Film Review: Blue Is the Warmest Color
Is a coming-of-age film a work of art or indulgence?
Published: November 6, 2013
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
Opens at the Charles Theatre Nov. 8
You may be tempted to see the Palme d’Or-winning Blue Is the Warmest Color after hearing about the extensive sex scenes: lengthy takes of two gorgeous French actresses writhing in bed, entangled, their bodies completely bare. The longest of these scenes runs seven minutes and borders on softcore porn. From first kiss to climax, we watch blue-haired Emma (Lea Seydoux) and baby-faced Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) pleasure each other with their fingers and tongues. The buzz of their physical chemistry is palpable.
So if titillation is what you’re after, you will find it here. You will also find, however, in more-than-equal measure, tight shots of Adele’s face in the schoolyard, in the classroom, at dinnertime, at the bar, shots that often seem to carry little weight or meaning. Perhaps these close-ups illustrate the propensity for the navel-gazing that occurs in adolescence; the movie does sprawl out like a lackadaisical teenager, stretching to three hours. Silent close-up after silent close-up of Adele—fidgeting with her hair, spacing out—break up sequences with dialogue and drama.
But there’s no need for this much luxuriating. The plot, pared down by director Abdellatif Kechiche from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Le bleu est une couleur chaude, goes awry in its third act. The film boils itself down to a glorified breakup movie. And one starts to suspect that Kechiche’s game here is less about adolescence or identity so much as it is about indulging an infatuation with Exarchopoulos, whom he discovered. (Kechiche altered the French title of the film to La vie d’Adele shortly before its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.) That’s not to dismiss Blue’s sex scenes as mere pornography. They do convey some essential, relatable emotions.
In the beginning we watch young Adele pal around with a gaggle of girls who encourage her to hook up with a male admirer, an older boy at school; when they start dating, it’s clear his interests don’t align with Adele’s affinity for French lit or much else. The sex, like their connection, is equally lackluster. She’s obviously going through the motions. Nineteen-year-old Exarchopoulos’ portrayal of a superficially stimulated but sincerely disinterested teenage lover seems effortless.
When pixieish Emma appears, the vacant look in Adele’s eyes dissipates, supplanted by genuine desire and curiosity. A Beaux-Arts student with a girlfriend, Emma discourses on philosophy and artists with ease. For Adele, she’s a revelation—different than her vapid high school friends or her simple-minded male suitor. In an early scene, in a literature class, Adele’s classmates read aloud from Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne. “My heart was missing something, but it did not know what it was,” one boy reads. For Adele, Emma is it.
Seydoux’s Emma exudes confidence. While Adele dithers about her sexuality when confronted by high school friends and tells her parents Emma is a philosophy tutor, Emma parades Adele around to her artist friends and her sophisticated family. When she introduces Adele to her parents, Emma’s stepfather serves oysters—something the otherwise always-ravenous Adele is averse to. Emma brushes past this, seizing the opportunity to “initiate her.” She tells Adele to douse the oyster meat with lemon juice. “And usually, if it’s really good and fresh, it moves.” Adele cringes at first but starts enthusiastically sucking down the bivalves; the metaphor at work here isn’t terribly subtle.
Emma ushers Adele into a new world. She’s a devastating first love, in many ways. And while Exarchopoulos, Seydoux, and Kechiche succeed in depicting this, we needn’t suffer the endless close-ups of Adele looking listless when the inevitable split comes about. The world around her is literally fuzzed out. As Adele longs for Emma, we long for a full shot—and some more action.
While Kechiche establishes a basis for a richer movie, he squanders the plot’s potential. Adele waffles about her sexuality; it’s acknowledged but never examined. Her father, midway through the movie, tells Emma (unaware that she’s his daughter’s girlfriend) that she should marry a wealthy man to support her painting “hobby,” then asks her what her boyfriend does; we never hear from Adele’s parents after this scene. When Adele and Emma first get together, Emma has a girlfriend; the other woman vanishes from the film. Threads have been woven into Blue’s story to add texture, and when they’re suddenly severed, it’s noticeable.
The rapid passage of time (with no indication other than Emma’s evolving hairstyle) is disorienting at first, and it muddles our ability to truly get a sense of Adele and Emma’s relationship. When Emma nudges Adele to aspire to more than teaching children, it’s unclear if Adele is still in school or if she has a degree—to assess whether she’s being encouraging to a student girlfriend or pushy toward her longtime lover.
And it seems as if Adele doesn’t mature, not just because her pouting lips and chubby cheeks bear no signs of age, but because she fails to get a handle on her identity over several years. She’s content to live in Emma’s glow but uneasy about her sexuality in front of her own social circle. She gains no confidence.
One mark of a good relationship is spurring one’s partner to grow, to be better. Ultimately, Adele remains stagnant, even while she’s transfixed by Emma. When she finally does assert herself, she bases her actions on sex, in turn making the relationship—and the film—very much about sex. And just as it’s not worth it to waste years on a one-dimensional relationship, it’s not worth it to waste three hours on a one-note movie.
> Email Jenn Ladd