Jan. 6th, 2014

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The original French title of this movie is "The Life of Adèle," which gives the viewer a better idea of what they're in for than the English one. When we meet teenage Adèle, played by Adèle Exarchopoulos, she's attending high school, dates boys, and gossips with her friends. We watch her pursue a relationship with one boy that seems promising, but Adèle has doubts. Then an encounter with a female schoolmate introduces the possibility that Adèle may prefer women, which is confirmed when she goes out to a gay bar one night and meets blue-haired art student Emma (Léa Seydoux).

Let's get the prurient parts out of the way first. "Blue is the Warmest Color" has several scenes of explicit lesbian sex, as well as at least one heterosexual one. I'm honestly not sure what to make of them. They're unrealistically rendered and borderline exploitative to the point where I have to wonder why they made the final cut of the film - and if director Abdellatif Kechiche learned anything from making "Black Venus," the crushing biopic of Sarah Baartman, the "Venus Hottentot." Or maybe he just has a fascination with women's bodies and didn't realize how unrelentlingly the male gaze intrudes on his characters' most intimate moments together. Fortunately it's fairly simple to separate out the sex scenes from the rest of the film, and I don't think that they hurt the final product much.

And the rest of the film is certainly worth watching. Seydoux has proven a dependable actress, and she's wonderful here, but it's Exarchopoulos who carries the film. The story is told from Adèle's point of view, and Exarchopoulos's face frequently dominates the frame, sensitive and vulnerable. We see her at her best and worst, running the full spectrum of emotions and bringing the audience along at every step. The relationship between Adèles and Emma is beset by drama from the very beginning, and Adèle's growing pains and sexual awakening don't go smoothly. Adèle's happiness and heartache are beautifully conveyed, but it's her moments of uncertainty and doubt that are the most memorable.

The film is broken up into two parts, the first showing Adèle at school when she first realizes her attraction to Emma, and the second some time later when they are an established couple, and things begin to go awry. I prefer the first half a little more than the second, but both are highlighted by hair-raising confrontations scenes where Adèle is put on the defensive. The film's running time is over three hours, but it's not a slog. Rather, the time is necessary to get to know the pair in depth. We see them at work, at play, with friends and family, and the differences in how they approach life. This gives the most dramatic moments the necessary context to make the most impact.

"Blue is the Warmest Color" has attracted quite a lot of controversy, not only for the sex scenes and the contentious production, but because of the debate over the portrayal of the relationship. The original author of the graphic novel that the film is based on, Julie Maroh, intended for the relationship to be mundane and ordinary to demystify homosexual relationships. In her view, and those of several prominent critics, Kechiche undermined this by idealizing the heroines, taking care to make them look beautiful and comparing them to classical figures in paintings and sculptures.

While Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are certainly lovely, and the sex scenes are regrettable, I thought the film did make the pair relatable, accessible, and fairly ordinary. Perhaps at first, through Adèle's eyes, Emma is someone mysterious and exotic, but that goes away along with the blue dye in Emma's hair in the second half of the film, where they struggle to cohabitate. After the giddy rush of first love, Adèle and Emma face the same problems that most couple do - mismatched expectations, struggling to fit into each other's lives, and competing demands on their time and attention.

Notably, I like that the film addresses the characters' attitudes toward the lesbian relationship with considerable care. Adèle has a gay friend but is much less sure about being homosexual herself, and is more reluctant than Emma to embrace the lifestyle. The first big confrontation scene is between Adèle and a group of her school friends, who are curious about Emma. There's a mix of reactions, only one of which could be interpreted as homophobic, and it's Adèle's unwillingness to out herself that escalates the situation.

No broad political statements, and no grand messages. In the end the story is about Adèle and Emma and their relationship, shaped by their personal feelings and issues, strengths and flaws. I suspect it's not a particularly good adaptation of its source material, but it stands perfectly well as a film about two young women in love.


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