I had heard a lot of things about Blue is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film, before actually seeing it. I knew that the 66th Cannes Film Festival had awarded the film the Palme d’Or, granting the prize to the director and the lead actresses, which it doesn’t often do. In her New York Times review, Manohla Dargis accused Kechiche of showing off his protagonist’s “derrière,” making a film more about his own “desires than anything else.” I had seen an interview in which said actresses called Kechiche exploitative and difficult, especially when directing the raunchier scenes. A girl in my dorm told me the seven-minute lesbian sex scene was reason enough to see the film. (Though in Idahoan theaters—yes, that’s the adjective for Idaho—it was enough to get it banned.) I had heard it called sexy, sincere, funny, dark, distressing, long, groundbreaking, compelling, beautiful—all the adjectives from the recent campus production of Attempts on Her Life.
When I actually went to see the film the adjective that most came to mind was “overwhelming.” (Or, rather, “intoxicating.”) Blue chronicles a few years in the life of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a 17-year-old high school student who, unsatisfied with boys she meets (and reluctantly has sex with), enters into a relationship with the 24-year-old Emma (Léa Seydoux), a painter at theBeaux-Arts. The two hours and 59 minutes of screen time chart the blossoming, flourishing, and ultimate disintegration of their relationship and the effect it has on Adèle as she grows from teenager into young adult.
For such a long film, there are very few shots—maybe 15 or 20—that aren’t close-ups or extreme close-ups. The majority of images in the film are full-screen shots of character’s faces or segments of their bodies, in particular Adèle’s. At dinner scenes, we learn they are eating pasta before we see the food because of the marinara droplets on Adèle’s chin; we know when she has been crying because of the red bags under her eyes and the dried snot above her lips; we learn to gauge her mood by the fold of skin around the corner of her mouth and the slanting of lines between her eyes and nose. And as she is such a gifted actress, each microexpression that flits across her face is magnified in the close shots. This one of the overwhelming, or, rather, intoxicating parts of the film. We come to know her face very well as we watch the action of the film transpire across it, reacting to each new conflict or revelation. This makes it hard to look away.
But by now you might be thinking: Enough of this cinematography bullshit—you mentioned sex and you better talk about sex. I guess it’s that time. In fact, it would be impossible to review the film without talking about sex—there’s the quick, though still graphic, heterosexual encounter near the start of the film between Adèle and Samir (Salim Kechiouche); the much discussed, almost seven-minute lesbian romp (Adèle’s first); and the various, not-quite-so-long sex scenes that follow it. These scenes are, of course, explicit, but they don’t feel pornographic or degrading. The lesbian scenes are indulgent, even to the point of being funny or boring, but they also feel celebratory, almost reveling in their over-the-top-ness. In his New Yorker review Anthony Lane, with typical New Yorker film-reviewing pretentiousness, commented on an image of the lovers locked in a “soixante-neuf.” Emma and Adèle engage in all sorts of romantic geometry, but the scenes aren’t accompanied by a sentimental score, nor are they what Exarchopoulos called the “three bounces and then that’s all,” which we often see in film—they’re excessive but passionate, expressing an intimacy and joie de vivre (vive la France!) that is rare in cinematic sex.
The tacky, innuendo-crammed and gushy scenes from most romantic films are present here as well, but they don’t feel quite as tired and painful as they often do. (I’m talking about the holding-hands-while-ice-skating clips and the folk-music montages we so often see in rom-coms.) Blue does not fall under just one archetype and its gooey romantic clichés carry more weight. For example: Emma teaches Adèle how to suck the meat out of an oyster (a tongue motion often used in another way throughout the film), the sun flashes between their lips as they kiss on a park bench, and a pretentious art collector talks to no end about the power of the female orgasm. The oyster scene takes place in front of Emma’s mother and stepfather so it is funny and discomforting, not just food-related erotica. The art collector reminds the audience that this film is about two women, that it would not be the same with a man and a woman or even two men. Though these scenes are certainly tropes, and a bit heavy-handed, we allow them, we enjoy, we let them do their work.
Another successful gimmick is the series of out-loud readings in the film’s various classrooms. In the first one, we hear about “love at first sight,” which prefaces an encounter Adèle and Emma have on a crowded street. Later, students read about Antigone growing up—we watch Adèle reach adulthood through her relationship with Emma—and, as the relationship falls apart, Adèle’s kindergarten students read a poem called “No Need.” The readings, though a trope in most high-school romance films (even in Mean Girls, a discussion of Julius Caesar hints at the revenge plot on Regina George) are effective in guiding us through the many turns in Adèle’s life.
These clichés, along with the sheer length of the film and the frequent nudity, point to Kechiche’s self-indulgence and heavy-handedness, a criticism often raised against him. But given what Kechiche did include, it’s worth what he left out. We don’t, for example, see Adèle’s coming-out, or learn the reasons she fails to attend college or graduate school (which she had planned on doing). Her high-school friends disappear hallway through the film, accusations of infidelity are never resolved, and there are whole stretches of her life—months, years—that are left unaccounted for. We see so much of her—in every sense of the term—that it’s shocking to think how much we’ve missed. For all the excesses and indulgences, the constant close-ups, the cumulative 20 minutes of nudity, the three hours of screen time, Kechiche’s restraint is incredible. So much of Adèle’s story is left untold. She has grown up right in front of us and we’ve hardly seen a thing.