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Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: Blue Is The Warmest Color

Blue Is The Warmest Color (2013): Written by Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche.  Starring: Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux.  Running Time: 179 minutes.  Based on the graphic novel Blue Angel by Julie Maroh.   

Rating: 3.5/4 

            Having finally seen Blue Is The Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2 in the original French), it’s no longer a wonder to me why the jury at Cannes decided to break with tradition and give its highest award, the Palme d’Or, not just to the director, but also to the two lead actresses.  The level of determined commitment necessary to produce two such performances is beyond my ability to quantify, and watching the two main characters be so vividly brought to life over the movie’s immense running time is a marvel to behold.  And believe or not, I’m not just talking about the movie’s much-lauded, heavily-debated, and frequently-criticized sex scenes.  There is a lot of nakedness in this movie, but only a fraction of it is physical.

            Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a fairly normal French teenager- she goes to school, she studies, she flirts- and as the movie opens, she is just beginning to explore her budding sexuality.  Partially due to constant urging by her friends, she decides to give "regular" sex a shot with a guy from another class, only to feel afterwards that it was nothing special.  Shortly afterwards, she’s spontaneously kissed by a girl from her class, and begins to think she might be a lesbian.  She has a gay friend of hers take her to a few bars, where she stumbles into a blue-haired woman she passed on the street awhile back, named Emma (Léa Seydoux). 

            In a short amount of time- it’s not quite clear how short, the movie makes no effort to keep track of time- they start dating and having very intense sex, and after a few years they are living together.  Adèle is a Kindergarten teacher while Emma pursues her painting in the hopes of being shown in a major exhibit.  This normal, everyday existence starts to inevitably cool their once white-hot passion for each other, leading to a seemingly inevitable separation, which Emma seems to handle far better than Adèle can.   

            I’ll drop my summation of the story there, because that’s really all there is to it- this 3-hour marathon of a film is focused solely on a tale of once-passionate romance slowly fading away.  While there are ten thousand and one other movies that tell the exact same story, what makes Blue so unique, so engrossing, and so very much worth seeing is its determination to show every gritty part of Adèle’s growth (or lack thereof) from a frustrated, lonely teenager to a frustrated, lonely young woman.  And I really do mean every gritty part- her wonder, her happiness, her feelings of attraction and love, her orgasms, her pains and fears, and eventually, her heart-rending agonies- everything is put on full view for us in the audience, and the end result is something wholly, and in my opinion beautifully, unique. 

            Having read through quite a few reviews and commentaries ranging from the overwhelmingly positive to the harshly negative concerning the film’s depiction of a) sex and sexuality in general and b) homosexuality specifically, and having spent the better parts of two weeks trying to figure out what I can add to the debates, I think I fall somewhere in the middle in regards to both those topics and the quality of the film as a whole.  I definitely think it’s one of the year’s better films and is definitely worth watching, but it won’t crack my Top 10 list, mostly because long, slow-burning relationship dramas, no matter how well made (and this one is very well-made) simply aren’t my cup of tea. 

            In regards to the two more controversial aspects of the film, I’ll start by addressing its treatment of sexuality.  Yes, even though it’s a movie about an ostensibly “normal” relationship, both female leads fit right into most conventional definitions of what makes a woman “sexually attractive.”  Yes, they are being filmed by a straight, male director (who, according to the actresses themselves, was an absolute terror to work with).  And yes, the camera lingers for very long periods of time on just about every part of their bodies, sometimes for several minutes at a time.  Given all that, although I personally didn’t find the film to be voyeuristic, pornographic, or sexist in its tone and treatment of the female body, I can definitely understand why those labels and many, many others have been applied to the film by a great many viewers and critics.  I too am a straight man, so it is entirely possible that that fact alone made me less inclined to feel offended said scenes.  

            It has also been noted time and again that, even though this is “supposedly” a lesbian film, no out-of-the-closet lesbian was involved in its production, either on- or off-screen.  This has been the basis of a great many criticisms that the movie is trying to “accurately” show female homosexuality without actually having an understanding of it, thus making it less of a great movie and more of a pretentious, arrogant, arthouse display of the male gaze in action.  I disagree.  Yes, it’s a relationship drama, and the relationship in question happens to be that of a lesbian couple, but there’s nothing else in the movie, be it in the dialogue, the shot composition, or anything else, that tries to reach out and make any sort of statement about homosexuality.  Even Adèle’s identity as a lesbian can easily be called into question- she never openly declares herself to be a lesbian, and even at the end, when we learn about various post-Emma affairs she’s had, we learn that plenty of them were with men, suggesting that her entire relationship with Emma was less of a realization of who she really is, and was instead merely another part of her personal journey, with no indication by the end where said journey will end, or even if it will end.  Which, for me, is ultimately one of the film's greatest strengths.

            So, honestly, I think that discussions about the film’s pedigree as a “lesbian” film are sort of missing the point- it’s not trying to be a film ABOUT homosexuality any more than it tries to be a film about French philosophy.  The only thing it tries to be is a straightforward, undistracted, and brutally unyielding glimpse into a relationship made achingly real by the power of its leads.  And what a glimpse it is.  Whether you end up loving or hating it, and there will be a lot of people in both parties, if you can stomach the running time, this is another must-see for the already-crowded holidays. 

-Noah Franc 

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