Blue Is the Warmest Color: Feeling Blue

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color arrived in a world seemingly beset by a peculiar amnesia, according to which no director had ever made an art film with sex scenes (certainly not lesbian ones) before, no audience had ever seen one, no critic had ever been tasked with reviewing one. Blue won the Cannes Film Festival’s highest award, the Palme d’Or, in May of 2013, taking the town by storm. Astonishingly, in an unprecedented nod to collaboration at the resolutely auteur-focused event, the jury specified that the prize was to be shared between the director and his two stars, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, without whose intense participation and improvisation the film would not have had its remarkable power and passion. The three shared the stage, the red carpet, the media blitz.

Almost immediately, however, a storm of another sort erupted over two aspects of the film: the duration and shooting style of the sex scenes, on the one hand, and the behind-the-scenes dynamics on the set, on the other. Critiques of the film slammed the authenticity of the lesbian sex, as assessed by some important critics and lesbian commentators, including the author of its source, a graphic novel. Meanwhile, complaints by the actresses and some crew members over directorial demands during production began to surface as well. These disclosures fractured the initial red-carpet alliance and threatened to cast a shadow over the film on the eve of its U.S. release, even as American audiences began to line up around the block for the chance to make up their own minds. But wait. First consider the work.

On-screen, Blue Is the Warmest Color actually plays as a classic European art film, heavily influenced by the new realism of a post-Amélie French cinema yet concerned with the oldest subject around: young love and coming-of-age. Blue’s English-language title comes from the French comic book on which its story is based, Le bleu est une couleur chaude. Kechiche and his screenwriters put flesh on the bones of author Julie Maroh’s lovers. And he expanded the format to an epic: his Blue demands viewers’ attention for a full 179 minutes of measured, deliberative observations of a young woman’s adolescence, erotic awakening, and maturation. That length may well be an intended bulwark against prurience: anyone going for salacious reasons will have to pay—with their time—for the privilege, and possibly exhaust that impulse along the way. At any rate, it’s a beautifully filmed, carefully told, exciting, sprawling, and ultimately emotionally devastating chronicle.

Kechiche came to Blue with considerable success already in hand. Two of his earlier films, Games of Love and Chance (2003) and The Secret of the Grain (2007), had won French cinema’s highest award, the César, for best film, best director, and best screenplay. Notably, both also won the César for most promising actress for their stars, Sara Forestier and Hafsia Herzi (and Yahima Torres, star of his 2010 Black Venus, was nominated for the same award). Clearly, Kechiche is a star maker, adept at spotting and grooming new talent. Seydoux and Exarchopoulos certainly knew this. At the Telluride Film Festival, Seydoux said that she’d wanted to make Blue “because he’s the best director working in France now,” and Exarchopoulos agreed.

Kechiche is a director who pays close attention to how people live, constructing his characters through gestures, social interactions, slang, and, above all, food. If the sex scenes in Blue are graphic, with the full-on abandon of a youthful libido, then so are the meals, shot through with gusto and the close-up, openmouthed enjoyment of flavors and textures; both food and relationships tend to take center stage in his work. Scenes are allowed to unspool slowly, performances played out in close to real time, honed through improvisation and repetition. Nothing is rushed. Perhaps owing to his own Tunisian-French identity, Kechiche has also paid particular attention to French-Arab communities, to the machinations of class, and to the casual multiculturalism that is the hallmark of France’s modernity in the twenty-first century.

It is the explicit sex, of course, that has attracted so much attention to Blue, way beyond what a quiet film about life and love in the provincial city of Lille at a time of economic hardship might normally solicit. While some 90 percent of press attention in the months following Cannes focused on this explicitness, in fact, the five scenes of sex between Emma and Adèle (three with them together in bed, one with Adèle alone, and one with the two in a café, fully clothed) constitute less than 10 percent of the film’s running time. They aren’t at all disproportionate to the time Kechiche lavishes on food, conversation, classroom teaching, or even looking at art. What they are, rather, is charged. Some critics have attacked Kechiche for the crime of voyeurism (so prevalent in movies that it may as well be a birthright). Some reporters have claimed rough treatment of the actresses (again, so prevalent as to come up in nearly every interview I’ve conducted with an actress or director, but always off the record). The sense of panic in so many of these responses seems a sure giveaway: when material is too tough, people look around for an alibi, something more socially acceptable on which to blame their discomfort. Would these charges have been leveled if the subject matter weren’t a lesbian relationship (one, by the way, that doesn’t end with a death the way its comic-book source’s does), if the film were less intense, or if the director weren’t Tunisian in an increasingly xenophobic French society? That’s as impossible to answer as it is responsible to query. We can’t know, but we ought to wonder.

