Courting controversy all the way from Cannes, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Colour puts the graphic back into graphic novel.
High Art by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Like Picasso, Adèle – the hero of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Colour, has her own blue period – her first-time, same-sex relationship with painter Emma. It’s a period that persists for the first two chapters of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel La Vie d’Adèle on which Kechiche’s film is loosely based – from love in a budding grove to remembrance of things past. And, it appears, Abdellatif Kechiche has his sights on a Proustian epic, charting in this three-hour epic only the first two chapters in the life of Adèle – from playground love to regretful and single primary school teacher. And while there are narrative time lapses which disrupt the steady flow of Adèle’s story, Blue Is The Warmest Colour also reaches an emotional depth of startling honesty. As graphic in its depiction of love as sex, Abdellatif Kechiche’s controversial Blue Is The Warmest Colour is setting the world on fire.
Episode 1. Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is in her penultimate year of high school. She studies French, reads Marivaux and embarks on a bloodless romance with final-year student Thomas. But catching a glimpse of art student Emma (Léa Seydoux) – a lesbian with dyed blue hair – on the streets of Lille, she immediately falls in love. Breaking up with Thomas, she goes to a gay bar with friend Valentin, which she ducks out of to cruise Emma in a near-by lesbian bar. They see each other after school, and Emma draws her on a park bench before they finally give in to their desires and have sex. Episode 2. Some time later and with new coiffes, Adèle is working as a primary school teacher while Emma is on the verge of making it as a painter. Emma flirts with well-connected Lise, and Adèle, jealous and feeling alone, has sex with a colleague from school. And while for Adèle it’s a meaningless fling, for Emma it’s a deception that puts an end to their passionate affair. And from which there’s no way back.
This year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes and the first queer film ever to take the prize, Blue Is The Warmest Colour is an unusually frank look at homosexual love. Its story of lesbian love in Lille feels slightly misplaced in the hands of straight, male director Abdellatif Kechiche, and its graphic, protracted sex scenes even lay him open to the charge of exploiting his actresses (which both Seydoux and Exarchopoulos have done). But for the Franco-Tunisian director of Couscous, La Vie d’Adèle is an expression of freedom and tolerance – of French youth as much as the veiled hopes of the Arab Spring. And as an intense expression of love, with its carnal intimacies and emotional excesses, it’s a feral freedom to be, want and screw whoever you want.
Not that there aren’t limits and repercussions to this freedom. And there’s a suggestion that Emma is only playing the affronted lover, perhaps herself unfaithful with fellow painter and heavily pregnant Lise, eyeing the main chance of a vernissage at Lise’s friend’s gallery, as she seizes on Adèle’s infidelity to break their love in two. But Adèle’s motives for infidelity are equally unclear, childishly opening her legs seemingly out of sheer boredom and neglect. Admittedly, Kechiche doesn’t put the hard graft into Adèle’s coming out or her relationship with Emma, instead breaking their relationship apart into its beginning and end – love’s glorious first throes and the bitter regret of faithlessness. It may seem at times like unsupported histrionics, but the acting is superb – both Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux utterly fantastic in their roles as sensuous lovers and teary-eyed Amazons. And this is love in close-up, voraciously devoured – breathy, sweaty and snotty. Life and love in all their carnal pleasures, moist lip-smacking and sucking caresses. Its sex scenes are long, almost indecently so, but mythbusting – not the delicate and tender lovemaking the silver screen is used to, but passionate, multi-positioned and real with awkward jiggling and embarrassing bum-slapping. Only the lighting’s a little porno.
Beyond its pornographic (and exploitative) sex scenes, there are literary and artistic allusions throughout Blue Is The Warmest Colour as writers and painters collide in a convincing adolescence of borrowed ideas, from Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne, and Egon Schiele to Sartre and even Madame Bovary with its namesake Emma. But Abdellatif Kechiche’s film is most seriously damaged by its temporal blows – the elision of the years between one chapter and the next undermining the emotional integrity of the second episode, uninterested in Adèle’s coming out, their day-to-day relationship, or why Adèle’s inclined to be unfaithful. But as its cumbersome ideas give way to emotion, Blue Is The Warmest Colour is a hot, passionate, intense and earthy portrait of love in a hopeless place.
Blue Is The Warmest Colour is released on 22nd November 2013 in the UK