Blue is the Warmest Color (2013):
The Plot: Seventeen-year-old Adèle (Adèle Exarchopolous), exploring her sexuality for the first time, becomes infatuated with the blue-haired college student artist Emma (Léa Seydoux). The two fall in love and begin dating. Over the years, the relationship shapes Adèle, helping her find confidence to pursue her professional goals, even as she remains blind to Emma’s emotional needs.
Blue is the Warmest Color is an honest, lyrical portrayal of a young woman’s first love and sexual self-discovery. We watch as Adèle grows from shy high school student to assured teacher. She is empowered through that sexploration (pun!). But her relationship to her own sexuality isn’t a simple case of “loses virginity, finds confidence.” While she grows in some ways, she remains very immature in others. As a lover, she’s selfish, never quite able to give Emma the emotional support that she needs. Adèle truly does love Emma, but her love is characterized by an almost frantic need to be loved in return. I say this not as a criticism of the film, or even of the character, but as a way to explain one of the points I think writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche is making: first love is inherently selfish.
Love “fills a hole in our hearts,” to reference the first scene in the film. It awakens us to a whole spectrum of feeling that we’ve heard about but never really understood or seen up close. It’s an enriching experience, but it can also be an isolating one. The joy of exploration eclipses our ability to empathize, to give more than we take. Even after years of dating Emma, Adèle never quite manages to see this flaw in herself. Feeling isolated during a stressful, career-defining period in Emma’s life, Adèle cheats on her. Eventually found out, she denies it, and then pleads with Emma to keep on loving her. Adèle has grown dependent on her love. But she’s taken too much, and Emma throws her out.
Even after that, Adèle never really understands what she lacked as a lover. She grows to accept that Emma has moved on, but she needs to be told. It’s something that many of us go through, especially when we’re young. We run through scenario after scenario in which friendship gives way to romance, and things return to the way they were. Once again, want eclipses empathy. But we get older, and that burning desire is tempered by self-awareness and compassion. The film ends on what I suppose is a hopeful note, with still-distraught Adèle finally seeing that Emma is happier without her, and walking away. She isn’t quite ready to maintain a healthy relationship, but she’s finally started to mature.
That’s only one facet of the film, and of Adèle’s burgeoning sexuality. Selfish or not, first love is transformative. Her professional growth is a direct result of that empowering exploration. Emma, the older and wiser of the two, loves with the benefit of experience. She encourages Adèle to write, to try new ideas. She’s a mentor as much as a lover, but eventually she needs more than a student to have a fulfilling relationship. Through the conception, growth, and collapse of that relationship, Kechiche shows us how profoundly love can shape our lives.
This dedication to conveying basic human truths is aided greatly by the two lead performances. Adèle Exarchopolous and Léa Seydoux create fully-realized characters. Each actress is perfectly at ease in her role, making their respective characters absolutely believable. They also have wonderful chemistry, and not just in the sexual sense. It really does feel like these two people like—and later love—each other. As the film’s timeline spans years, we get to see the characters mature and change. Exarchopolous nails the vulnerability of Adèle’s early years, hitting the intensity and heartbroken loneliness of her pre- and adult life with equal perfection. Seydoux’s performance, though given less attention in the film, is perhaps even more impressive. Emma is mostly viewed through Adèle’s eyes, but Seydoux never fails to show what’s going on beneath her idealized exterior.
Which brings me to the sex. Since the film goes to great lengths to visually capture Adèle’s emotional state, the sex is both explicit and idealized. Before I go into all the Male Gaze shit I’m pretty sure I need to talk about, I want to cover the function that the very explicit sex scenes actually serve in the film. As I said, the way that Kechiche films the sex scenes is meant to reflect the protagonist’s point-of-view. Before she meets Emma, Adèle has sex with a boy at her school. It isn’t awkward, exactly, just devoid of passion. Something’s missing. Later, when A + E are a couple, the film devotes a significant amount of time to the two, shall we say, engaged in Earthly pleasures. Kechiche doesn’t hold back, and while explicit sex isn’t really necessary to convey the way a character feels about the sex, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t serve the function. He wants to show us how passionate the relationship is, but he also uses the sex scenes to contrast the unfulfilling nature of the relationship’s emotional side. “Sure, the sex was great, but I feel like she didn’t really get me, y’know?”
So the sex scenes, as blocks of action, serve their function. The way that Kechiche chooses to film those scenes is less obviously functional, though. By forcing us to see everything in 10+-minute chunks is he being honest? Frank? And as I said earlier, these scenes are beautifully shot, to the point of idealizing the act itself. The camera frequently does a slow pan over a beautiful girl’s naked body. The lighting is ethereal. There are candles. So is this Kechiche finding the emotional truth in the act, the way he does in the film’s numerous scenes of attractive people slowly dancing? Or is he reveling in the fact that he gets to film two hot girls doin’ it? I like to think that it’s the former, but Kechiche anticipates the criticism that Blue is the Warmest Color’s NC-17 lesbian love scenes will inevitably garner. The way that he chooses to defend himself is perhaps more frustrating than fifteen minutes of artistic fucking.
During a pivotal dinner party scene, Kechiche writes himself into the film. Joachim (Stephané Mercoyrol) is a handsome intellectual. He is also the male art dealer who has the power to jump-start Emma’s career. While everyone is sitting around drinking and chatting, he launches into his theory of why the nude female form is so prevalent in Western art: Because men are just trying to understand the female orgasm. We’re limited by our male perspective, so putting naked women on the proverbial pedestal and waxing poetic about the female form for hundreds of years is just a way of trying to see beyond our own experiences. I hate to go all (former) Film Student on your guys, but that reads a lot like a pretentious justification of the pervasive Male Gaze in cinema. You know what I’m talking about. That thing where the majority of movies are shot from a male point of view, objectifying women. It’s totally cool you guys, we’re just trying to understand women by treating them like sex objects.
What’s all the more frustrating is that right before Joachim goes off on this tangent, one of the female party-goers asks if we can ever really understand another person, since we’re all limited by our own perspectives. This perfectly complements Adèle’s arc. What eventually brings her heartbreak is that very inability to see beyond her own perspective, to think about what Emma wants. But instead of having his stand-in talk about that, Kechiche descends into some “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” bullshit. It’s a disservice to the film, and it manages to come off as both pretentious and incredibly juvenile at the same time. No, of course we never really know what’s going on in another person’s head. But we can try to understand by using this little thing called empathy. Goddamn.
So what is Blue is the Warmest Color? Is it art? Exploitation? I’m leaning more towards the former than the latter, but can it be both? Can a filmmaker find the truth in a story while taking advantage of his actors and giving in to his more basic instincts on film? Perhaps the very fact that the sex is so explicitly depicted is part of Kechiche’s point. When we watch these beautifully-shot scenes of naked girls writhing in the sheets, are we thinking about the characters, or do we get caught up in the more immediate pleasure of arousal? The way we perceive art is inevitably filtered through our own experiences. The universal becomes personal. At the end of the day, maybe he’s just using our baser instincts to help us connect with the characters. That’s certainly in keeping with the film’s focus on the need for empathy in relationships.
However you feel about the Male Gaze/Art vs. Exploitation stuff, Kechiche is largely successful in his attempts to make an honest, thoughtful film. The characters feel real, the performances are excellent, and the direction, questionable sex scenes aside, is flawless.