Love, Heartbreak, and the In-Between in Blue is the Warmest Color

Catherine Ellsberg ’16
Assistant Arts Editor

By now, you might have heard about Abdellatif Kechiche’s controversial Blue is the Warmest Color. Critics from the New York Times, the New Yorker and just about everywhere else have argued over the “message” of the film, its credibility and its style. Mainly, though, they talk about the sex scenes: their purpose, the way they’ve been shot, whether they’re “realistic” enough. The film, which chronicles a lesbian relationship from beginning to end in a sweeping, three-hour running time, risks being completely clouded over by publicity. Indeed, the main actresses, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, have been chastised by the film’s director for having spoken so critically of their apparent mistreatment during shooting and there have been rumors that Kechiche might sue Seydoux for libel. So after all this, one should rightfully ask, is it even worth it? In short: should I go see this film?

Yes. Absolutely, without question – yes.

Though the lengthy sex scenes are certainly jolting – intense, lingering and even exhausting – they are not what stood out to me the most. The film, partially shot in a suburban neighborhood of France, stars the 19-year-old Exarchopoulos in a role that many actresses would probably kill for. Throughout the entirety of the 180 minutes, which move swiftly and gracefully, there’s hardly a second when the camera isn’t following our heroine – bobbing in and out of close-up and trailing after her throughout the course of several years. The film starts with 15-year-old Adèle (Exarchopoulos), a high school student who, though full of spunk and an eager reader of French literature, is a fairly typical teenager. Her hair scrunched up in a bun, her mouth hanging open in a perpetual, highly attractive pout, she goes to class, flirts with boys, talks about sex with her girlfriends, gobbles spaghetti dinners with her parents. However, what’s so refreshing about this section of the film, which precedes the love affair with older, mysterious art student Emma (Seydoux), is Kechiche’s insistence on capturing the mundane and the ordinary. Certain scenes shot in the classroom are so spot-on that they almost resemble a documentary, sharing themes with Frederick Wiseman’s seminal High School.

The film’s French title, La vie d’Adèle, is really more fitting than the American one. After just 45 minutes of following our teenage heroine around – on the bus, in class, even in her sleep – I was completely enthralled. When Adèle finally meets Emma, first in passing on the street and then officially in a gay bar, the camera captures an almost magical transition; we sense the excitement – and, to a degree, the suffering – that will surely follow in the rest of the film. I honestly can’t think of any other scene in recent memory that has so perfectly depicted what you might call “love at first sight.”  Indeed, Adèle becomes consumed by an extreme hunger for the blue-haired Emma; in fact, a great deal of the film is spent watching her devour food with ravenous appetite – an appetite satiated only by the older woman.

The first sex scene – and there are many throughout the film – is, true to what the critics have been writing, nearly unprecedented: there’s slapping, groaning and writhing, all of which lasts a slightly uncomfortable seven minutes. Several people have complained that Kechiche took advantage of his female stars, forcing them into exceptional vulnerability. Furthermore, some have also pointed out the omnipresent “male gaze” throughout the film, an inevitable factor inherent in a male director attempting to depict lesbian sex. Though I can’t help but agree that Kechiche is a man obsessed with women and the female body, I must also add that the sex perfectly conveys the intensity and the voraciousness of the couple’s relationship.

The magnificence of the film lies, however, in the build-up: the story manages to feel both sprawling and intimate at once, following Adèle and Emma for several years. With masterful grace and subtlety, we can see the cracks form in the relationship before our poor heroine can. The eventual break-up scene doesn’t so much unravel as it explodes; it is almost unbearably upsetting and deftly nuanced. The last portion of the film follows a slightly older Adèle in her job as a talented elementary school teacher, and Exarchopoulous is beautiful and believable as a young woman trying to recapture what has been irrevocably lost.

With the exception of one somewhat beguiling misstep, the last few scenes are simply perfect. Several years after their traumatic break-up, Emma and Adèle meet in a coffee shop. Making small talk, the two actresses navigate a brutally emotional scene, one that may leave you in tears. The last shot follows an older Adèle down an empty street and as she recedes farther and farther away, and you want to know if she will be okay – where is she going? What’s going to happen next?

By the end of the three hours you will be so spent, so engrossed in this singular world, that you might think you’ve spotted Adèle on the street outside the theater. An immense achievement, Blue is the Warmest Color won’t let you go easily – but then, you won’t want it to.

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