Abdellatif Kechiche’s film, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and general powerhouse of praise, is about love.
Big deal, right? So many films are about love, aren’t they? No. By comparison most films present us a shiny, glossy, A4-page advertisement for love, with the edges softened using Photoshop, the subjects framed awkwardly with painted-on smiles. Blue Is The Warmest Colour presents us a long, thorough dissection of what it is to feel love, to be in love, to make love, to share it, and to risk losing it too. Kechiche has chosen this aspect of the human condition and decided to give it full focus, in all it’s pain and glory.
What better way to do so than by viewing love from the perspective of someone experiencing it for the first time. Meet Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a typical 17-year-old girl in modern France. She enjoys studying literature, struggles keeping her windswept hair under control, chain smokes, and has some pretty shitty friends. A boy at school is seeking her affections. Apparently he looks like Brad Pitt (if Brad Pitt didn’t look like a 50 year old hippie and looked more like a GI Joe). They tentatively try to get to know one another; talking on the bus, meet up at a café… But one day Adele sees Emma (Leá Seydoux) in the street and her world is quite literally spun around.
Kechiche shows us infatuation and awakening. Adele dreams of Emma, their future connection coming to her like an erotic apparition. Her evolving sexual identity will threaten friendships and cost her tears and heartache, but that’s not all. As Adele and Emma’s lives begin to intersect, and as Adele learns more and more about herself (both physically and emotionally), Kechiche’s film begins to stretch out into an all-encompassing celebration of the warmth of love, the intimacy and the righteousness of it.
He does this beautifully, utilising his two astonishing leads. An example takes place on a park bench. One of Blue…’s many long, gratifyingly indulgent scenes, it begins far out, in a wide shot. The girls are separate. Slowly, through cuts, we get closer. The girls get closer. Eventually they can’t help but share the frame in close up, as between them the sun blooms. Later they will lie sleeping, naked and intertwined, arms and legs sprouting bizarrely, as though we are looking at one life form. Connected to the point of amalgamation.
As rewarding as Kechiche’s work is here – the film manages to feel like an artistic triumph without losing it’s ability to engage and feel truthful – he is brazenly upstaged by Exarchopoulos. The young actress is remarkably forthcoming as Adele. So much so that this feels like one of those rare performances where the real person is exposed for you to see. Completely believable and wholly committed, it’s an exceptional achievement, one that it’s hard to believe will be topped in the near future. Which is not to diminish the work done by Seydoux. She is also fantastic, equally as emotionally open and unafraid. But this is Exarchopoulos’ show. We experience their relationship through Adele’s eyes. It is her journey. The first thing we see is her walking toward us, the last is her walking away.
Much has been made of the extended scenes of lovemaking between Adele and Emma. Yes, they are long, but they don’t feel particularly gratuitous or ill-fitting to the film overall. In Blue… everything is extended, explored to its limit, so their length does not seem awkward. Their explicitness is equally moot. Adele and Emma’s attraction and later relationship is intensely physical as well as spiritual. These intimate scenes reinforce this physicality. They celebrate it. Any controversy is, if anything, a little inane.
As indicated, Blue… takes it’s time. The beats of the story are familiar, but Kechiche’s film is not about exploring new narrative avenues, but in exposing its central topic of love, warts and all. As such, after the bliss of those halcyon days together, things necessarily grow difficult between Adele and Emma. The shock of blue colouring in Emma’s hair starts to disappear the same way that the initial intensity of a relationship will. Quite how the two of them will take to the harder prospect of the long haul together becomes the focus of the film’s back end.
It’s less easy-going here. You appreciate Kechiche’s strict adherence to his measured pacing, but remaining patient and focused on the rich details being presented becomes, frankly, a little testing. It’s one of Blue…‘s strangely nagging contradictions; it works so well because of how thorough it is, but 180 minutes starts to feel like a big ask. Time passes. Adele changes from student to teacher. Emma’s art becomes popular. They are pulled in different directions. You feel them growing distant from one another, just as the film pulls back. It’s almost as if Kechiche is daring the viewer to blink first.
Nevertheless, there is still some extraordinary work to come, not least a cathartic sequence set in a sparsely populated and dimly lit restaurant, as a cocktail of emotions swirl within Adele. You see it all on Exarcopoulos’ face. Tears and snot and anguish and hope and lust and all of it. Love is not rational, it is all-consuming and addictive. The turmoil is presented as openly as the euphoria earlier on.
Blue Is The Warmest Colour does not reinvent anything, but as mentioned above, that isn’t really the point. It’s about capturing an experience, and on that basis it is wholly successful. This is an extremely good movie that feels a hair’s breadth short of being a seriously great movie. I keep coming back to the length. There are scenes here that could have been trimmed, a couple that could’ve been excised completely even. …But then it would not be the film it is. As it stands, this is a swirling, heady, indulgent, lovely, devastating piece of work and one of the year’s best.