Blue Is the Warmest Color
Directed by: Abdellatif Kechiche
Written by: Abdellatif Kechiche & Ghalia Lacroix (screenplay), Julie Maroh (graphic novel)
Starring: Adèle Exachopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Salim Kechiouche and Benjamin Siksou
A three-hour epic of writhing limbs and ferocious love, Blue Is the Warmest Color is without a doubt one of the most unforgettable and complicated movie-going experiences of year. The performances are so raw, the young actresses so vulnerable in their portrayal of this intense relationship, that it nearly transcends some of its director’s problematic depictions of them.
Abdellatif Kechiche’s film deeply impressed this year’s Steven Spielberg-led Cannes jury, taking home the Palme d’Or but also sparking intense debate. Julie Maroh, the writer of the graphic novel, said that while watching the sex scenes it became clear to her that there were no lesbians on the set. She connected the way Kechiche shot those scenes to a later conversation in the film, where a man at a dinner party discusses how sacred and mystical the female orgasm is.
That man is an onscreen stand-in for Kechiche, who is obviously enthralled with every aspect of his leading lady, Adèle (Adèle Exachopoulos). To say that the movie is told from her point of view, you would have to ignore the shots examining her sleeping body or centered on her ass. However, saying that Kechiche is exploiting Exachopoulos and her co-star, Léa Seydoux, is a grave overstatement that also misses a larger, more important point.
Blue Is the Warmest Color is a lesbian love story, but also the story of a woman attempting to find community. In the early scenes, Adèle has sex with a boy from her high school, dumps him and then gradually starts realizing her sexual preference for women. The shots of her isolated and uncomfortable at gay bars are heartbreaking, and add a poignant level of specificity to her character. When harshly confronted by classmates about going to that bar, she erupts.
Once she connects with Emma (Seydoux), though, she finds a community of one. So much so, in fact, that nearly every other character in the movie seems to melt away. Most of the time when the two interact with other people, it’s at dinner parties or meals with their parents. At first, Adèle is characterized through the way she eats as Kehiche’s relentless close-ups show her chomping spaghetti and scarfing down a candy bar from a stash underneath her bed.
She has an obvious appetite, and comes across as a purely carnal being at times. That becomes even clearer once the movie reaches its now-infamous 10-minute sex scene. Kechiche abruptly cuts from a tender conversation in a park to that eruption of sexual discovery. It stands in direct contrast with a scene in 2010’s The Kids Are All Right, where the Julianne Moore character explains that she and her wife watch gay-man porn to see sexual desire externalized.
That movie was directed by a lesbian about a very specific middle-aged, suburban experience. Though it descended into melodrama, it never stopped quietly insisting on the normalcy and humanity of its characters. Adèle and Emma, despite being played by an extraordinary pair of actresses, feel somewhat inauthentic. It’s not that they have ferocious, passionate sex. It’s that they wander around a gallery of nude sculptures and paintings, all done from a male point of view, and say nothing. They also say little during the discussion about the sacred, mystical female orgasm.
Some may view that scene as a sort of commentary that explicitly points out something the rest of the movie attempts to disprove. But in this sprawling, decade-spanning film, Adèle remains an endlessly hungry, unattainable enigma.
In her attempt to explain the problems with this film, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote:
In truth, it isn’t sex per se that makes “Blue Is the Warmest Color” problematic; it’s the patriarchal anxieties about sex, female appetite and maternity that leach into its sights and sounds and the way it frames, with scrutinizing closeness, the female body. In the logic of the movie, Adèle’s body is a mystery that needs solving and, for a brief while, it seems as if Emma will help solve it.
There is no doubt in my mind that the movie’s quality suffers because of Kechiche’s insistence on mystifying his protagonist. He is an undeniably compassionate and masterful director, here, though. The handheld camerawork dances in such a close proximity to Exachopoulos and Seydoux’s astonishingly powerful performances that it’s impossible not to be moved by their story, much of which is etched on their faces as they smile, cry, shout and, yes, orgasm.
The gut-wrenching break-up scene between the two women cements Adèle’s reputation as a loner, and adds a shade of sadness to all of the joy that preceded it. In those two-and-a-half hours before this scene, her and Emma explored each other in every way imaginable, and then she ruined it by hooking up with a man. She will forever hover between two sexual worlds and ultimately belong to neither.