After winning over the Cannes jury, chaired by Steven Speilberg, and being awarded the Palme d’Or in may, Abdellatif Kechiche’s tenuous adaptation of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Le Bleu est un coleur chaude was beset with controversy. Both Adèle Exarchopolous (Adèle) and Léa Seydoux (Emma) spoke out against Kechiche and his almost Svengali-like methods of directing, abusing his power to force them into the graphic sex scenes. Seydoux claimed she felt ‘like a prostitute’ afterwards and that she ‘would never work with him again.’ Kechiche defended himself in an editorial, claiming that the controversy ‘spoiled’ the success, however, the scandal has also fuelled much publicity and excitement from critics and peers, begging the question did the film earn the Palme d’Or for its inherent value or for its controversial portrayal of a lesbian relationship.
Using a graphic novel as inspiration, Kechiche weaves an intimate character study that is both graphic and novelistic. In fact, Kechiche implicitly reveals his modus operandi in the first act through dialogue when Adèle explains her love for Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne. ‘He spends 600 pages, and yes he spends a lot of time on description but the result is he really gets under the skin of a woman’ and this is a perfect (albeit a simplistic teenage) way of describing the project. Which is why the original title ‘La vie d’Adèle- chapitres 1 & 2′ is a more accurate and honest title.
Time is Kechiche’s central device as his goal is to capture the essence of Adèle (Emma quotes Sartre’s essence before existence theory) over a long period of time. The film opens as Adèle is going about a regular day; getting the bus to school, enthralled in a literature class, talking to friends about boys, eating dinner in front of the TV with her family and then asleep in her bed. It is clear that Kechiche wants the viewer to take in the details from the way she eats, to the way she wears her hair so that perhaps the viewer will fall in and out of love with her as well. The film is shot with realist restraint, the only visual flair is the constant glow of warm, natural light that intensifies when the two are together. Kechiche is not shy with close ups either, forcing the viewer to gaze at and memorise the faces of the couple.
The film shifts gears once Adèle meets Emma as she is ostracised from her school friends for exploring the gay scene in Lille. But ‘Blue is the warmest colour’ never truly feels like a political film, at least LGBT issues are not at the forefront. Rather, Kechiche is interested in the meeting point of the personal and the political and how people who adopt alternative lifestyles function in society. Adèle goes to rallies and pride parades but she seems to go to support Emma more than an actual personal desire for radical change.
The seven minute graphic sex scene acts as the center piece as the built up tension and frustration of Adèle is finally quenched. There has been a lot of debate of the necessity of the scene and whether or not it is realistic or not, not to mention the thought of Kechiche forcing them to do take after take, pushing the actresses further and further into unbridled passion. The scene is perfectly coherent with the rest of the film and captures the intensity of a powerful sexual awakening brilliantly, displaying a poetic realism that Anthony Lane describes as ‘on the brink of romantic agony.’ As for questioning the necessity of it, I wonder how a director can make a film about sexuality without depicting sex itself and we are currently witnessing a trend of directors who are unashamed of delving into real sex scenes. With the likes of Steve McQueen ‘Shame’ and Lars Von Trier’s upcoming ‘Nymphomaniac’ the debate over ‘pornography’ in film will become more important as cinemagoers become more desensitised.
The passion between the two is tragically extinguished as the film’s pacing speeds up and suddenly Adèle is older and the differences between the two are more apparent. Kechiche takes his time in the first act but covers a lot more ground in the second and third, documenting about four years of Adèle’s life. An important theme, that has been overshadowed by the controversy and the debates over LGBT issues, is that of class. Although, it does not seem obvious at first, Adèle and Emma come from to very different backgrounds and this distance is excellently and humorously presented during the ‘meet the parents’ sequence.
As the film reaches a conclusion, Adèle and Emma find stability in their separate lives but it is clear that they will never be able to forget their experience together. Controversy and scandal aside, this is not just a film about sex or sexuality but rather how a young woman’s life is defined by the two. Exarchopolous, who was relatively undiscovered beforehand, delivers one of the best performances of the year.
Reviewed by Sean Gallen.