Among the most polarizing films this year for both American and international audiences is French director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or-winning Blue Is the Warmest Color. The three-hour epic based on Julie Maroh’s graphic novel La Vie d’Adèle follows a young French student Adèle as she enters the real world and explores her sexuality through romance with an older art student Emma. For all of the backlash the film has been receiving lately–even from Maroh herself–I find far more egregious reasons to dislike it than simply for the supposedly gratuitous, exploitative sex scenes on which most critics seem to have focused. Even from an aesthetic standpoint, the film is rather frivolous and almost vapid. If anything, its redeeming elements are the two lead actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, and perhaps the cinematography at times.
Initially, the motif of the color blue is executed rather rudimentarily. The mise-en-scène is about as blue as it can be without warranting an Eiffel 65 soundtrack. Granted, the blue of Emma’s hair and eyes are surprisingly appropriate, effectively lending her the intended aura of mystery and otherness that first enchants Adèle, yet without rendering her a lesbian counterpart to the manic pixie dream girl. However, when almost every possible subject of embellishment, from window frames to doors to park benches to scarves, appears in the same hue, the symbol wears on the viewer and renders the world of the film more contrived than fantastical or surreal. By the time the film is concluding, Adèle’s choice of a blue dress to wear to Emma’s exhibit is exasperatingly predictable. What gives prior uses of this technique–Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs trilogy, Antonioni’s Red Desert, etc.–the latter attributes is moderation and variance. None of the “trois couleurs” ever dominates its namesake, but rather appears subtly in each scene, heightening the reality of the film without ever distancing it from the viewer. Perhaps it is not fair to fixate too much upon this aspect of the film since its god-awful English title brings more attention to it than the original La Vie d’Adèle, but the point is that even a film called Rouge is capable of employing a color motif after its title without appearing contrived.
However, absent the English title, the film still has a dismayingly inane treatment of the obvious. In the beginning of the film, we follow Adèle into the homosexual subculture of Lille, first to a gay club and then to a lesbian bar. The establishing shots for both of these scenes are exactly the same: as Adèle walks into the gay club, we cut to close-ups of gay couples making out, and as Adèle walks into the lesbian bar, we cut to close-ups of lesbian couples making out. Beyond supplementing what the audience should already be able to figure out fairly quickly, such a means of establishing the setting is ignorant, reducing a complex identity to merely one of its physical expressions. In a similar manner, the film at times shows Adèle gazing wistfully at lesbian couples making out or else simply places them in the background of a particular scene, in both cases presumably embodying her desire and consequently reducing orientation to a carnal drive.
By extension, I would agree that the criticism of the now infamous sex scenes is completely valid, which is especially ironic considering a scene in which one of Emma’s male friends discusses the inaccessible enigma of female sexual pleasure and the failure of men to portray it justly. While it remains contentious whether Adèle’s first heterosexual encounter is an instance of the “male gaze,” that mode is painfully obvious during the subsequent three encounters with Emma, each ranging between roughly three and seven minutes long. Though lesbian sexuality is presumed to be completely foreign to Adèle before meeting Emma, we do not observe the cautiousness and awkwardness one would expect of incipient experimentation. Rather, she approaches each scene with visible confidence and experience, contradicting her otherwise insecure and fairly innocent character. At least, it certainly does not seem believable that a first encounter–or even the subsequent encounters–would fixate so obsessively on spanking, regardless of whether one takes the dismissal of their “scissoring” as a heterosexual man’s pornographic fantasy by most lesbian commentators to represent the broad consensus of the lesbian community. The scenes, in short, are laughably raunchy and extensive, undermining and marginalizing the intimacy between Adèle and Emma rather than giving it a physical dimension.
In fact, the one convincing and non-extraneous scene of physical intimacy is actually what some might consider to be the most ridiculous: the penultimate scene of reconciliation where Adèle and Emma finger each other in the middle of a café. The entire scene is composed of medium shots of the two at their booth, never cutting away once to their surroundings. It is thus completely ambiguous as to whether the rest of the café notices them in the act, much less whether the act itself is simply Adèle’s and/or Emma’s fantasy (which, though probably not the case, is not entirely unlikely considering that we are admitted into Adèle’s first fantasy of Emma at the beginning of the film). What is most remarkable about this scene is that it seems to contextualize most of the shot choices for the rest of the film. Regardless of the setting, each scene is predominantly composed of medium, if not close-up, shots of the characters, resulting in a rather claustrophobic cinematic environment. For Adèle, the world closes in upon the icon she seeks to fill the void in her existence. Even as Emma encourages her to pursue something she might really enjoy such as writing, Adèle responds that she is simply content being with Emma, not in need of any other fulfillment. Of course, that character observation outside of its connection with the cinematography is probably unnecessary, considering that Emma points out Adèle’s desperation for the less astute audience members during their first conversation (“it’s all or nothing for you”).
In any case, I must laud both Exarchopoulos and Seydoux for their performances, far exceeding the one-dimensional roles they are expected to fill. Seydoux as Emma, the eccentric art student, maintains a pleasant equilibrium that makes her one acrimonious confrontation with the unfaithful Adèle all the more unsettling. Exarchopoulos as Adèle, the naïve barely-legal, never appears vacuous or weak as her Hollywood counterparts would. Even in her seemingly weakest and most helpless moments of judgment, she embodies precisely the struggle we find in those questioning their sexuality, living amongst a society that attempts to silence such questions (except, of course, in the sex scenes where she suddenly turns into a professional porn actress). Provided that both Exarchopoulous and Seydoux are serious in their intention never to associate with Kechiche again, their raw talent will not have to be extracted from such an exhausting and unsavory spectacle.