Director of Photography:
Sofian El Fani
Running time: 175 minutes
Original title: La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2
There is nothing subtle about Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour. The main character, Adèle, spends most of the film in tears, always desperately clinging to an ideal that is based on very little except naïve lust, and even though at first she is successful, her constant bouts of waterworks never endear her to the audience, who in a three-hour film certainly need more to hold on to.
This winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, centred on the relationship between a high-school girl, Adèle, and a slightly older student at the Academy of Fine Arts with blue hair, Emma, may have been pushing the envelope in France at a time when the issue of same-sex marriage was at its most polarising. But even if you didn’t know the film was directed by a man, it is very obvious from the presentation of the material that he finds the world of lesbians (and women, in general) rather peculiar, and it is a terrible shame that the mere instance of women kissing becomes something of a focal point for the camera, pretending that it is somehow unusual.
The clearest example of this approach is the eventful evening when Adèle meets Emma, as she first goes with her best friend to a gay bar — and in another moment of “revelation” we see him kissing another man, indicating that (yes!) he is gay — and then strolls around the corner to a lesbian bar, where every second couple is making out in a seemingly orgiastic atmosphere that leaves little to the imagination and suggests that any man or woman hanging out in a gay bar will likely spend most of their time making out with random strangers. This is an incredibly simplistic depiction and may very well support many people’s view that homosexuality is the “other”, as these bars seem to have very little in common with your average “straight” bar. It is not just the background that is teeming with loose-lipped lesbians, but the camera makes a concerted effort to swing around from one couple to the other, its breath taken away by every new make-out session it notices.
This meeting between the two girls is like the realisation of a fantasy: Kechiche, who will eventually present a sex scene in almost its full duration, making sure to show close-ups of genitals being licked and sphincters being penetrated, and later on show Adèle taking a shower for no narrative reason whatsoever, visibly enjoys having all these women make out onscreen. There is little tension, unlike what Adèle must be feeling (this is her first time hooking up with someone who is a complete stranger), and therefore we don’t experience the event through her eyes, which is another shame. But this meeting is also the realisation of Adèle’s fantasy, who had actually noticed Emma on the street once and masturbated very loudly thinking of her one night at home.
“Chapters 1 & 2” in the title can refer to any number of things, as the film covers a lot of time in an unconventional way. There are no fade-outs or dissolves, only cuts, and therefore our usual expectation that time changes are signalled more visibly is not met by Kechiche. The most likely conclusion we can draw is that there was life before and life after Emma. From the outset, we can see that Adèle is not exactly confused about her sexuality. She keeps it a secret, she makes up convoluted excuses when confronted by her circle of friends, and she doesn’t even tell her best friend, Valentin, who is gay, that she likes girls, but she openly stares at Emma when she sees her on the street for the first time. But when Adèle kisses another girl from her class, she becomes so hysterically happy and needy, it’s embarrassing to watch, and we fear the same would eventually be true if she ever met Emma — and it happens exactly as we expect.
Kechiche has to be given credit from the scenes in high school, however. As he showed in his marvellous Games of Love and Chance (L’Esquive), he likes the French author Pierre de Marivaux (also discussed here at length), and he knows how to direct teenagers to come across as passionate and extremely engaging. The first hour of Blue is the Warmest Colour has some of the best scenes, including the expected outrage from Adèle’s friends who confront her about her spending time with such the blue-haired Emma who they say looks like a boy. Verbal combat in Kechiche’s films is one of his finest skills as a director.
But the constant skips in time, sometimes a few months, sometimes a few years, does great damage to the development of Adèle’s character, not only because she seems to develop very little, but also because scenes that are required have simply been omitted. The scene of Emma at Adèle’s parents’ house underscores Adèle’s secrecy about her sexuality towards her own parents (in contrast with an earlier scene at the house of Emma’s very accepting parents), and yet Adèle has no “coming out”, which is truly regrettable and makes us wonder whether she ever tells them. As their only child, this silence and lack of communication leaves a very bad taste in the mouth.
The English title, which actually comes from the French title of the graphic novel by Julie Maroh that the film is based on, Le Bleu est une couleur chaude, is made visible in most of the scenes in the film, as they usually contain a blue object, more often than not a piece of clothing. In the French flag, blue is the colour of freedom, but whether or not Adèle ever finds the same kind of freedom Emma clearly has is an open question that the film refuses to answer. As far as we can tell, Adèle remains a desperate, lachrymose mess up until the end.
Not worthy of the hype it has received as a result of its award at Cannes and the much talked-about graphic scenes between actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, Blue is the Warmest Colour is flawed because it is made by someone who is more interested in titillating the audience and himself than in telling the compelling story of a woman on the verge, pushed there by her own needs and a refusal to share her life with anyone except Emma, someone who, most significantly, is comfortable in her skin. Were it not for the all-too-rare instance of verbal warfare, handled with aplomb by Kechiche, this may very well have been a completely forgettable film.