Blue is the Warmest Color

by Sean "Keanu Grieves" Hanson

EXPECTATIONS: The director of Blue Is the Warmest Color could star in his own sitcom, Everybody Hates Abdellatif Kechiche. Really. His cast and crew have spoken out against his work ethic, which involved making his actresses finger each other for eight days straight. Feminists and lesbians have spoken out against his comically heterosexual take on homosexual sex. Acting wunderkind Zach Braff has spoken out against Kechiche's failure to cast him as the older love interest. Even Kechiche has suggested his film shouldn't be released, in light of all the publicity-round shit-talking and his own stupid refusal to call the movie Braff Is the Warmest Color. Still, no one (except Zach Braff) denies that this is one of the best films of the year. I hope it lives up to its reputation.

REALITY: Early in Blue Is the Warmest Color, our 17-year-old protagonist absent-mindedly chews spaghetti with her mouth open while she watches television from another room. That girl is Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Thanks to a transformative, long-term relationship with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a college student four years her senior, she will be a woman by the end credits crawl. She will no longer chew with her mouth open. It's a finely observed detail in a three-hour film built on finely observed details, stitched together with a hypnotic intensity-of-character that propels Blue Is the Warmest Color to the highest echelon of realist cinema's relationship dramas.

But to call it a relationship drama is a tad reductive. Most critics have focused on that aspect because their relationship is the driving plot for two-thirds of the film, but Blue Is the Warmest Color (when translated accurately, the title is The Life of Adèle, Chapters 1 and 2) is about a whole lot more than that: coming of age, disillusionment, forming your identity, carving out boundaries, making friends who won't judge you for who you are, etc. Because of this -- and because Adèle and Emma's relationship provides an instruction manual for not fucking over your first love -- Blue Is the Warmest Color should be required viewing for any late teenager who can endure three hours of subtitles and no explosions, explicit (and entirely gratuitous, but we'll get back to this point) sex scenes be damned.

Lesbians can only get intimate by candlelight. That's science.

When we first meet Adèle, she's a shy, intelligent high-school student, interested in literature and provoked by her friends into losing her virginity, which she does with a decent guy for whom she apparently feels nothing. One day, while chilling at a bus stop, she spots the blue-haired Emma, holding hands with her girlfriend. (In one of those aforementioned details, the dye in Emma's hair is fading, suggesting that she's already beginning to shrug off her youthful impertinence.) To the chagrin of Adèle's heteronormative friends, she and Emma begin spending time together while Emma works a way out of her declining relationship. An art student with an interest in philosophy, Emma explains Sartre to Adèle and sketches her in the park. Emma admits that literature and English, two subjects in which Adèle excels (or, at least, thinks she excels), aren't her strong suits. They talk about sex. Finally, they kiss. They meet each other's parents. They move in together. A few years pass. And then they face the crucial problem in any conventionally defined relationship: Either you're going to die with this person or one of you has to find a way out.

And one of them does, in an impulsive act of lonely desperation. Or maybe both of them do, but Blue Is the Warmest Color proceeds according to Adèle's limited perspective. This is one of the film's great strengths: There's an entirely different plot bubbling around the periphery, and it takes a viewer who's made it to the other side of their mid-twenties to piece it all together. I'm thirty and I've only seen it once, but this is an experiential prism that will furnish different meanings to people of different ages. Thanks to phenomenal acting and writing (I'm assuming most of this material was present in Julie Maroh's graphic novel), it's easy to see oneself in Adèle and Emma, often simultaneously. Like all great tragedies, their flaws dictate their fates. But like the most common tragedies, a gulf widens between two lovers who came into a relationship with nothing but affection and good intentions. Emma delights in teaching Adèle about art and philosophy, making the grievous assumption that just because her girlfriend's bright, she'll share her interests. For her part, Adèle is a coward, eventually isolating herself because she can't bring herself to admit, to either her family or friends, that she's in a same-sex relationship. Neither maintain their commitment to the ideals they hold at the beginning of the film. Both will learn some hard lessons by the final ambiguous shot.

A work-safe depiction of this film's sex scenes.If Blue Is the Warmest Color has a flaw, it's the sex scenes. But don't take it from me, a mostly straight white man; take it from a handful of lesbians. While I can appreciate the intent, expanding the focus of this drama to include the defining physical expression of love, Kechiche beats his head against the brick, semen-covered wall of his own male gaze. For instance, are we to believe that, in the course of Adèle's second sexual experience (and her first with a woman), she would find herself fingering Emma from behind while rubbing her clit against the small of her back? That reverse-cowgirl grinding provides the ultimate orgasm? That, despite the raw, urgent feel of the sex scenes, either woman would take time to light a dozen candles and arrange them around the bed? I'm far from an expert in such matters, but the sex scenes here are consistently distracting.

One minute, Adèle and Emma are kissing in the park and we're buzzing because the scene is so well-shot and well-timed, the culmination of so much romantic tension. Suddenly, they're twisted around each other like pretzels and Kechiche is jump-cutting so they switch positions, each a little more unconvincing than the last. And unlike Blue Valentine or Shame, the most recent prestige films to earn an NC-17 for sexual content, the sex is far from crucial to the feel of the film. Ironically, the most necessary sex in the film is the least explicit. If the sex was included as a calculated move to draw attention to the film -- well, it worked, I guess. It may even be the lone draw for teenagers who will leave the theater with something far more important than softcore material for the spank bank. I suppose that's a good thing, but it would be far better if Kechiche choreographed more convincing and representative lesbian sex in a two-pronged effort to round out his film and generate enough controversy to put it on the map. And if Exarchopoulos and Seydoux didn't turn in the best performances of the year, I'd also suggest hiring actual lesbians.

The Sex ScenesI Don't Think Lesbians Do it That Way, Abdellatif
The Dialogue10/10
The Cinematography10/10
The Seydoux10/10
The Exarchopoulos20/10
Overall50/50

MINORITY REPORT: Oh, sure, that video you linked gets half a million views in a month, but when I post a video called "Straight Males React to Sex Scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color" it gets taken down after an hour for being obscene. Fine, whatever. I don't need your dumb YouTubes anyway. - Joseph "Straight Male" Wade

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– Joseph "Jay Dub" Wade (@JayDubSA)

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