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.”
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.
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.