Brisbane International Film Festival: Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

Blue is the Warmest Colour - Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux

The original French title for Abdellatif Keciche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour is La Vie d’Adèle (“The Life of Adèle,” for those who flunked French). It’s not hard to see why the title was changed for its English release; Blue is the Warmest Colour is a more intriguing title, and it remains well-suited to the film, which is indeed warm, leaving a lingering impression of gentle Parisian sunlight, and filled with the colour blue – the colour of a dress, a bench, the sky and, of course, hair. Perhaps La Vie d’Adèle is a more fitting title for this film, however; not only does it explicitly tie the film to a key inspiration, Pierre Carlet’s The Life of Marianne, it makes the intensely personal agenda of the film clear.

If you’re anything like me, your awareness of Blue is the Warmest Colour probably revolves around its much-discussed lesbian sex scenes; scenes that have dominated dialogue on the film. Depending on your perspective, these love scenes are “pornographic” (to quote the author of the graphic novel that inspired the film, Julie Maroh) and exploitative, driving lead actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux to complain about their treatment. Reading this kind of media coverage, it’s easy to view Blue is the Warmest Colour as a real-life example of the phenomenon Seinfeld satirised with their fictional film Rochelle Rochelle: an arthouse film reaching notoriety by pairing explicit sex with arty drama. Perhaps the over-reaction to these scenes is simply reflective of Western puritanical morality, responding with outrage to scenes that are simply a natural depiction of the expression of love between two people.

I’ll come back to those sex scenes in a moment, but it’s interesting to note that the actual film does not exclusively revolve around the relationship between Adèle and her older lover Emma, despite what the publicity would have you believe. The film stretches for nearly three hours over many years of Adèle’s life (at least five years), and while the oft-discussed relationship between these two women is certainly the focal point, Blue is the Warmest Colour is interested in a broader consideration of the sweep of “The Life of Adèle.”

Blue is the Warmest Colour - Adele Exarchopoulos in the ocean

In an early scene, Adèle discusses the aforementioned novel The Life of Marianne with a young suitor, explaining to him that the appeal of the novel is the way it gets “under the skin” of its young protagonist. Blue is the Warmest Colour has the same appeal; it spends the majority of its running time with the camera mere inches from Adèle’s face, which could have easily created a sense of stifling oppressiveness but instead is remarkably effective at making the audience feels as though they’re sharing in this young woman’s life. There’s a sense of syrupy, seductive realism throughout. There are countless coming of age films that put one in the shoes of a person on the cusp of adulthood, but what makes Blue is the Warmest Colour shine is the way it captures the crystalline beauty of transformative moments in life, whether it’s the first visit to a gay bar or a moment of escape, bobbing in the ocean’s calm waves.

The film also potently conveys those moments of first love, the tentative to-and-fro between two strangers as they transform a mutual attraction into something deeper. It’s telling that (almost) the only person who shares the frame with Adèle for more than a fleeting moment is Emma, whose blue hair provides gives the film its English title. Emma is a talented painter whose worldliness and confident sexuality intoxicates Adèle; a guiding light towards something greater than the life she knows. To its credit, the screenplay avoids cliché depicting the difficulties Adèle faces in her first same-sex relationship: she encounters some bigotry from her classmates, and tells her family that Emma is her social studies tutor, but the film doesn’t linger on either point.

