Movie Review: Blue Is the Warmest Color
(now playing in select theaters that are unthwarted by the NC-17 rating)
Most of what gets called “romantic” in the last 20 or so years of moviemaking generally falls into two categories. In one column, we have our weepy dramas, typically adapted from the sentimental ouvre of Nicholas Sparks and his imitators. In the other column, we find the entries of dubious romantic or comedic merit, most of which fall short of the high standards set by Nora Ephron and Richard Curtis. Of course, every so often a good one gets through—for every 15 or 20 Katherine Heigl/Gerard Butler-helmed monstrosities, there’s a Brokeback Mountain or a Spectacular Now or a Once. But you get the point—the formulaic nonsense floods the market with its shallow-minded take on love; and the versions of onscreen love that actually resemble real life are an endangered species.
So, as we scan the vast wilderness of truly romantic modern films, it’s refreshing to see one that breaks the rules and dashes the formula to pieces. Blue Is the Warmest Color takes its sweet time (three hours worth) to show us how love can transform someone, in all kinds of wonderful, messy, wrenching ways. This movie is intense and passionate by necessity: Its subject (love) and its Subject (a young woman named Adele, played by Adele Exarchopolous) both have an all-consuming approach.
When we first encounter Adele, she’s a high school junior with unruly hair, working class parents, gossipy friends, and a love of literature. She’s learning to navigate the intimidating world of teenage relationships, like when you’re allowed to stare back at a boy who is staring at you; or whether you’re supposed to be dishing on the sex you didn’t actually have to the gossipy friends; or what to do with the secret fantasies about the girl with the blue hair that locked eyes with you on the street the other day.
Adele can’t figure out why having a boyfriend is making her sad, but we begin to suspect the reason that might be. Eventually she “just happens” to be in a lesbian bar and sees the blue-haired girl again. This time, they actually have a conversation—and it’s clear that they share an instant, if reserved, connection. Emma (Lea Seydoux) is a bit older, an art student, and much more comfortable in her own skin than Adele. She’s confident in her identity and her sexuality, and making her that much more appealing to the conflicted, bashful Adele. By the end of the conversation, Adele is transfixed and Emma is intrigued.
As their meetings shift from chance encounters into intentional, meaningful afternoons spent walking and talking and gazing longingly at one another, Adele begins to emerge from her reserved shell and Emma finds herself mesmerized at being the object of someone’s complete adoration. The attraction is mutual and insatiable, but even early on, we get the sense that for Adele, this relationship means EVERYTHING, whereas for Emma, it’s just one component of her life (albeit a major component). They begin by exploring the world together, and then move into exploring each other with a ferocity and hunger that defies reason. The world goes silent while they devour each other with pleasure. Time stops; nothing else matters; they run on pure lust and animal instinct until there’s nothing to do but collapse in exhaustion.
Of course, as these things go, Adele and Emma’s initial intensity eventually gives way to a kind of domestic routine. Adele’s world still revolves around Emma—cooking for her, entertaining her friends during art exhibitions, supporting her emotionally; and Emma begins to feel the pressure of being someone’s object of worship. She encourages Adele to pursue creative outlets, worried that their life together is not enough to sustain longterm happiness. Adele, who is now a nursery school teacher, insists that love is all she needs. But we see the vacancy in her that she can’t yet detect herself, and her appetites have never been easily satisfied.
Tracing the arc of this story could be considered a spoiler, but it’s such a universal story that I hardly think it can be spoiled. To anyone who’s been in love, the deep, painful, soul-stirring kind of love that Adele and Emma have, this story will ring true. It’s so easy to base one’s entire existence around an object of affection—but this isn’t fair to the loved or the lover, and eventually a course correction occurs that takes the decision away altogether.
So we have a compelling story and characters. Now let’s talk about the acting, which is incredible. These actresses are shot in such extreme close up that they cannot break character for an instant. We see Adele sleeping, eating, sobbing, dancing, running, all in extreme detail, for better and worse. She is up to the task, allowing the intrusion of the camera to show all her vulnerability, flaws and all, up close.
Much has been made about the lengthy and graphic sex scenes in this movie, which live up to their reputation. However, if you’ve read any of the interviews with Seydoux and Exarchopoulos, they both say that it was harder to bare themselves emotionally onscreen. They talk about the grueling work days, but much of the supposed controversy has been generated by a paternalistic media concerned that two adult women might be exploited for lascivious reasons. As a woman, I would like to believe my fellow ladies have the knowledge and agency to make informed career decisions. We don’t need concerned columnists to condescend to us with their misplaced sexual hangups.
The director is a male (Abdellatif Kechiche), but many directors have told stories that are not their own. In the film, a male character who runs an art gallery talks about the differences between male and female pleasure. He posits that women experience pleasure in a deeper, more abstract way than men, and that for centuries, male artists have tried and failed to capture female pleasure in their creations. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting, but this sounds like a thesis statement from the director himself as he tries once more to capture the female experience and wonders if he has gotten it right this time. The bad press about his exhausting, lengthy shooting style notwithstanding, Kechiche has made an excellent film that may not get everything right, but it comes pretty damn close.
As for whether the sex is gratuitous or unrealistic according to “real” lesbians or shot from an artificial “male gaze,” that’s open to interpretation. The love scenes are intrinsic to the story, and the stage of physical exploration that every relationship goes through in its early phases. If this is to be a complete detailed account of the relationship, it must include unflinching recreations of the sexual aspect just as it includes unflinching recreations of the fights and the dinner conversations and the less flashy moments. Does the story require a ten minute boinkfest? Maybe not, but in the context of the three hour run time, that’s not a disproportionate amount of time to spend in the bedroom.
Bottom line? This movie pushes some boundaries, but ultimately it portrays the kind of no-holds-barred love and passion we rarely see onscreen. That might be more than some people can comfortably stomach, but discomfort often pushes us toward informed dialogue and cultural advancement. If you want to participate in the evolving conversation about gender, identity, and relationships, you should see this movie.