Before I start the critique proper, I want to get this out of the way: yes, there is a 7 minute long lesbian sex scene that is possibly the most explicit to have appeared in recent memory. But please don’t allow the stories of scandal that you’ve more than likely read blur your judgement of this film prior to watching it; only know that those scenes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how brilliantly frank and honest the film-making is.
Director Abdellatif Kechiche’s slow-burning, liberal adaptation of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel tells the tale of a young lady named Adèle who starts the story as an outwardly straight girl in high school, but whose life is changed when she encounters (and instantly falls in love with) Emma.
The story unfolds via Kechiche’s typical style of flawlessly naturalistic conversations that somehow paradoxically seem meticulously crafted, driving plot points and character development home with effortless gusto. These are captured almost exclusively (at least for ‘part 1’) in close-ups by cinematographer Sofian El Fani, which gives the film a real intimacy and effectively evokes that holy energy of first love.
In my opinion, however, it is Adèle Exarchopoulos to whom the film belongs. In the graphic novel this character’s name was Clémentine but Kechiche changed it to Adele so he could use footage that was shot outside of official shooting hours. The result is startling naturalism. The film doesn’t shy away from life – whether documenting acts of eating or fucking, the film displays every messy, beautiful, truthful detail and uses these moments to disseminate huge amounts of meaning and emotion.
Both of the performances are totally and unerringly committed – something that was acknowledged when, in an unprecedented move, the Speilberg-led Cannes jury awarded the Palmes D’or not only to the director, but to the two lead actresses as well. The infamous sex scene seems to have been largely recognised for the tales of the tyrannical and questionable 10-day shoot and the controversy it caused in distributing the film. What hasn’t been pointed out, is that it’s a scene of powerful emotional complexity. It brought to mind some thoughts from Travis Matthews and James Franco’s recent Interior. Leather Bar. If there is one thing that the scene shows, it is that explicit sex can be used ungratuitously and artfully, and can be as integral to the story-telling and study of character as a conversational scene.
Interestingly my experience of watching Blue Is the Warmest Colour is that it is not the political call-to-arms coming-out narrative that I was expecting. The film does not even really label these two women sexually – if anything it appears to recognise the gray shades of human sexuality. When Adele is taunted by her friends it is as much about the trials of youth, the rules of the playground, as it is about a society entrenched in homophobia.
This has (naturally with a film of this high a profile) become a point of criticism for some, which is understandable. Personally, however, I like that the film focused on the emotional, rather than the political aspects of these women’s relationship.
Another criticism (which has been written about perhaps more than the film itself) is that this is a lesbian drama created by, and now viewed via,
the ‘male-gaze’. With regards this, there is no response. To ignore it would be foolhardy, but to dismiss the movie because of it would equally be an injustice. This is also true when it comes to the actresses’ various recounted stories of the apparently hugely unpleasant shoot. These can’t be dismissed (Kechiche reportedly shot hundreds of hours of material, pushing his cast and crew to the very edge), but the results of this are there for all to see: the director has created a work of absolute beauty, a love story that is as emotionally truthful as it could possibly be.
One final snipe that I can’t help but feel is unfair, is that many critics seem to be quite sniffy about the second half of the film. It is true that there is a lot less energy in comparison to the first half, but this is due to a subtle change in style that reflects upon the changing relationship. Kechiche is less intimate with his film-making to show that the initial spark of first love is withering. Yes, there is less energy, but is this not true of any relationship that lasts as long as theirs does? Just as Emma’s hair slowly fades from blue to blonde, so does their love fizzle and die.