You make me stare, when I should not
Are you so strong or is all the weakness in me?The Weakness in Me by Joan Armatrading
We all love a good love story. Sadness and happiness, tears and laughter, fear and hope – all thrown together is what makes a love story work. Hollywood developed the formula in films such as City Lights (1931), It Happened One Night (1934) and Casablanca (1942), and many other Western countries borrowed that formula over time. In France, they tend to do things a bit differently. From Poetic Realism to the French Nouvelle Vague to Cinema du Look, French cinema has always pushed the envelope in terms of ideas. And those ideas have commonly lived in the genres of romance and drama. Liberal depictions of sexuality, portrayals of strong women in leading roles, and an encompassing sense of allure are notable in many French films. For example, in the 1939 tragic romantic masterpiece by Marcel Carné, Le jour se lève, there is a scene where one of the main characters (played by Arletty) washes herself in the shower, while a man (Jean Gabin) enters the room. The nude scene is not established with any shock or reverence, it just is. At this period in cinema, nudity would have been highly censored anywhere else in the world. But in France? Ça va.
Fast forward to 2013, and it is not surprising that an explicit arthouse film about lesbian and bi-sexuality would enter the mainstream in France. Blue Is the Warmest Colour came with a whirlwind of controversy after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year. If it was made in the US, no doubt the controversy would be around how a film about ‘gay people’ could be released in the first place. But this is France and thankfully that didn’t matter. The controversies centred around accusations of bullying by the director Abdellatif Kechiche, and the dreadful conditions that the cast and crew were forced to work under. The pornographic sex scenes were also hotly debated, but more on that later. At the end of the day, Blue Is the Warmest Colour is an extraordinary film and possibly one of the greatest achievements in all cinema from the past decade. It charts the life of a French teenager as she grows into her 20s, experiencing love, sexual awakening, freedom and heartbreak (the French title is La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2).
The film is based on a graphic novel by Jul Maroh, which must be mentioned because the two main characters are her creations and they are what drives the film’s magic. The film mostly follows the source material, but like always, it changes some pivotal parts (including the ending). Maroh approved most of the film calling it a masterstroke, but like a lot of people she struggled to understand the sex scenes (again, more on that later). I don’t think the film would have succeeded as a masterstroke if it had not been for the casting of Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. Both, but in particular Exarchopoulos in the lead role as Adèle, are so believably committed to their characters that you cannot escape a vivid, intimate connection to them. You live with Adèle as she ponders and navigates the simultaneously beautiful and cruel world around her, and you go through every raw emotion with her. Both had acted in films before this, but this indeed was their heralding to the world as major artists. It is no surprise that Cannes took the uncommon step of honouring both women at the same time as bestowing the Palme d’Or on the film. Surprisingly, Exarchopoulos has not starred in any major films since (more domestic French films), but Seydoux on the other hand has featured prominently in big blockbusters such as the last two Bond movies.
The story of the film revolves around Adèle’s exploration of her own sexuality and the passionate relationship that she forms with a blue-haired woman called Emma (Seydoux) after meeting her at a lesbian bar. Up to that point, Adèle had been struggling with her sexual identity while in her senior years at a Parisian high school. She had a sexual encounter with another boy but feels dissatisfied and then pursues a girl she fancies but her advances are dismissed. At first she befriends Emma because Emma stands up for her, but when she is ostracised by her friends for showing lesbian tendencies, she grows more and more closer to Emma, and a very passionate affair begins. The moment Adèle falls deeply in love with Emma is a beautiful moment in the film – they sit on the grass and Adèle cannot take her eyes off her before they kiss each other. Its a moment that establishes Adèle’s breakthrough in her quest for real, tangible happiness, and we as the viewer are gripped by it.
This scene occurs half way through the film, which all-up is 3 hours long, and what follows is less a lens on sexuality but more a lens on social and class structures (a common theme throughout French arthouse cinema). Adèle’s parents are not very wealthy, have conservative tendencies, and are oblivious to her sexuality, and this prompts Adèle to seek a world free from their burden. On the other hand, Emma has a very close relationship with her upper middle class parents, who are in fact liberal and encouraging towards their daughter’s sexuality. The wedge that drives Adèle and Emma apart is the fact that their respective social circles simply cannot be compatible – Adèle becomes a school teacher and hangs out with lesser well-off people, while Emma is an artist with deeply snobby friends and a edge towards more open relationships. In the end, they separate out of jealousy and suspicion, but as similarly shown in Happy Together from Part 3 of this series, the couple can never rid themselves of each other’s love such is its power. A scene where they meet some years after breaking up confirms this, and you would likely be Pinocchio before he became a real boy if you are unable to shed a tear at this scene’s conclusion.
As I have said, it is an extraordinary film – three hours flow by without you noticing and you wander through Adèle’s life (I think maybe 7 years) wanting to continue to be a part of it. Her maturity as the film progresses is notable and a tribute to Exarchopoulos’ acting. The exploration of one’s sexuality is a key aspect of the film, but half way through it does threaten to overwhelm the picture – a couple of eye-opening and bizarrely graphic sex sequences between Adèle and Emma, one ten minutes long, mark this point in the film. As Jul Maroh, the author of the graphic novel, expressed, the scenes are straight-up pornography and they are also extremely ridiculous. What is the point of extending the scenes beyond maybe a minute or two, if they are just demonstrating the intimate relationship now in full swing between the two women? I think, if anything, they point to a director who has a penchant for the provocative and the perverse (and probably has a future in the porn industry). The revelations about Kechiche’s horrible treatment of the two lead actors, who specifically referenced the sex scenes in their accusations, are deeply troubling, and it is no surprise that he has struggled to make many films since. As a side note, he has made a couple of movies since, and again these films focused on young people’s sexuality, contained obsessive images of female nudity and he was once again accused of awful behaviour towards the actors when filming sex scenes.
Unfortunately, the director’s part in this film does taint its masterpiece status a lot. But there is no doubt that other forces beyond this clearly creepy man (joining a long list of creepy male directors before him) combined to make Blue is the Warmest Colour the wonderful film that it is. In addition to the strong lead performances (Exarchopoulos and Seydoux make this film their own), cinematographer Sofian El Fani brings a impactful series of bright colouring to the film and utilises the colour blue throughout to symbolise the theme of love and passion. As mentioned, Jul Maroh’s graphic novel is also a stunning original work with strong LGBT themes and a bittersweet tenderness. It deserves the quiet praise that was heaped upon it before and after the film reached the heights of world acclaim. It is a powerful story of love between people: how it starts, how it flourishes, and how it unravels. Read the book, watch the film. You will gasp and marvel.