There are many examples of desire in Blue Is the Warmest Color that are nuanced and downright erotic. These moments are communicated in coy shifts in facial expression, through the brinkmanship of flirtation, the intimate risks of proximity; the way two faces can occupy a frame and cause tension through the simple and invisible intermingling of breath. These characters are so obviously attracted to each other — magnets — that the forces keeping them apart will have to succumb simply given the laws of science and of lust.
Moments like the above are some of the best romance I’ve seen on screen all year because it feels so raw and honest.
The oddest thing? The explicit lesbian sex scenes everyone’s talking about feel so false and devoid of passion. In a film that gets so much so right about falling head over heels for someone, somehow it also gets so much so wrong (though not always) about sex with someone you love.
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 51st New York Film Festival. It is being reposted to coincide with the film’s limited theatrical release.]
Blue Is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle chapitres 1 & 2)
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Release Date: October 9th, 2013 (France); October 25th, 2013 (US limited)
The reason I’m so critical of the explicit lesbian sex scenes is because Blue Is the Warmest Color is a near-masterpiece otherwise. The movie is three hours long but feels so brisk because it’s packed with so much authentic emotion. From well-observed scene to well-observed scene, we sprint through 10 years of life in a way that somehow doesn’t feel rushed. The life that’s lived off camera is communicated seamlessly through what we’re shown on camera.
By the end, Blue feels like it’s only two hours tops. And yet I would have gladly spent another hour in the life of Adèle, played by Adèle Exarchopoulos. Through hairdo and posture, we watch Adèle go from a gawky suburban teen to a young woman ill at ease in the city. The change is different for Adèle’s lover Emma, played by Léa Seydoux. She’s so assured in her role as a butch artist (who looks and acts like the Platonic form of River Phoenix, come to think of it) and continues along the path she’s started, becoming only more driven in her vocation.
The whole focus of Blue Is the Warmest Color is Adèle’s sexual awakening and sense of self-discovery. (In terms of the latter, the discoveries aren’t always great.) She first runs into Emma on the street in a gorgeously crafted moment of one-sided love-at-first-sight. Emma’s shock of blue hair is like sky pulled down to earth and locked there in Adèle’s mind under a celestial clamoring of steel drum. It’s all the sexiness and exoticism of Emma filtered through Adèle’s mind, scored uncannily. When Adèle and Emma finally meet for the first time and flirt, the screen fills with a sensual charge.
Emma knows she has the power in that first conversation together and she maintains power in every frame of that scene, whether it’s a shot of her or a reverse angle to catch Adèle’s nervous attraction. Their eyes oscillate to take each other in, and the close-ups are deliberately placed so we’re allowed to notice every subtle shift in look. A show of teeth is invitation, a twinge in a smile is wildfire, the eyebrows and eyelids a kind of semaphore. As Emma leans in, Adèle parries and then lunges, swayed by so many unseen powers that are convincingly conveyed in these intimately-framed shots.
So much of Blue Is the Warmest Color is about how much a close-up can capture in a performance and how much can be added to the characters and the scene through the careful juxtaposition of close-ups. This doesn’t just apply to flirtation. You can access the unstated thoughts in Emma’s parents and Adèle’s parents in close-ups as well. Exarchopoulos has such an expressive face, one made for close-ups. When she’s outright devastated in one scene, it’s like the edifice of a building crumbling, yet her blank face can say so much too. Seydoux has a similar quality in her performance. For both actresses, I think their performances are mostly about what they can do with their eyes and their mouths when they’re not speaking, with body language and delivery secondary.
That might be why the film’s two explicit lesbian sex scenes don’t work. In fact, there are a couple of problems with them, and the fault is entirely on writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche. From a purely functional standpoint, it doesn’t look like the two people having sex are even having sex. Adèle and Emma crook their arms at impossible angles to please each other, they sprawl in inefficient ways. In some shots, it’s as if a sudden swivel or buck of the hips could break an elbow or dislocate a shoulder. The explicit lesbian sex seemed more ridiculous than sexy, and I’m writing this as a straight man. In fact, it doesn’t even have the workwomanlike look of lesbian porn; instead it looks like space aliens who’ve never seen humans before were told in vague terms how lesbians have sex and were asked to film what they think lesbian sex looks like.
There are glaring qualitative differences between the two explicit lesbian sex scenes and the rest of the film. Whereas so much of Blue Is the Warmest Color is done in close-up with emphasis on facial expressions and careful lighting, these explicit sex scenes are done in medium shots with flat lighting, with faces a secondary concern. (The actresses were apparently wearing realistic artificial vaginas in these scenes.) This is the male gaze in all its deplorable glory, and it undercuts so much of what makes the film work. What’s most apparent, however, is the sheer lack of pleasure on the faces of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux. They grunt and moan, but their eyes are blank and they look like they’d rather be somewhere else. By contrast, when they’re flirting in the park or just hanging out and experiencing the best part of young love, there’s no other place they’d rather be.