Other critics, however—at the New York Times and the New Yorker, for instance—have praised Blue as an extraordinary work of cinema, describing it as “unforgettable” and “explosive,” as “generous” and “captivating,” as “revelatory” and simply “the best love story of the twenty-first century.” (Indeed, these positive reviews, along with the Cannes award, have created the backlash that fuels the attacks.) And the film fully deserves all the praise. As obsessive as the relationship it traces, Blue succeeds in that way that great films do, by pulling the audience into its own particular gravitational field, by insisting that the viewer make its world her own. The audience learns its contours through camera work and performance, with everyone in close-up and nothing essential withheld. It’s this unity of subject and style that makes the film so transformative: an explosion of desire, lust, seduction, love, and, alas, betrayal, all organically integrated into a discourse on sex and food, art and vocation, passion and love.

However compelling the sex may be for pundits, class is a component that can’t be ignored: the two characters who meet and fall into passion come from different worlds. Emma (Seydoux) is older and wiser, richer and more worldly. She’s an art student and a seasoned lesbian, already a harvester of hearts. She’s confident, rather full of herself, with a supportive family and a sophisticated circle of bobo friends. Adèle (Exarchopoulos) is a high school student and likely still a virgin when she first lays eyes on Emma while crossing the street in a bustling downtown. Adèle occupies a different milieu: working-class or lower-middle-class, with plenty of North African friends, and a determination to become a schoolteacher. When she goes to a demonstration to demand accessible education—what a great scene—all her pals of all colors are there, dancing and shouting behind the row of May ’68 elders with banners held soberly in front.

The conceit of the film is that Adèle cannot deny her feelings: she’s been awakened as if from a slumber by her ferocious desire for Emma. And Emma is drawn to that attention, like a flame to the moth, and is equally smitten. Their story’s fairy-tale nature is underlined early in the film by a scene in Adèle’s high school classroom in which her French literature teacher is expounding on Pierre de Marivaux’s La vie de Marianne. Surely it’s no coincidence that the French title of the film, La vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2, added by Kechiche, echoes the title of this book, as well as that of another film: François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H., about obsessive female heterosexual desire. Here, in this early scene, we listen intently with Adèle as her teacher details the concept of coup de foudre, love at first sight. Cue the narrative arc: Adèle sees Emma, Emma sees Adèle, and pow!

Blue conveys a fabulist quality of time and space suspended by the imagination. It captures the intensity of young love. There’s a sense of a chasm opening under your feet, a felt memory of wanting so desperately to throw yourself into that yawning chasm that no force of gravity or social disapprobation could prevent the plunge. It’s a visceral film. Its long takes and extreme close-ups deny the viewer any distance, while the sheer length and unhurried exposition allow one to become accustomed to its rhythms, to internalize its drama and participate in its unwinding. The shallow depth of field in many scenes contributes to the sense of two lovers alone in the world: when they’re together, the camera closes in and the universe recedes, leaving just this pair. They talk, they walk, and, yes, they have sex—long, loud, raspy-breathed sex. Kechiche treats the bed like a deep-sea dive. Audiences either strap on the oxygen tank and go with it or race to the surface as though sharks were attacking. The camera explores every crevice, as if sexual pleasure could be emotionally transmitted through a visual register. When the scene shifts abruptly from bed to street for the film’s second demonstration, this one a gay-pride march, we practically get the bends—along with a wide-eyed Adèle, in her first “outing” á deux.

