Leave it to the French to describe the indescribable, especially when it comes to love. L’amour toujours, l’amour fou, l’amour supreme, etc. etc. We’ve heard that love is a many-splendored thing, and director Abdellatif Kechiche takes it upon himself to show as many of these splendors as he possibly can in Blue Is The Warmest Colour. That’s no easy task, but the evidence suggests that Kechiche and his crew are committed to getting to the nub of love, if such a thing is even obtainable. From its three-hour running time to the intensity of its performances, this is the intimate drama repackaged as an epic, small in scale but big in themes and reach. Blue Is The Warmest Colour is a phenomenal and noble attempt to describe that indescribable, amour in all its folie. But does it succeed?”
The amant driven to folie in this romance is Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), presented for all intents and purposes as a typical 17-year-old girl; insecure, pressured by her peers and keen to make her first inroads into what will ultimately become her love life. We watch as she and her pals ogle the boys in their class, before she and one of the guys, Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), go out on a date. From the start, what Blue Is The Warmest Colour captures is the subjective nature of love and desire. It takes all shapes and sizes to make the world, yet we’re constantly driven towards the likes of Thomas, chiselled and exciting. Despite dating and eventually sleeping with him, this is not what Adèle wants. Early on, she exchanges a passing glance with Emma (Léa Seydoux), blue of hair and rebellious in spirit. It appears to be love at first sight for Adèle, who actively seeks Emma out soon after.
We’re drowning in films about the wonders of love, but Blue Is The Warmest Colour acknowledges love as both a wonderful thing and a necessary part of everyday life. Adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel, and using handheld camerawork for most scenes, Kechiche casts the developing love affair between Adèle and Emma in the context of an identifiable reality. In a style invoking comparison to the Dardenne brothers, we see Adèle live a life of relative constancy and normality against which she begins to explore her own desires. She goes to school, does homework, eats with her family and hangs out with friends. In the midst of this comfortable repetition, Emma’s appearance in Adèle’s life shakes things up, for better or worse. Kechiche and co-writer Ghalia Lacroix channel Maroh’s text into a believable näiveté for Exarchopoulos to make her own. See Adèle’s uneasy first venture into a gay bar as she seeks out the woman who entranced her before in the town square. This is a world she’s never experienced, but the risk guarantees a blue-rinsed reward.
Our heroines meet face to face, and attraction is apparent right from the start. The flirtations and first conversations between them rope us in, guaranteeing our emotional investment. Early on, Adèle and Emma meet in a park dappled in sunshine, but Kechiche’s camera focuses on the actresses’ faces. Exarchopoulos’ rounded features compliment those of the older, earthy Seydoux. The opposites attract; the young schoolgirl and the seasoned rebel are drawn to each other and we are drawn to them in turn. Furtive glances and gentle pecks on the cheek are tenderly captured, with Exarchopoulos and Seydoux brilliantly committing to the emotional perils of their characters.
The tragedy of many filmic love stories is that they opt to stop at “…happily ever after.” Blue Is The Warmest Colour takes no such easy option. After the initial highs, time passes to expose weakness and temptations, leading to dispute and despair. Careers conflict, as Adèle trains to be a teacher and Emma continues her work as an artist. Professional commitments and the challenges of a relationship all bear down on our heroines. Amidst triumph and turmoil, the emotions of the characters never ring false. In awarding the film the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, Steven Spielberg and his jury justly acknowledged the emotional intensity of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux’s work. They elevate Blue Is The Warmest Colour above any queer cinema pigeonholes. This is love, and that should translate to just about anyone.
The arrival of Blue Is The Warmest Colour comes with controversy. Even if it hadn’t won the Palme d’Or, Blue Is The Warmest Colour would still have achieved notoriety for its scenes of lesbian sex. Whilst they are undeniably full-on and erotic, they also sees Kechiche all but abandon the handheld realism he had skillfully used to that point. Film fans will continue to argue whether the sex on display captures the intensity of their passion or just throws a heteronormative eye on a homosexual relationship. There has also been a furore over labour disputes and a frosty working atmosphere on set, with both lead actresses declaring they would not work with Kechiche again. If this is the case, the disputes don’t show in the finished product. It may last three hours, but Blue Is The Warmest Colour rarely feels stretched. It’s a grounded and identifiable love story, pure and simple, powered by two emotionally devastating performances. Blue symbolizes liberty in the French tricolour; Blue Is The Warmest Colour frees itself from unnecessary categorizing by being emotionally honest. Anyone who’s ever found and/or lost love will readily identify.