BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR stole the show at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, with critics showering it with praise for the sterling work of writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche, and particularly the film’s two leads Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. With a film receiving such acclaim, perhaps I was always going to be disappointed, and I was slightly.
Adèle (Exarchopoulos) is a typical, if shy, French teenager – she goes to school, gossips with friends, fantasises about falling in love, has a comfortable home life with her parents. Adèle’s focus in life is shifted irreversibly when she falls in love with an older blue-haired art student, Emma (Seydoux) and consequently gets cruelly ostracised by her clique of school friends. We follow the ins and outs of their relationship over several years, and watch as their professional and personal lives begin to compete.
Let’s not avoid the obvious – there’s a lot of sex in the film, and film sex is almost never sexy. You can also tell that a man directed these scenes, and understand the two leads’ bad blood with him for their treatment.
Far sexier are the numerous scenes of eating (not like that). I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much food consumed on film, and it’s all shoveled in without airs and graces, in domestic settings while talking or watching TV. Supposedly, Adèle Exarchopoulos was cast because of the distinctive way she ate, and that certainly comes off on film. The most erotic part of the whole film is when the two leads are fully clothed, ungraceful and awkward in a cafe, and is far more involving and sexually charged than any of the seedy, over-choreographed male gaze-driven scenes of them in the buff.
Everything else is pretty solid. The film works as a heartfelt coming-of-age romance, as a mature exploration of sexuality and sense of self, as a fascinating snapshot of contemporary French society, all presented in a way, as Eddie Izzard would describe it that is “kinda French”. Not many would discuss philosophy at garden parties, but if anyone actually does, then it’s probably the French.
Adèle Exarchopoulos is a real find, effortlessly natural, warm and convincing as a nervy teenager on a voyage of passionate self-discovery. The physical tics she gives Adèle, from her bashful smile to her near-constant toying with her hair are endearing, and bring her to vivid life. Emma is outwardly strong one in their relationship, but no less flawed and fragile – she is progressively blinded by professional ambition, by her art and her need to express herself, even if it comes at the expense of affection for Adèle. While others in cast give good performances, the film is always about the core romance, and the narrative focus never really shifts from it. Adèle and Emma are all that matter, and you’re so close, so intimate with these two loved-up young women that by the end of the film you feel like you’ve been through exactly the same journey, growing and going through the same turmoil with them.
Though the extended sex scenes essentially function as the film’s set pieces, the film’s sequences of spectacle, you find yourself a little put out whenever one happens, getting in the way as they do of a tender love story. I’m not even particularly prudish, or against showing sex on film – sex scenes are fine when they serve and advance the story. SHORTBUS, for instance, is a film primarily about sex and how it offers enlightenment and the ability for us to connect on a meaningful level, so it makes sense to have a lot of sex scenes in it as they move the story on and advance the characters.
Blue is the Warmest Colour, though, is at its best when the characters keep their clothes on. When people are talking, debating, arguing or eating, it’s enthralling. When they’re making love (though the deliberate way the scenes are constructed hardly justify the use of that euphemism) it’s just uncomfortable, and let’s be clear here, the same would be the case if it was a heterosexual relationship being depicted. The scenes are just too long, too emotionally stilted. These extensively choreographed and carefully filmed, almost “porny” sex scenes also stylisically jar with the naturalistic cinematography and improvisation of the the rest of the film. Sex in Shortbus was messy and natural, a passionate pile-on of flesh, but Blue is the Warmest Colour’s sex is too calculated. It’s also received too much attention in the media purely for being a lesbian relationship being depicted, though perhaps what should have been focused on more is the fact that a heterosexual man was shaping the intimate scenes between two lesbian characters exactly how he wanted it to play out.
When the film’s central couple aren’t having it off, Blue is the Warmest Colour is a beautiful film. Well-acted, filmed and confidently natural, it allows you to experience the highs and lows of falling in love and becoming an adult along with Adèle, and despite a 180-minute running time, you will be swept up the story and hardly notice how quickly time passes. Critically, though, the prominent sex scenes get in the way, and it’s the one area of the film where you really don’t want to see Abdellatif Kechiche’s fingerprints. The implications of his involvement with these scenes in addition to their final appearance promotes deep discomfort, and according to the testimonies of the actresses, these were not the only scenes that were unbearable to film. Obviously, Exarchopoulos and Seydoux don’t need me defending them – they’re perfectly able to voice their own objections (and they have) and both have promising careers ahead, but I just can’t completely discount how the tales from behind the scenes made me feel while watching. We’ve seen difficult, even abusive directors before, and incredibly bad relationships with their actors, and often this has little or no impact on the final film. Here, though, a great film becomes a good film for being a little bit icky. SSP