Blue is the Warmest Colour - Adele Exarchopoulos nude

Okay, let’s talk about the sex scenes. They’re long, passionate, intense; let’s be honest, they’re hot. They’re also necessary to the story the film is trying to tell, about Adèle’s growing understanding of her own sexuality. The sex scenes need to be long-lasting and enthusiastic to provide contrast to Adèle’s fumbling, short-lived sexual encounters earlier in the film. Fundamentally, Emma and Adèle’s relationship is based not on a spiritual connection but on exhilarating, animalistic passion, so to avoid these sex scenes would compromise the foundation of the film. But this doesn’t mean that the scenes aren’t problematic.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong, in the abstract, with a straight male director choreographing enthusiastic copulation between two straight actresses (if nothing else, there’s a very profitable pornography industry where it’s part of the daily grind). The sexuality and gender of the people involved shouldn’t, necessarily, be an issue. Yet, the sex scenes here – at least, the first two – are distinct stylistically from the film that surrounds them. They’re edited with a fervency that’s at odds to the rest of the film’s fluidity, and the close-up framing that otherwise dominates the camerawork are replaced with wide, leering shots. Perhaps the intent here is to ensure that the two actresses share the frame, but given that the same treatment is so rarely given to them clothed, it’s easy to see from where the “pornographic” complaint originates.

But really, the biggest problem with these scenes isn’t that they smack of exploitation, it’s that they divorce the audience from Adèle’s perspective; it’s really testament to the consistency of Blue is the Warmest Colour’s construction that these scenes stand out as a glaring misstep. We travel with Adèle and share her experiences so powerfully that it’s unfortunate to be so forcefully reminded that we’re watching a fictional feature film. But these are only ten or so minutes of a three hour film, and by the time we come to the end of this chapter of Adèle’s journey, perhaps Keciche and Exarchopoulos have won you over with this enchanting story. Perhaps you will ponder questions that the film itself asks (when discussing The Life of Marianne) – is our heart left lighter or heavier for having loved?

Or, perhaps, if you’re like the people who walked out of the cinema beside me, you’ll marvel aloud about the specific details of those sex scenes: “I can’t believe they showed erect penises and vaginas and everything!” C’est la vie.

3.5 stars

11 thoughts on “Brisbane International Film Festival: Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

  1. Mostly agreed. I made a similar point on the sex and generally agree otherwise. I think this one has flaws independent of the sex as well, but all in all it’s still good.

    Good review!

    • I just went and checked out your review! I think I agree with most of your [negative] criticisms: certainly, the film is mostly absent of conflict and is somewhat repetitive when it comes to Adele’s arc (I think this is realistic, but probably could have been better constructed nonetheless). I don’t necessarily agree re: Adele and Emma, though. I think what defined their relationship is the way that Adele gave herself totally to Emma (the age gap being a large factor here), and so I think it’s totally plausible that there was no overt conflict. Her sleeping with her colleague at work was her way of acting out, since she didn’t have the confidence/wherewithall to stand up to Emma verbally. Sabine disappearing didn’t bother me at all (that’s pretty commonplace with exes in social groups in my experience) but I agree it was odd we didn’t check it on Adele’s parents again.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • I didn’t need to see Sabine again. But a line of dialogue to explain her absence would have been the nice. Adele’s parents and friends are the bigger thing for me. A scene wherein they show up and Adele shoos them away, for example, would have shown her depression in an interesting way. And given us these characters again.

        I agree with your interpretation of Adele and why she didn’t start conflict with Emma. You make a great point. Adele could not be the one to start a conflict between them. At least not an explosive one. Would have been out of character.

        I still think, though, that the audience sees pretty early that these two have next to nothing in common, outside of sex, which means we know there will be an emotional disagreement between them. There has to be. That it takes so long to come means the flick lags, I think. It seems to me Emma could have started a handful more little conflicts. Or Adele could have been a bit more passive aggressive a few times. Or whatever else. That way there could be a bit more subtle conflict to hold our interest until we finally see the amazing explosion.

      • I know what you mean there. I felt they conveyed the conflict between the two really effectively at the party without needing to express anything in words – Adele’s jealous looks at Emma, her difficulty to engage in conversation, the bedroom conversation afterwards where Emma is subtly pressuring Adele and Adele bites back… I think there was enough in that one day to convey the idea of the little to-and-fro that would have been happening in the day-to-day of their relationship. I guess I appreciated that the film was happy to elide conflict where a weaker film might have turned into melodrama. :shrugs:

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