Why Blue is the Warmest Colour is Worth Seeing
**This article contains some spoilers**
Upon being unexpectedly amazed by recent Palme D’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour, I found myself trying to pinpoint exactly what it was about that film that made it have such a profound effect on me. It is by no means the first film to do so but, considering its rather simple set-up, I find it interesting that it was so effective. Here, I attempt to locate exactly what it is about Blue that makes it such a significant film in contemporary art cinema. These are just the elements that stand out for me, I’m sure there are plenty more worth noting so please feel free to do so.
The French title literally translates to ‘Life of Adèle’, giving an initial clue to the film’s intimate focus on a specific character. It would be an understatement to say it just focuses on Adèle – the film is Adèle. For those of you feeling a little malnourished in the character development category, here’s just under three hours focused almost entirely on the trials and tribulations of one character. Even Emma is always shown in relation to Adèle, rather than as a character on her own. Not only is the intimate focus refreshing for those of us bombarded with Hollywood’s foregrounding of spectacle over the individual, but Adèle Exarchopoulos is wonderfully enigmatic. This is not to suggest that this has never been achieved before (Amélie, Lost in Translation, and Before Sunrise) but the real achievement here lies in the fact that Blue is the Warmest Colour has the ability to interest a dedicated viewer from start to finish.
Blue is able to keep the viewer’s interest by moving inwards rather than outwards – by the end of the film I felt I had connected more with Adèle than I had actually explored her environment. This is mainly achieved through Sofian El Fani’s cinematography, particularly the frequent use of close-ups. Abdellatif Kechiche’s decision to not allow either Adèle Exarchopoulos or Léa Seydoux to wear make-up throughout the shoot also adds to the rawness of many emotional moments. One sequence worth mentioning in particular is when Adèle and Emma meet in a café after their break-up; rather than attempting to glamorise his actresses, Kechiche chooses instead to present realism through an extended crying sequence.
It Doesn’t Drag
It is quite an achievement in itself for three hour film to be consistently interesting from start to finish, especially when its premise can be summarised so simply. A lot of my favourite films are extremely lengthy in terms of running time but most are traditional ‘epics’ in that they have expansive narratives, dozens of characters, and extend over long periods of time. Blue is quite different in this respect. On top of this, Blue isn’t pretentious in the presentation of its subject matter. It takes a long time to show something simple but, for me, this seems to be the point.
Without dedicating forthrightly to Adèle’s detailed story we would not be shown the moments in between her times with Emma. My favourite moment in the film is when Adèle dances to Lykke Li’s ‘I Follow Rivers’. This moment lasts for no more than a minute and would possibly have been lost had the film been cut down, along with many other moments used to explore Adèle’s character. It is a film full of moments like this and would not be the same without them.
Blue is pure cinema in the sense that it offers certain things that other mediums cannot. It utilises filmic sophistication through both cinematography and soundtrack. The transfer from graphic novel to film is well-handled through characterisation. Here, we are presented with real people but the long-form structure of the novel is kept intact through the running time and character focus. Art cinema is about beauty and Blue is a clear example of this because its narrative is not always its strong point. Just as the recent hit Gravity has shown that spectacle sells, here we have an example of a different kind of cinematic spectacle; an intimate epic in many ways.
So much of the film is dedicated to Adèle’s face and her beauty within the beauty of the medium itself. For example, the scene where she first talks to Emma in a bar is mainly comprised of shots focusing solely on Adèle and her reaction to her environment. The cinematic beauty is present in the way Kechiche is not in a hurry to establish a narrative trajectory. We become aware that a love story is about to develop but this is never a definite as we are trapped in the same situation as Adèle, unaware of whether or not she can integrate in this new environment. What is presented instead is cinematic beauty through ambiguity and character focus. Kechiche is a filmmaker looking to explore rather than explain. Most viewers will, of course, already be aware of the film’s basic premise before they see it, but this never undermines its meanderings because Kechiche takes the unexpected route through the break-up.
It Addresses a Relevant Subject Matter
Despite some controversial choices in the presentation of its subject matter, Blue addresses a relevant topic. Graphic sexuality is no longer uncommon, especially in the art cinema community, however, Blue‘s exploration of the place of lesbianism within contemporary society is still a key issue, even in the post-Brokeback era. Numerous art films function as explorations of social taboos and subversive themes (examples include XXY, Dogtooth, Eyes Wide Open) yet often fall short of truly exposing the heart of their subjects. Blue is the Warmest Colour grounds its focus on lesbianism in character and certain key settings. For example, the sequence where Adèle is confronted by her supposed friends in the school playground after she is seen with ‘tomboy’ Emma. The dialogue in this sequence is very crass, assuming the subtitles do it justice, and Kechiche does not hold back when it comes to clearly underlining how dismissive some people can be of such a sensitive subject.
A certain element that cannot possibly be overlooked in relation to this is the sex scenes. It would be naïve to suggest that these moments have not been a contributing factor in the film’s post-festival hype, despite it winning the Palme D’Or. There have been many discussions of the issues of exploitation and the fact that the film is directed by a man. When addressing this point recently, Mark Kermode said that for him “What’s really interesting about the film is the conversations and the social frictions” and he suggests that the sex scenes could easily have been shortened down. Although this is a valid point, I feel that the open expression of these scenes adds another element of intimate exposure that is so crucial to the way Blue works as a whole.
I recently found a YouTube video where lesbians were asked to give their opinions on these scenes. One particular interviewee described the first sexual encounter as like an “infomercial for a kitchen product” in the way that Kechiche attemps to show too many different elements of lesbian sexuality. The interviews in this video that these scenes are shocking enough to create a reaction but never tasteless or offensive to the gay community. This highlights the fact that Blue is still, after all, a dramatisation of reality but is by no means poorly constructed or unaware of the implications of foregrounding such a sensitive topic.
Lack of Clichés
The ending of Blue has the ability to divide audiences because of its lack of resolution in the traditional sense. For me, I think it perfectly underlines the film’s realistic approach to love and relationships; by the time the credits rolled it struck me that Blue is more of a life story than a love story. Of course it is not without some clichés – the love at first sight moment, the melodramatic confrontation when Adèle’s affair is exposed by Emma – but it is never schmaltzy or undermined by any of these tropes because of Kechiche’s bold decision to break up the relationship he has so meticulously built up. The presentation of time also helps lift the film above the average romance story as it is not completely clear how much time has passed between scenes. This allows the audience to work these elements out for themselves, creating another element of rewatchability.
It’s Relatable to Everyone
Blue is the Warmest Colour is a love/life story that addresses lesbianism in contemporary society. On face value, it could easily be dismissed as being too specifically-focused and potentially alienating to certain markets. However, it is not a direct connection between audience and narrative that makes it so relatable, but rather that it is constructed in such an intimate way that the audience becomes a part of Adèle. Viewers are never required to fully relate to her specific predicament but are instead invited to compare her situation to their own experiences of love. It is a beautifully made film and it really stayed with me as one of the most brutally honest stories I’ve seen on-screen for quite some time.
What do you think? Leave a comment.