ open-mouthed, bee-stung lips from Emma’s reference to Adèle as her muse (the character and actress share first names, for goodness sake). The notion that this really is borne from high-flung artistic motives is rather undermined by the placement of the camera, ever fixated on Adèle’s arse. And there’s the decision to opt for the rather easy conflict of social/class divide between the two, as it cuts out a lot of heavy-lifting (the scenes where Adèle’s parents talk about a woman’s place belongs in a movie made 40 years or more ago, not one released last year; it’s not as if her parents are that old).
There are other problems too. We don’t feel Adèle has changed in three years, and don’t really feel that three years has passed at all. It’s been suggested the events of Blue encompass up to eight years, and I wouldn’t have known that was the intention; there are subtle methods of relaying the passage of time beyond a helpful subtitle or an elaborate montage, but giving Adèle a pair of glasses isn’t really sufficient. I also had a problem with the transition of time in 12 Years a Slave, so maybe it’s just me. Kechiche doesn’t even seem to care; how many years is it since Adèle last saw the actor she met at Emma’s show? Yet they pick up the conversation as if it were last week.
Nevertheless, Kechiche often applies himself with virtuosity. It’s easy to see why Blue has had such impact beyond the talking point of its sex scenes; we’re pitched headlong into Adèle’s experiences. In the early stages, her woozy, dreamy, subjective state is palpable. Her every encounter hits strongly, whether positive or negative; an unreciprocated advance made at a girl at school, her first sight of Emma, and the search for the object of her desire. The imbalance of their relationship is evident from the first; the unpretentious ingénue and the superior and affected artist. While aspects of Emma’s self-involved Henry Higgins persona work extremely well; the indifference towards what Adèle knows is her career passion, the possibility that she may have begun an affair with Lise (as this is from Adèle’s point of view we cannot be sure, but that’s entirely the point; it’s quite clear why Adèle feels marginalised into cheating on Emma). But the artistic clique’s pseudo-intellectualising comes across as cliché-strewn. But taking Adèle to an art gallery to show her all the painterly and statuesque nudes, and tutoring her in the ways of oysterness are verging on a fromage-fuelled piss-take of the Euro art flick.
It’s certainly ironic that the film becomes less compelling when the two get together, and still less so when they are torn apart. At which point we’re treated to endless scenes of Adèle teaching and moping and looking uncomfortable and bursting into tears (there is a lovely sequence in which she returns to the bench that hols so many memories and waits there disconsolately, before falling asleep on it). The second half’s longueurs are almost entirely justified by the extraordinarily charged scene toward the end where they meet again in an empty café, and Adèle is forced to realise there’s no chance of rekindling what once had been.
There aren’t a lot of giggles in Kechice’s film. Adèle’s guess at “Hairdresser?” for the blue-dyed Emma’s profession is about the extent of it, this side of Kechiche’s pastry-porn. Forget about the love scenes, this director is obsessed with Bolognese. He surely spends more time showing characters shovelling spaghetti into their mouths than he does them getting jiggy. Does Adèle eat all the time because the director adores Exarchopoulos’ pout so? (Actually, yes. Of their first meeting he recalls, “She ordered lemon tart and when I saw the way she ate it I thought, "It's her!””)
I’ll say this; Seydoux and Exarchopoulos richly deserve their Palme d’Or. Kechiche slightly less so. His subjective aesthetic seems to desert him when it comes to the meticulously indulgent sex scenes, and the picture’s time frame is so ungainly Adèle appears to mature barely at all in response to the changes in her life. Is that the intention? If it weren’t for these ellipses, Adèle would feel like a fully envisaged and completely realised creation. Perhaps all will become clear if Chapitres 3 & 4 ever arrive.