Saturday, November 9, 2013

Blue Is The Warmest Colour

When a Steven Spielberg-led jury awarded the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or to Blue Is The Warmest Colour earlier this year, it served as yet another example of how meteoric a film's rise at Cannes can be. Not selected as an early favorite, the film had become a frontrunner by Festival's end, and the jury took the unprecedented extra step of awarding the Palme to both director Abdellatif Kechiche and stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. I've been particularly excited to see the film, and was particularly pleased at the idea of a film depicting a same-sex relationship getting such a positive response. Even as it becomes much more common, it's just not the kind of thing that happens often enough.

The film tells the story of Adele, a high school student, and Emma, a senior in college, as they meet, fall in love, and make an attempt at "happily ever after." It's a common enough story, but the way it's told is what sets it apart both positively and negatively. 

It's hard to get around the fact that Blue Is The Warmest Colour is knocking at the door of a 3 hour running time, with all of the potential for positives and pitfalls that such length engenders. The film gets off to a strong start by focusing clearly on the beginning of 17-year-old Adele's exploration of same-sex attraction. There's a wonderfully effective scene in which she's forced to come to grips with the divide between her own feelings about a classmate and that classmate's feelings for her. I also really enjoyed the way that Adele and Emma first start circling each other. Emma's older and clearly has a much richer life experience, to say nothing of her sexual history. Despite that, she treats Adele with tenderness and affection without seeming to be predatory or self-serving. When they first kiss, it's Adele that initiates it, and it works beautifully. 

Unfortunately, after a really nicely paced first hour or so that strikes a really nice tone, the film starts to veer off the rails with missed opportunities, poor stylistic choices, and some rather silly mistakes. After an extended period in which the particulars of their relationship aren't entirely up for public dissemination, the characters are suddenly depicted as being having been together for a year or two. It's a big jump with a lot of ramifications that aren't even touched. It seems strange that a film this long should have have what amounts to a missing section. 

Then, once we arrive in domestic bliss and things start to go wrong, there's a level of hypocrisy that I found really annoying. I'll try to be vague. One character gets extremely angry at another for behavior that she herself had been part and parcel to at least once before and is probably guilty of at the same time . . . and it's not even mentioned once, even though it's the logical end to that or some other conversation. While this might be claimed that this is the kind of thing that real people actually do, I'd disagree that the average person wouldn't stand up for himself/herself as much as possible by fighting fire with fire. For the film to go to such lengths to ensure that this discrepancy isn't even mentioned seems to be a really silly mistake, and an unnecessary exploitation of the character who's made a martyr. 

Additionally, one of the things that hinders Blue Is The Warmest Colour is the very thing that's supposed to set it apart. The sex scenes. While I've spoken out against the MPAA's unfair use of the NC-17 rating with regard to films like Blue Valentine, this time the adult rating is entirely deserved. 

I'm a strong proponent of the idea that almost any word or theme can be used appropriately given the right context. That said, the sex scenes in this one are pornographic. Simple as that. I find it very difficult to imagine that they were entirely simulated, given the graphic depiction of a number of different sex acts and how up close and personal the actors are. I'm not suggesting that pornography is indecent so much as that if I'd wanted porn, I'd have just watched porn. 

For me, the purpose of a dramatic narrative isn't to imitate "real life" or try to titillate the senses  for its own sake. I have no problem with a little titillation and some discomfort when I'm watching a film . . . if it works in context. While I want to have a bit of a character's life experience illuminated for me in a such a way that either helps me put my own thoughts into context or encourages me to explore new ideas, I do not like to be made to feel like I'm staring. 

A few minutes into the major sex scene in Blue Is The Warmest Colour, I started to ask myself what purpose the filmmaker was trying to serve by showing me that amount of raw sex. Does he think that nobody knows how people have sex? Does he think that nobody understands how two women have sex? By the time that the film enters the second extended sex scene (not long after the first!), I rolled my eyes in despair.

It would have been far more effective to show the characters having sex without showing the actors having sex. Nothing would have been lost except for an unnecessarily high level of the "shock factor" that the film tries unsuccessfully to bank on, and it would have gained so much more from a more restrained approach. In contrast to Emma and Adele's first two sex scenes, there's a scene in which the two women have sex in Adele's house and try to keep quiet so that her parents don't realize that they're a couple. It's tender, caring, and so, so sweet. What makes this scene work isn't an overabundance of graphic sex. It's the loving interaction between Adele and Emma. This 3 minute love scene was infinitely more satisfying than either of the overlong sex scenes that preceded it.

Similarly, there's another silly use of sex that strikes entirely the wrong tone. Toward the end of the film, there's an almost unbelievable scene between the two women in which they nearly have sex in a (very!) public place. For a restaurant to have instantaneously emptied or suddenly been filled with deaf/blind patrons seemed utterly ridiculous and wasted some wonderfully tender dialogue from earlier in the scene. 

Ultimately, while the film has two strong lead performances and some truly lovely photography from Sofian El Fani, I think that the blame for the film's missteps should lie at the feet of writer Ghalia Lacroix and writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche. Had this same story been tackled from a different angle thematically and stylistically, particularly with regard to the ridiculous sex scenes, I think that it would have been infinitely more successful. 

It's not that Adele and Emma's story isn't a worthy one. It's just that the way it's told makes it difficult to focus on the truth of their relationship. When I'm sitting in the theater trying to communicate telepathically with the characters about extremely basic things that they ought to be thinking about, I think it's a sign that somebody didn't think things through as well as he/she might have. The French title, The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 & 2, implies that there's going to be a sequel, which it's safe to say I don't feel a lot of enthusiasm toward. Here's hoping that, if the story continues, it does so in a way that serves these two characters much better.

A big swing and an unfortunate miss.

2 stars (out of 5)

Click on the titles below for my thoughts on the previous 3 Palme d'Or winners and click here for more reviews of Cannes titles and Festival awards coverage.


Caitlin said...

I'm still deciding whether or not I want to see Blue due to the current backlash the director is facing from Seydoux and Exarchopoulous with regards to his rather abusive approach to the sex scenes but I really enjoyed this review! You have a great writing style.

Adam said...

Hi Caitlin!

Thanks for reading and for your kind comment.

I was also particularly interested to read that Julie Maroh, who wrote the graphic novel that the film's based on, had some similar criticisms regarding the sex scenes. With Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac coming up soon, it's certainly an interesting time for the depiction of sex on screen. I'll be curious to see if that film holds up better than this one did.

Looking forward to reading your blog too!