Blue is the Warmest Colour

February 15, 2014
Léa Seydoux as Emma in 'Blue is the Warmest Colour', 2013
Léa Seydoux as Emma in 'Blue is the Warmest Colour', 2013

Queen Victoria allegedly saw no reason for criminalising lesbianism because she couldn’t understand what such women actually did. Although this old story is almost certainly false, on the very slim chance there is anyone today feeling similarly bewildered, Blue is the Warmest Colour offers a most comprehensive demonstration.

This film, which goes by the catchy title, La vie d‘Adèle – Chapitres 1 et 2, in the original French, has won an extraordinary number of awards, including the Palme d’Or last year at Cannes. It has also made the news because of a public spat between the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, and his two young stars, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. The complaints centred around a ten minute lesbian love scene which took ten days to shoot, and a fight scene filmed in a continuous hour-long take. The director is said to have yelled: “Hit her! Hit her again!” as real blood flowed.

In response, Kechiche has pointed out that neither actress was complaining when they tearfully embraced him on stage at Cannes. He also suggested he might sue for defamation. Whatever the rights and wrongs, Chapitres 3 et 4 of Adèle’s life story appear to be under a cloud.

Kechiche can count himself fortunate the movie has been so warmly received by the critics. It’s quite an achievement to spend ten days shooting two beautiful young French girls rolling around naked in every conceivable sexual posture, and not be considered one of the greatest perves ever to stand behind a camera. Whatever its value as cinema this is surely some kind of male fantasy. One might even contemplate words such as ‘sadism’ and ‘megalomania’. It seems that porn is quick but art is long.

It’s hard to be objective about the ten minute sex scene. While not as explicit or brutal as the sexual encounters in many of Catherine Breillat’s films, it leaves little to the imagination. For many people it will provide the main reason for seeing the movie.

The trap for voyeurs is that the film runs for a solid three hours, during which there is more soap than sex. We meet Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) as a high school student feeling confused about her sexuality. In the second part of the story she is in her early twenties, working as a pre-school teacher. The seminal event of Adèle’s last year of school is her encounter with a blue-haired art student named Emma (Léa Seydoux), and the discovery of true love. While the couple live together for some time, by the end of the movie the romance has run its course.

Girl meets girl, girl loses girl. Will the lovers ever be reunited? This is Mills & Boon territory, albeit with a Sapphic twist. If the story were more engaging it would be easier to understand the rapturous reception it has enjoyed. One suspects many admirers have turned off their critical faculties in the desire not to appear prudish.

After three long hours one has scrutinised Adèle’s psyche (and various other bits) in such detail it seems there is nothing left to learn. Aside from the fact that the lovers are both female there is little that distinguishes this story from many another coming-of-age tale. For all the director’s attempts to blur the boundaries between acting and real life, the movie is not in the same class as Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), which broke new ground in Hollywood’s portrayal of male homosexuality.

In comparison with two barely articulate cowpokes trying to cope with a fatal attraction, Khechiche’s lesbian drama is relentlessly middle-class. Adèle and Emma are modern Parisiennes living in a city that tolerates a thriving gay subculture. They hang out in lesbian bars, go on protest marches, and mix with a crowd that waffles about art and literature.

Adèle’s saga, which promises to stretch into another film or two, hints at a nostalgia for Francois Truffaut’s sequence of Antoine Doinel films. The chief difference is that Antoine led a more eventful life. Adèle’s evolution is so completely tied to her sexuality that the story feels interiorised and self-conscious.

The real love affair in this movie is not between Adèle and Emma, but between Adèle and Kechiche’s camera. There is rarely a moment when the camera is not invading the heroine’s space. No tear or drop of sweat goes undetected. When she is asleep the camera creeps into her room and examines the drool on her parted lips. It feels as if she is being stalked by the invisible demon from the Paranormal Activity franchise.

There is something creepy about this obsessive closeness, which is partially diffused by the sheer duration of this study of a young woman’s emotional life. It’s debatable whether Khechiche, as a male director, has been tremendously brave in this intense investigation of a lesbian love affair, or merely presumptuous. Jane Austen never wote a scene with two men talking together in a room because she had never witnessed such a conversation. Khechiche had no hesitation in making two heterosexual actresses engage in the most intimate physical contact for days on end.

Blue is the Warmest Colour
France/Belgium/Spain, rated MA 15+
179 mins
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche; written by Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix, from a comic by Julie Maroh; starring Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Aurelian Recoing, Salim Kechiouche

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 15 February, 2014.