In the midst of the brickbats over Kechiche’s depiction of sex between Emma and Adèle, it’s important to realize what a signal accomplishment it nevertheless represents in terms of fusing sexuality with such emotional power. The history of cinema, after all, is strewn with bad sex scenes. Filmmaker Allison Anders once lamented that film schools teach students how to choreograph fights but not sex. In the overdetermined minefield of lesbian sex, the rate of failure is even higher; yet, however low the bar, each attempt to rectify its representation has met with a chorus of criticism from seemingly every direction. That’s true even today in the presumably more enlightened era that has followed the New Queer Cinema of the early 1990s. To say that Blue Is the Warmest Color continues the history of troubled representations would be a massive understatement: the criticisms of its scenes as “not real” are underlined by a poverty of vernacular. What would “real” mean, exactly? The paucity of examples makes debate problematic; in their place, we get heightened rhetoric, edicts issued as absolutes, and a stunning lack of particulars.

In truth, sexuality and the movies have always been a combustible combination. Outrage and delectation are the twin poles of failure, arousal and notoriety the effects. Consider the scandal provoked by Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), for instance. Theaters filled with audiences drawn to see its immediately notorious sex scene between the gorgeous young Maria Schneider and the grotesquely over-the-hill Marlon Brando. Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) came next, upping the stakes by constructing its taboo sex scenes as rendezvous between Charlotte Rampling, playing a former concentration-camp inmate, and Dirk Bogarde, her former guard. Then Nagisa Oshima released In the Realm of the Senses (1976), detailing the obsessive love affair between a servant and her master.

Half a decade into the free-love seventies, these three cinematic scandals were drawing audiences into ever more torrid chambers of sexuality, from anonymous cross-class sex to S and M play to castration. All were made by directors with impeccable art-house credentials, who challenged themselves to expand their work in view of the new parameters that had opened cinema up, allowing provocative investigations into the remaining private, secret, underimagined zones of personal life.

Four decades later, Blue’s exceptionalism carries echoes of those times, for it, too, is a film surfacing at a moment of extreme social tensions and amid breaches in the assumed status quo of long-standing mores. And it is sure to be remembered as one of the trailblazing films of its time. Just as the earlier era’s films were shaped by landmark censorship cases that immediately preceded them, Blue’s destiny is inextricably bound up with the historic moment of Law 2013-404, France’s “marriage for all” act, which extended marital rights to LGBT couples. The law’s passage followed rancorous debates and frightening rallies by right-wing political and religious groups. In the same week that Blue won the Palme d’Or, a violent suicide ruptured the sacred space of Notre Dame Cathedral, with the aim of fomenting resistance to the law.

Kechiche commenced production in early 2012, before the French elected François Hollande as president, and before he and his newly appointed prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and their Socialist majority in the National Assembly announced their intention to legalize gay marriage. But as fate would have it, Blue Is the Warmest Color debuted utterly in synch with a momentous shift in French society, one that happened to align sublimely with its lesbian theme.

The film opened at an equally fraught time in the U.S., with laws changing and social anxieties bursting into full view; the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decisions on U.S. v. Windsor and the Defense of Marriage Act were issued barely a month after the Cannes awards ceremony. So it’s no surprise that Blue has become a lightning rod here too. The force of that moment is still with us as I write this text at the end of 2013 for Criterion’s special valentine: a February 2014 release of Blue. Already the film has been attacked by conservative watchdog groups and slapped with the prohibitive NC-17 rating. Happily, it has also been championed by influential critics and by New York City’s popular IFC Theater, which refused to impose the rating and instead threw its doors open to all “mature” teenagers who wanted to see it.

As the fuss dies down, Blue Is the Warmest Color can take its rightful place among the ranks of outstanding contemporary French, and world, cinema. I very much look forward to the retrospective consideration the film will be given in Criterion’s coming full edition. For Blue’s laserlike focus on the exercise of power through the manipulations of the heart, its careful tracing of the internal combustion of the soul, and its generous reminders of the multicultural world bustling outside the gates of the French haute bourgeoisie are sure to guarantee the film’s importance long after the flames of current disputes have settled into ash.

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