Bleu-ming Marvellous: Blue Is The Warmest Colour Reviewed

Yasmeen Khan reviews the controversial Palme D'or winning French film

This year, the Cannes Film Festival jury took the unprecedented step of sharing its highest prize, the Palme d’Or. Normally it goes to the director of the film judged the best in competition, but this year, when Blue Is The Warmest Colour won, the honour was given jointly to director Abdellatif Kechiche and the two lead actors, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, in recognition of the strength of their performances and their integral role in the film’s success. It’s a fascinating decision, especially in the light of subsequent revelations of a difficult shoot and conflict between the director and his stars – both women have stated they’ll never work with Kechiche again, and he has suggested that he was unhappy with the film. Nevertheless, it is a powerful piece of work.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2) is Kechiche’s loose adaptation of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Le Bleu est une couleur chaude, or Blue Angel. At its heart is a romance, the story of the overwhelming passion between student Adèle (Exarchopoulos), and Emma (Seydoux), a fledgling painter. However, as suggested by the French title, it’s Adèle’s story, not the story of the romance. It’s a portrait of a young woman, an exploration of how even the most ordinary life goes through great upheavals, and it asks us to consider what it is about our characters that is changed by a profound experience like falling in love and what stays the same. It also takes on class, art, literature and philosophy, again through Adèle’s eyes. The success of the film depends on whether it can function like the novels the lead character adores – that is, whether its themes have the power to transcend it and say something universal about the experience of love.

Blue… is set in Lille, and its social environment ensures that it falls between two staples of French cinema. It’s no stereotypical tale of angst among the well-to-do intelligentsia, but it doesn’t occupy the social realist milieu of, say, Bruno Dumont or Laurent Cantet either. Rather, Blue… is about the nice, ordinary middle classes, and conflict comes only from the subtle gradations within this sphere. Intellectualism is a key concern; the balance of intellect and emotion in art and the tension between the two is something the film explores endlessly. When the story opens Adèle is part of a class of engaged, focused sixth-formers and her expectations of romance are formed by the 18th-century novels she studies in class, chiefly Marivaux’s La vie de Marianne. The students discuss feminine desire and love at first sight as literary structures, so that it’s no wonder that Adèle goes out searching for the feelings she’s read about, looking to become the narrator of her own romance. Blue… puts Adèle in Marianne’s place, following her through her own story of desire in intimate closeup. It’s a bold argument for the universality of experience.

Adèle’s story begins in idyllic perfection, but as she grows up class becomes more of an issue. Emma may have blue hair, but she’s from a comfortable, bourgeois background several notches ‘above’ Adèle’s. Two of the most telling scenes involve the girls each meeting the others’ parents over dinner. Emma’s mother and stepfather serve oysters, discuss wine and culture, are entirely accepting of their daughter’s sexuality, and are disappointed that Adèle only wants to teach primary school children. Adèle’s parents serve spaghetti bolognese and suggest Emma look for a rich husband if she wants to be an artist.

The little portraits of prejudice and expectation are beautifully nuanced, and provide the perfect amount of detail for us to appreciate Adèle’s intellectualism and to understand the conflict that Emma’s parents see between it and what they perceive as a lack of ambition. Adèle talks a lot about academic subjects with her first boyfriend as well as Emma, but when confronted with Emma’s art school friends, who see her simply as Emma’s muse, she becomes quiet. Her separation from her parents’ world and her attempt to fit into a different group of people, messy as it is, speaks to everyone’s experience of leaving home.

What makes Blue… special is the economy and grace with which it lets us see into Adèle’s inner life. The camera accompanies Adèle everywhere, staring into her face in close up, whether she’s with friends, self-conscious, or unguarded, chewing spaghetti in front of the TV. Exarchopoulos’ eyes are extraordinarily expressive. This film is about how we analyse feelings and experience them and the tension between those two things, and a great deal of that can be seen in her eyes. She plays the endlessly needy Adèle with consummate assurance. Seydoux, a much more experienced actor, is brilliant in a different way. She brings a great physicality to Emma, who treats everyone with the warmth of a potential lover. But although Emma paints portrait after portrait of Adèle, her function is to be seen and adored by her, and the strength of Seydoux’s performance lies in her understanding of that.

Blue… is deeply emotionally honest, but there are levels of artifice too, and perhaps they’re most noticeable in how it treats sex. Since the film was banned in Idaho, it’s become infamous for being graphic, and the sex scenes are lengthy and intense. They’re not exactly pornographic – they’re explicit but not in the ugly, mechanical way of porn. They claim their place in the film by being all about emotion, and on that level they work – the transports on Adèle’s face are in complete contrast to the compassionate detachment she shows having sex with her first boyfriend, for example. But there’s something very unreal about the sex – it’s hairless, idealistic. There’s a lot of gasping and no sweat. This artificiality has an exclusionary effect, treating the audience like voyeurs, which is at odds with the profound emotional engagement of the rest of the film. A few edits would, paradoxically perhaps, have been more honest.

Blue‘s three-hour running time gives it plenty of space to explore its themes, and there’s a lot of lengthy discussion in between the candlelit sex. At times it feels stretched, but not often. You may or may not leave wishing to learn the next chapter in her life, but the emptiness in Adèle’s heart and the discoveries she makes trying to fill it do have a universality that’s comparable to the literature she adores. At the same time, however, the film recognises that it, like any story, can only go so far in revealing these truths.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour is out in cinemas today

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