BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (La Vie d'Adèle, Chapitres 1 et 2) B
France Belgium Spain (179 mi) 2013 d: Abdellatif Kechiche
France Belgium Spain (179 mi) 2013 d: Abdellatif Kechiche
I am a woman. I tell my story. —La Vie de Marianne, Pierre de Marivaux, 1727
This film is drawing praise for being the first gay/lesbian themed film to win the Cannes Palme d’Or, while also in an unprecedented move for Cannes, the prize was given not only to the film’s director, Abdellatif Kechiche, but also to each of the two leading actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, which makes the actresses the only women besides Jane Campion to have won the festival’s top award. Now having seen the film, this feels like a very French thing to do, as the award seems more deserved for bravery, two women performing frequent unsimulated sex scenes together in a film directed under the gaze of a male director, which couldn’t have been easy, considering the marathon-like physical endurance needed as well as the variety of geometric positions required. This same type of gesture could equally have been made to the two leading male actors in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By the Lake (L'inconnu du lac), which features unsimulated sex between two male actors. In each case, it’s the sex that draws all the attention to the films, but the overriding question has to be is there more? In Guiraudie’s case, he’s crafted an exquisite murder mystery that explores with utter detachment the eroticism inherent in dangerous situations. In Kechiche’s film, it’s more an exploration about the curiosity of first love, always projected through the prism of inexperienced youth, tracking a young woman’s life from 15 through her 20’s, prefaced by a high school classroom discussion about an 18th century novel, Pierre de Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne, a book about fate and the tragic influence of love, where Adèle is a reincarnation of Marianne, paralleling the French title of the film, which is La Vie d'Adèle, Chapitres 1 et 2, suggesting it’s an incomplete work, just like Marivaux’s unfinished novel. Of interest, Marivaux also wrote the play Jeu de l'amour et du hasard (1730), upon which Kechiche’s second film, GAMES OF LOVE AND CHANCE (2003), is based, the first film to bring him international attention.
If there is a problem with this film it is in the undeveloped nature of the source material, Julie Maroh’s 2010 graphic novel Le Bleu est une Couleur Chaude, which is largely a comic book romance that shows two women in the throes of a love affair, complete with naked sketches, but never draws out either character. Kechiche’s unflinching realism throughout all his films is perhaps his greatest asset, as is his flair for naturalistic dialogue, especially evident in the opening segments of THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN (2007), where food and a close-knit Arabic family come together in a brilliantly composed kitchen sequence expressed through rapid fire dialogue that is both witty and humorous. He never matches that level of intensity here, but instead initiates a camera technique (by Sofian El Fani) that is immediately controversial, as the subject is a developing lesbian love affair, but the style used is extreme close ups throughout, where the camera creates the effect of male eyes leering at these young women. The camera’s interest is Adèle (Exarchopoulos), who we follow throughout the entire film, constantly focusing upon her face, where she is an oversensitive 16-year old with an interest in literature when we first meet her. At the urging of her friends, she is driven into the arms of Thomas (Jérémie Lahuerte, her real-life boyfriend), an attractive boy a year older, and they have sex, but she quickly dumps him. At least early on, the camera lingers in Adèle’s school classrooms, hallways, cafeteria, and entranceway where students gather, where the classroom discussions are typically dour, where there’s no attempt to generate any interest or enthusiasm, and much of the discussion is quickly lost in transit, but the interplay between the students outdoors is animated and highly theatrical.
When Adèle meets another schoolgirl who offers her first lesbian kiss, the girl pulls away the next day and claims it was just a joke. Shortly afterwards she meets the blue-haired Emma (Seydoux, who is intentionally unprettified for this film, made to look less feminine), an older college student studying fine arts, who initially caught her eye walking down the street with another woman, a moment that stayed in her head. When she goes out for a drink with a male gay friend, Adèle searches for her and wanders a bit until she finds herself in a lesbian bar, where she’s easily the youngest thing there, hit upon like sharks attracted to rare meat until Emma scoops her up and rescues her, meeting the next day after school, drawing the attention of all her friends. While they take a walk in the nearby parks, they discuss art and existentialism, suggesting Sartre helped define Emma’s new sense of liberation when she came out, where she’s easily the freer and more relaxed of the two, while Adèle can’t take her eyes off her. When her friends angrily provoke her at school the next day for being seen with another woman, spreading ugly rumors, she defends herself, but is already caught up in a rush of exhilaration, seen with Emma again the next day visiting female nudes in an art gallery, which leads to an extended lovemaking scene. While many contend this is the best scene in the film due to the raw and graphic nature, but it contains too many abrupt edits and lacks the natural fluidity of the rest of the film, where the moans and groans meant to convey intensity sound more like a professional women’s tennis match, growing more predictable after awhile. In America, the movie has earned an NC-17 rating and been effectively banned in Idaho, while in France, anyone older than 12 can see it, causing the biggest opening of any French feature this year.
While the intent to unclothe two beautiful young women is clearly meant to arouse sexual interest in the audience, and the immediate effect is startling, but the grab-ass physical intensity and continued slaps to the buttocks were almost certainly instructions given by the director. Since Cannes (where both actresses were seen kissing and mugging the director on the awards podium), both have indicated they refuse to ever work with this director again, complaining that Kechiche’s mode of working was abusive, how it took 10 grueling days to shoot the longest sex scene, and that he demanded take after take of difficult sequences, including the sex scenes, asking Seydoux to do things that made her feel like “a prostitute,” claiming “his manners are very tough.” During a fight scene, he asked them to actually hit each other, and then continued to shoot even after Exarchopoulos cut herself on a glass door. In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote at Cannes that “the movie feels far more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else … [He seems] unaware or maybe just uninterested in the tough questions about the representation of the female body that feminists have engaged for decades … He’s as bad as the male character who prattles on about ‘mystical’ female orgasms and art without evident awareness of the barriers female artists faced or why those barriers might help explain the kind of art, including centuries of writhing female nudes, that was produced.” Much as critics may claim otherwise, the sex scenes are exploitive and gratuitous, as they become the raison d’être of the film, becoming the sole expression of their developing love, as the real deficiency of the film is the surprisingly weak character development. In a three-hour film, you’d think that would be the centerpiece, but it’s the sex scenes, as there’s very little we actually learn about either one. Other than the fight at the school and another one that ends their affair, there are very few explosive moments of theatrical exhilaration. Much of the film is spent attempting to establish a rhythm in ordinary moments, following Adèle wherever she goes, and despite several tearful moments that are certainly not pleasant to watch, we still know very little about this woman, as she remains largely expressionless and undefined. “I have an infinite tenderness for you,” Emma tells her as she says goodbye, leaving a gaping hole where her heart used to be, allowing a certain amount of time to pass, for life to go on, but in the end, there’s simply nothing like first love.