[14 April 2014]
A tacit requirement, it seems, of any piece of writing on the subject of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color is that it must mention its graphic sex scenes within the first paragraph. With that requirement now met, it can be said that sex is crucial but not irreducible to what makes this movie the masterwork that it is.
Sex is but one of the integral aspects of the film’s truest obsession: sensuality. Every action in the film, whether it is a sumptuous dinner scene or a shot of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) trying to control full-body sobs, leaps out of the screen to the point that you can smell the tomato sauce and feel the sting of hot tears. To be sure, the sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color are more vivid than one is likely to see in most cinema; were they to have involved straight characters, there likely would have still been outcry—although it is definitely the case that the love between Adèle and Emma (Léa Seydoux) struck a special cultural nerve.
In her fine essay included with the Criterion Collection edition of this film, B. Ruby Rich writes, “In the same week that Blue won the Palme d’Or, a violent suicide ruptured the sacred space of the Notre Dame Cathedral, with the aim of fomenting resistance to the law,” referring to the recent passage of marriage equality in France. Like the cultural divides it exists in, Blue is the Warmest Color depicts the volcanic emotional states that come to define whole societies.
Whether one takes this as a lesbian bildungsroman, a panoramic romantic epic, or simply as a tale of young love, with every frame it reaches out to the viewer with its intense appeals to sensation. The story of Adèle and Emma is compelling enough on its own terms, but director Kechiche takes it one step further, imbuing the celluloid with a menagerie of images that are designed to arouse every sense. The intimacy the viewer has with Adèle and Emma can be attributed both to the incredible work by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux as well as Kechiche’s piercing, arguably voyeuristic, camera. The amount of close-ups and tightly shot scenes are remarkable; at times it’s easy to feel boxed in, like it’s impossible to escape the world Adèle and Emma create.
There is, however, a world outside the confines of hushed conversations and longing glances. Near the film’s conclusion, after having separated for a length of time, the two young women meet together at a café. Their encounter goes through nearly every emotional state: strained tears, intense kisses, groped bodies, and awkward silences co-exist within a timeframe that feels longer than it is. When Emma gets up to leave, the camera first glances at two patrons sitting at the bar; then, as it follows Emma’s departure, it reveals that it is daytime, something the dark interior of the restaurant obscured.
What the audience has just seen, of course, is not the end of a relationship but a destruction of a world. When at the end of the story Adèle visits an art gallery Emma is participating in—with a new lover, no less—she floats about the party like a phantom, awkwardly gliding through the social mores she once knew so well.
In her PopMatters review of the film, Cynthia Fuchs argues that Adele “can’t say how she sees herself apart from Emma and neither can the film.” At three hours, Blue is the Warmest Color is no quick investment, whether emotionally or intellectually, and even though a good deal of the proceedings are spent with the camera gazing closely at Adèle and Emma, it is this precise identification of the former with the latter that builds tension in the storyline. The way Kechiche carefully balances a fluid, rapidly moving “outer world” with a deeply intimate “inner world” is what makes Blue is the Warmest Color feel not like a weighty, dense epic that requires the devotion and attention of a Fassbinder film. The story plays out as lengthily as it does because Kechiche, just as he demanded of his actors, wants his audience to take in every conceivable aspect of Adèle and Emma’s story.
In this respect it is, to some extent, false to make the sensory distinction between the sex scenes and the even lengthier scenes of pasta consumption. Though conceding she would not likely work with him again, Exarchopoulos credited Kechiche’s directorial style for effectively creating “a film about sexual passion—about skin, and about flesh, because Kechiche shot very close-up. You get the sense that they want to eat each other, to devour each other.” To watch Adèle and Emma discover each other’s bodies, then, is a corollary to the sumptuous plates of pasta, oysters, and vegetables enjoyed by the movie’s array of characters. As far as descriptions go this seems crude, but Exarchopoulos and Seydoux make it seem meaningful—but, above all, real.
As Rich humorously notes, Blue is the Warmest Color bizarrely “arrived in a world seemingly beset by a peculiar amnesia, according to which no director had ever made an art film with sex scenes (certainly not lesbian ones) before.” Undoubtedly, Kechiche’s lingering camera trains its eye on things many directors would not, but the atypically explicit quality of the sex scenes has less to do with shocking his audience and more to do with immersing his viewers in a sensually rich environment most comparable cinematic ventures are rarely able to construct. His often brutal treatment of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux is of some concern, enough to say that it would be irresponsible to throw out an excuse like “great art requires suffering.” The performances, however, are not alone in their pain. Blue is the Warmest Color is the kind of artwork that, love it or hate it, invokes sentiments of the strongest order in all of its participants, be they actors or spectators.
“Can pleasure be shared?” Emma asks a friend over a heaping plate of food, which Adèle serves to her and everyone else at a party near the middle of the movie. Emma argues that pleasure is inherently individualistic; there is no way, for example, for her to fully experience Adèle’s joy. Paradoxically, Blue is the Warmest Color itself proves Emma wrong; though it may be extreme to say the audience has an emotional experience identical to either Adèle or Emma, the film so compellingly constructs a whole world made up of only two people, one that cannot exist any other way.
After the story’s climactic fight, in which Adèle finds herself left out on the street by an angry Emma, it’s easy to feel isolation, and not just because the city streets are dark and lonely. Like Adèle, the audience tries but is unable to navigate a way to the new world waiting somewhere along those streets, the one that will feebly try to offer the fulfillment that young love so vivaciously gave. Even in this moment of utter defeat, Kechiche makes the audience share in her tragedy, just as he makes it share in her gustation, her laughter, and her pleasure. Given the incredible performances of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, easily the single greatest contributing factor to Blue is the Warmest Color‘s success, it’s easy to share in this experience, even if its requirements are demanding.
So, yes, the amount of sex in Blue is the Warmest Color is considerable, much more than most films—even by the standards of European art cinema. But one ought ask himself why his eyes zoom in during those intimate, lengthy scenes between Adèle and Emma while failing to do the same for the instances where Adèle slowly paces herself through plates lined with oysters and glasses full of wine. The sex is intended to arouse, but not for the benefit of baser impulses.
What Blue is the Warmest Color demands of its viewers is to stop looking and start sensing, start engaging with cinema with all five senses. There does lie a simple love story at the core of this remarkable film, but it should be experienced not as as a story to be read or to be watched; it’s meant to be felt. No wonder the critics went as crazy as they did upon Blue Is the Warmest Color‘s breakout turn at Cannes: it’s a demand few are ready to accept, let alone be prepared for.