I found myself comparing these two explicit lesbian sex scenes to the two other sex scenes in the film (one straight, one lesbian) and there’s a world of difference there as well. Sex should be integral to this narrative given what it says about the characters, and in the straight sex scene and the less explicit lesbian sex scene, it’s all about the characters involved. The body language in those scenes is about varying degrees of passion and engagement. Yes they’re naked, yes they’re breathing heavy, but the focus is what this moment says about the moment, not seeing two French women unconvincingly fake orgasms. Even a scene of Adèle masturbating is all about her character — note how it begins, how it progresses, and how that scene ends. In the sex scenes that work in the film, there’s a similar sense of internal narrative.
This doesn’t mean that Kechiche should have made these two explicit sex scenes non-explicit. I think Kechiche should have shot the explicit lesbian sex with the same level of care he shot the other sex scenes. This would have turned absurd sensationalism into some of the best, most frank, and most emotionally charged sex ever filmed. As it is now, those explicit sex scenes aren’t about how Adèle is interpreting pleasure — they’re about Adèle and Emma being objects in frame.
The male gaze in the explicit lesbian sex scenes actually made me wonder if there’s a pervasive maleness that affects the whole narrative of Blue Is the Warmest Color. (The graphic novel it’s loosely adapted from is by Julie Maroh; the screenplay which is apparently nothing like the graphic novel is by Kechiche.) In other words, maybe the story of powerful first loves is universal, or maybe I think that way because I’m a guy watching this movie and the characters are playing into my own life experiences as a man rather than the realities of a woman who figures out she’s into women.
Do most people wish they were like Emma — sure of themselves, a figure of constant allure, as effortlessly unique as they are sexy — or is she embodying a male version of that desire? I’m inclined to think it’s universal, but now I’m forced to confront the alternative. (Emma flirts by talking about Sartre, which is something I did in college. Make of that what you will.) Does everyone feel like Adèle at times, or is she more a portrait of male insecurity and existential uncertainty rather than universal insecurity and existential uncertainty? In the press notes, it seems as if Kechiche considered Adèle a cinematic analogue for himself much like the Antoine Doinel character was for François Truffaut. Make of that what you will.
This larger conversation about the male gaze and pervasive maleness in Blue Is the Warmest Color will take place over the next few months, and honestly, it’s something I wouldn’t have even considered if the explicit sex hadn’t problematized the movie. I still love it despite its most glaring flaws, which is why I’m scoring it so high and also why I’m not scoring it higher. Excepting two scenes, this is a powerful look at what happens when we fall hard for someone whose mere presence feels elemental but when we haven’t matured enough to deal with it. In France, the title for the film is The Life of Adèle Chapters 1 & 2. If the story continues (and if the actresses even agree to work with Kechiche again, which given recent reports seems unlikely), I hope the subsequent chapters in the life of Adèle are as good as the best parts of Blue Is the Warmest Color.
Alec Kubas-Meyer: Blue is the Warmest Color hit me hard. Really, really hard. I should have expected that a three-hour romantic epic would be pretty heart-wrenching, but I didn’t know it would feel so personal. While nothing that happens in the film directly translates to experiences I’ve had in my own life, certain things hit pretty close to home. In those moments, the film’s true brilliance shown through.
Unfortunately, I agree with everything Hubert said about the explicit sex scenes. I wish that they weren’t there at all. They’re uncomfortable (especially in a theater setting), awkward, and unnecessary. They don’t push the story forward, serving only to titillate, but they can’t even do that well. There is a proper way to portray sex in a film (hell, Blue is the Warmest Color does it on multiple occasions), but they are not it.
Aside from those scenes, my only serious complaint is about the film’s timeline. I don’t know what time period the film follows (only that at one point people use answering machines), but clearly no effort was put into making the 19 year old Adèle Exarchopoulos (who gives a truly brilliant performance) look any older than she is. A different hairstyle and some glasses aren’t enough to make her look like a working teacher, but that’s all the effort that was made. There are times when years would pass in between shots, and because Adèle always looked the same, it was difficult to know when it had happened. What should have been immediate took unnecessary time.
But while those are serious complaints, they can’t stop the emotional power that Blue is the Warmest Color has. There is one moment, an argument between Emma and Adèle, that is the single most powerful scene in a film I have seen in years. Everything about that scene is absolutely, truly perfect, so too is much of the rest of the film. At three hours, it feels long, but it never drags. In a press conference following the screening, director Abdellatif Kechiche said that there is another cut, 40 minutes longer, that will eventually be released, and I would love to see it. Adèle’s story is incredible, and I want to see more and more of it. That I’m so angry about the sex isn’t really because it’s so poor; it’s because everything else is so incredible. This movie should be one of the best I’ve seen in my life, but it’s not. It’s just really, really close. 88 – Excellent