Blue is the Warmest Colour (La vie d'Adèle - Chapîtres 1&2) (Abdellatif Kechiche - France/Belgium/Spain) 175 minutes
Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or win for this three-hour drama about a lesbian love affair between two young women propelled him into the international spotlight, though he was already well established in France. Twice a winner of Best Picture at the Césars for L’Esquive and La Graine et le mulet (released in English with terrible titles, Games of Love and Chance and Couscous respectively), he is a razor-sharp observer of everyday French society and a director adept at coaxing electric, demotic performances out of unknown actors. La Graine et le mulet is one of the finest films about contemporary France and the struggles of immigrant communities to gain a foothold in society; it made little impact outside of France though, nor did his first period film, the 2010 Black Venus – about Sarah Baartman, the ‘Hottentot Venus’.
Though a universally popular winner at Cannes, Blue is the Warmest Colour has been the subject of raging controversy in France among industry professionals for what its crew called its director’s abusive behaviour. The two lead actresses, Adèle Exarchopolous and Léa Seydoux (the first real star to appear in a Kechiche film) have also said they will not work with him again, despite being co-awarded the Palme d’Or for their performances. It is not unusual for a film director to be accused of tyranny or megalomania but it is ironic that a man of such alleged abrasiveness should be a brilliantly sympathetic director of young women. Kechiche’s work might even be considered bone fide feminist, a rarity among male directors, and he has set Sara Forestier, Hafsia Herzi and, now, Exarchopolous, off on their careers. Whatever the conditions that surrounded its making, Blue is the Warmest Colour is another sensitive portrayal of women that subtly shifts focus as it moves along.
Based on Julie Maroh’s comic book Le bleu est une couleur chaude, the film relates the early adventures in love of Adèle (Exarchopolous), a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl from Lille, besotted with the 18th-century novelist Pierre de Marivaux (the film’s French title, La vie d’Adèle, is a nice classical allusion in this vein), and, like most teenagers, looking for love. She initially finds it in a handsome young schoolmate, Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte) but soon realises she is more interested in women. Though shy, she manages to catch the eye of twenty-something artist Emma (Seydoux), a brooding, boyish, blue-haired lesbian. They are soon madly in love, going to gallery openings together, lying to each other’s parents about their respective situations and having beastly sex, which is filmed in explicit wide-angle long-takes. You expect homophobia and accusations of statutary rape to arise but they are touched on briefly and the film quickly moves on, as Adèle becomes a nursery school teacher and Emma’s painting career begins to take off. One of the strengths of Blue is the Warmest Colour, aside from the characterisation and the performances, is the way it flips itself halfway through, shifting from being a self-consciously ‘lesbian’ drama to one that is more a conventional love story. This movement reflects the trajectory of the heroine’s consciousness (the film’s subtitle in French is ‘Chapters 1 & 2’) but it is also a deft wrongfooting of the audience, as well as mainlining a subject matter often considered marginal in the cinema.
Exarchopolous and Seydoux are both superb, particularly the former, who pours youthful hopefulness and insecurity into her character. Kechiche films with the same claustrophobic assiduity familiar from his previous films (it’s striking how similar the dinner table scenes are to the ones in La Graine et le mulet, right down to food sticking messily to people’s chins and lips). The sex scenes look very real but were actually filmed with prosthetic pudenda so the actresses weren’t actually expected to give that much for their art. One of the scenes is almost ten minutes long – it’s neither erotic nor pornographic, lacking the mediated aestheticisation of either, but instead looks like a natural continuation in private of the couple’s public relationship. The sharp cuts to and from the sex scenes underscore this. While some might find the sex a little too much to take, there is nothing particularly jarring about it within the context of the film. If there is one complaint to make about this splendidly moving film though, it is its length. Kechiche, when asked if he would make it shorter for general release, replied that he would make it longer if he could. This was not a problem with La Graine et le mulet though it was with Black Venus, which were both in excess of two-and-a-half hours long. You might argue that Blue is the Warmest Colour is sufficiently conscious of the passing of time to absorb the longueurs, but, good as it is, it does drag at times. Though it’s not a fatal shortcoming, you feel that Kechiche might easily have shaved thirty minutes off its three-hour running time without making a worse film.