Young love is a difficult mine field to navigate. Many first loves are the preludes to first betrayals. Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) understands this and tells the story of such a first love, one that, like many, is intense, complicated and overwrought, which is how Kechiche presents it.
It follows Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and I mean follows—a great majority of the shots are close-ups of her face. She is a high-school student who becomes sexually aware and realizes an attraction to Emma (Léa Seydoux), an older artist. After experimenting with a boy in her class, she remains unfulfilled and Emma, seen at this point only from a distance, cannot be shaken from her head or her desires. They meet at a bar and form a relationship, initially physical, that grows into something more. Adèle becomes Emma’s muse and Emma becomes a teacher to Adèle, maturing her girlish thoughts on romance and partnership. Over the course of the years, however, the heat cools and gives way to complacency, a comfort Adèle enjoys up to a certain point. Eventually they split, which might be the best for them, but Adèle can’t shake the feeling that Emma was a person of extreme importance in her life, that they are connected in some way and that the cleaving of that connection will always hurt. The first cut, naturally, being the deepest.
The movie is interested in every aspect and detail of this romance and goes to lengths to present it all on the screen. There’s nothing inherently unique about the two and that’s the point; their story, while specific, is universal, its truths all-encompassing. Blue Is the Warmest Color is quite a movie within that framework, one that reminded me of Blue Valentine (2010), except kinder and less volatile, but it has a similar bittersweet message that sometimes love dies and it can’t be resurrected.
When the movie moves out of that framework, which it does after its excellent introduction to Adèle as she plays dodge ball with the gossips at school and her own conflicted feelings, it becomes more problematic.The movie features quite a bit of sex and features that sex quite a while. I don’t have a problem with that; many relationships, especially young ones in their early going, are defined by physical acts, but the visual style does change subtly during these scenes in a way that doesn’t seem warranted. I mentioned the closeups on Exarchopoulos that dominate the movie. Those closeups do build to a feeling of identification; we don’t see things through Adèle’s eyes, but we see how she reacts to everything and therefore are privy to her thoughts. During the sex scenes we get fewer reaction shots and more shots of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux’s bodies. Whereas we were watching as Adèle falling in love, now we are merely watching Adèle have sex (I’m less interested in the complaints of the lesbian sex being inauthentic. I wouldn’t claim to know, but I don’t accept that there are only a handful of acceptable ways for lesbians, or anyone else, to make love and that these two haven’t found it). While not gratuitous or, in a sense, pornographic, the sex scenes are meant to titillate, and they are at least partially extraneous because Kechiche displays other ways of reflecting Adèle’s carnality filtered exclusively through her experience—watch her mouth as it subtly opens when she sees something she likes. And the movie makes a motif of the sensuality of eating, creating an extended version of the famous scene fromTom Jones (1963) in which salubrious and wanton consumption are one in the same.
We get to see Adèle’s face react to what’s happening to her, but Kechiche too frequently makes sure we check in on her hips, chest and ass to see what they think of all of it too. In small doses, especially early on, this is another component in the tableau of our identification with Adèle as she becomes sexually aware. It make sense that she might accentuate her newly useful erogenous zones, and early on, there’s an awkwardness to it and an uncontrolled lustiness. This fervor is mirrored in the way Adèle eats but is stricken from the way she makes love, which is movie sex, the kind meant to maximize on esthetics, not necessarily passion. It isn’t the presence of the sex scenes; it’s the fact that they exist among scenes of people falling in love as scenes of bodies rubbing each other.
A man waxes philosophically at a party about the differences between the male and female orgasm, high-mindedly expressing the limits of the male and the mystery and otherworldliness of the female. I don’t understand this ongoing debate, what Simone de Beauvoir called “the eternal feminine” (de Beauvoir, by the way, is oddly missing from a movie about lesbians who discuss philosophy). I can’t say for sure, having never had a female orgasm, and I know these are different parts we’re talking about, but it’s a physiological phenomenon, and it’s not like we go on talking about the difference between the male and female stomachache. This scene reminded me of my favorite scene of Woody Allen’s, in Manhattan (1979), in which orgasms are also discussed at a party. A woman says her doctor has been telling her she’s been having the wrong kind. “The wrong kind?” Woody says. “I’ve never had the wrong kind. My worst one was right on the money.” The difference is, there’s nobody in Blue Is the Warmest Color who will, à la Woody, deflate the cocksure sexologist at the party. He goes on to express definitively that women never paint other women in ecstasy. The women around him, including Emma, an art student, say nothing. I think I would have said, had I been there, “Well, you know, when women were allowed to paint at all, they were flatly forbidden to depict sexual themes or even work with nude models so, I don’t know, but maybe that has something to do with it.” Alas, I wasn’t even in France that evening.
This infusion of gender politics and the mystery of Women, reinforced by the change in visual scheme from when Adèle, the person, fumbles through romance and Adèle, the sex goddess, makes love, nag at me in a movie that should be exclusively about the intensity of young love, but Kechiche insists on getting little things wrong, to continue to tell his story from his point of view and not from that of his characters, who subsequently feel less authentic and more like their nature is used as a hook in generating interest in a movie, not because it’s a story he really wants to tell. That’s a shame because, based on the richness of the detail of Adèle and Emma’s relationship, it’s clear that Kechiche has a genuine affection for these people and their love. The best scenes are the early ones of Adèle’s self-conscious confusion and the ones that exist between her and Emma as people talking, people working out their universal human issues, people in love. The movie could have been a touching romance like Weekend (2011), powerful in its simplicity, which made a statement simply by existing the way that it did. Instead, Blue Is the Warmest Color gets bogged down somewhat by its desire to be important, to encompass as many ideas as it can, even if those ideas are out of the depth of the filmmakers.
The Palme D’Or at Cannes, which the movie was awarded, was given to its director and its two stars, certainly indicating the debt the movie owes to them (and, side note, exposing the silliness of the rigid rule that the Best Picture Oscar be given only to the film’s producer), and that debt is not insubstantial. Blue Is the Warmest Color is, after all, an exceptional movie, a detailed and rich study of two people in love. That it wants to be more and can’t pull it off is unfortunate, but it shouldn’t be shredded for trying, and for its scenes of ugly homophobia, its sympathy for the confusion of sexual awakening against the crushing pressure of hetero-normativity, it should be applauded, as should the work of its two leads. What permeates the screen is not its problematic conceits but the connection between Emma and Adèle, which, when the movie is at its best, is what Blue Is the Warmest Color is about.