Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) loves La Vie de Marianne. And between sloppy bites of her gyro, sitting across a café table from her skeptical high school classmate, she explains why. While Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte) confesses he can’t get through such “fat books”m she extols the “vocabulary and the long sentences”, contending that the writer, Pierre de Marivaux, “gets under her skin”. Adèle is on a roll: she goes on to say that, as much as she loves reading, and especially the immersive experience of some reading, she detests the usual over-explaining that goes on in her literature classes. “When a teacher makes me over-analyze a book,” she says, gyro sauce visible on her lips, “It closes off my imagination.”
The scene comes early in Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle: Chapitres 1 & 2), and it makes clear enough the film’s interest in a few things, including the 15-year-old’s independence and determination, her increasing impatience with her peers and insistent pursuit of sensual experience, and her lips. Repeatedly, Adèle’s lips serve as sign and puzzle, indicating her youth and hunger, her capacity for consumption and her efforts to breathe. As she eats, repeatedly, her lips show traces of pasta sauce or wine, and as she speaks, you see the mechanics of words forming, her articulation of ideas. Even when she sleeps in the bedroom where she lives with her parents — oblivious, trusting, devoted in their way — the camera hovers near her lips as she snores, so faintly.
Such visual detailing is of a piece with the movie’s ongoing examination of Adèle’s transformation from child to woman, an examination that seems intimate because of the camera’s literal proximity — whether borrowing from the panning close-ups in The 400 Blows‘ classroom or from the tight following frames of Rosetta — but is also inexorably removed from that process, gesturing toward it but never quite comprehending it. As much as Abdellatif Kechiche’s film suggests it might be getting under Adèle’s skin, as much as it follows her from moment to moment and year to year (for there is a break of several years between chapters one and two), it is unable to explain her.
This inability and the challenges it poses for cinema are not new, as is made clear in both Truffaut’s and the Dardennes’ films. Still, much attention is paid in Blue is the Warmest Color to the possibility of knowledge — and some sort of possession — through observation, and so deploys some rather relentless observation. Apart from Adèle’s lips, the film attends — as you have no doubt heard — to her sexual activities, as a child with Thomas and also alone, and then, as an emergent adult when she meets Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue-haired, blue-eyed student at the École des Beaux-Arts who helps Adèle to act on passions she knows she possesses.
Their meeting is visceral in multiple ways, at least in the ways a film might present a visceral experience, which is to say, visually. Emma and Adèle share an enchanted moment on the street, exchanging gazes as they walk past one another, a set of shots — close on their eyes and also following their movements — that frames such gazing as a mobile, mutual process, perhaps beyond but quite related to the all-consuming gaze usually imagined for film viewing). This initial exchange leads to a more proper meeting at a lesbian bar, where they speak and flirt and expose themselves as differently situated in this particular space. While Emma leans into the frame, at ease, even commanding, Adèle’s eyes suggest her unvoiced questions, as she is seduced and seducing but also resisting definition — as a teenager, lesbian or anyone else who might feel wary of being “over-analyzed.”
In this capacity, Adèle — who goes on to become a teacher, even as this profession disappoints Emma, who urges her to “write” — avoids narrating herself: she doesn’t articulate what she wants or sees, she guesses at how to impress Emma (on hearing Emma’s explanation of Sartre’s belief in individual freedom, she asserts that he’s “like Bob Marley,” as the philosopher and prophet are “the same thing”) and how to place herself. Expressing her search for a place, even a shifting one, Blue is the Warmest Color creates a fabric of close-ups, Emma and Adèle’s eyes, their hands, their body parts. These conventional images suggest intimacy and ecstasy during sex scenes, while stories about the film provoke questions about who’s looking at whom or how performances might be produced or received (Julie Maroh, on whose graphic novel the film is based, calls the film “voyeuristic,” which leads to discomfited viewers giggling at it).
In raising these questions, the film is sometimes derivative and sometimes disturbing, occasionally remarkable and too often trite. As it presses up against the limits of representation, of film and other arts, it also lapses into those limits. During a (chapter two) dinner party at Emma and Adèle’s home, the guests appear against an outdoor movie screen that shows Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box (1928), yet another effort to explain and also to worry about an unknowable woman; Adèle and her guests listen to Joachim (Stéphane Mercoyrol), a gallery owner whose favor may be instrumental in Emma’s career going forward. Moved by some paintings Emma has made of her muse, Adèle, he holds forth on the elusiveness of women’s sexual pleasures: “Ever since women have been shown in paintings,” submits Joachim, “their ecstasy is shown more than men’s, which is shown via woman.”
As he speaks, the camera cuts repeatedly to close-ups of his audience, Emma’s friends and associates, and also Adèle, who looks miserable, out of place and wondering how to act. As it happens, she meets a young Arabic actor who’s been to America, he says, to play “action” parts, which is to say, terrorists. “Allahu akbar!” he offers, and they laugh together. It’s a brief moment, a two-shot, where a shared understanding indicates not only the burden of playing to stereotypes, but also the burden of knowing that’s what you’re doing. He asks her about her work, and when she says she loves children, he wonders whether she wants to be a mother. It’s a query that simultaneously places and displaces Adèle, and reminds you, however clumsily, of the many burdens borne by movie characters called on to represent ideals and communities, rather than complexities and individuals.
It’s not exactly a surprise that Adèle’s life — or more accurately, her representation — comes apart following this party, her sense of herself in relation to her body and to Emma slips away even as she tries desperately to understand it and also, to represent it. Throughout this process, the film maintains uncomfortably close shots of Adèle as well as a continuing distance from her. She can’t say how she sees herself apart from Emma and neither can the film. As you see her weep in a window seat or perform with her young students, shower or apply makeup, you see that you don’t see so much, really, not any more than when you see the apparently explicit sex scenes. The abstraction might be this, that art cannot do what you want it to do. And still, you want it to do it. But Blue is the Warmest Color makes a more mundane case too, that this film, for all its claims to truth and truthful fantasy, is shaped by limits, whether or not it acknowledges them.