“Blue” Is the Minutest Color: Abdellatif Kechiche and the Epic Cinema of Detail

Blue Is the Warmest Color

Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)

From 1895 to the 1910s, the early film pioneers wrestled with the storytelling challenges of the new moving-image medium. Part photography, part theater, the movies were both an amalgam of previous art forms and something new. One of the first great conceptual obstacles these trailblazing directors overcame was the limitation of the theatrical proscenium. Once the camera could move beyond its distant audience-level perch away from the action, film art – including the use of a variety of shots, from wide to medium to close – truly came into its own. One of the reasons we still remember D.W. Griffith, maker of the racist – yet cinematically innovative – The Birth of a Nation (1915), is because of his mastery of the close-up (as I mentioned in my first Ignite Baltimore talk, The Kuleshov Effect). From his work and that of Russians like Sergei Eisenstein, whose Battleship Potemkin revolutionized editing techniques, flow the creative streams of modern cinema.

Flash forward to the present, and we have filmmakers like Abdellatif Kechiche on hand to revel in the power of film to show us life on-screen in all of its glorious detail. I have only seen one other movie by this Tunisian-born French director, The Secret of the Grain (“La graine et le mulet“), from 2007, but in both works Kechiche delves camera-first into the world of his characters, close-ups (and extreme close-ups) always at the ready. Much as actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux explicitly embrace each other – physically and emotionally – so, too, do we embrace them, and the objects around them. Indeed, much of the controversy over the film’s lesbian sex scenes stems, I believe, from the intimacy that the director so expertly creates between viewers and stars. For those willing to follow Kechiche, Exarchopoulos and Seydoux on their epic journey through the ups and downs of the one particularly intense relationship they portray, this intimacy is what makes the film great. For those who see the film through the lens of how that one relationship reflects on all other lesbian relationships, this intimacy can, apparently, prove repellant.

I applaud the work on display, and see the film less as a story about lesbians than as a coming-of-age story about love that just happens to feature lesbians, an opinion that is not mine, alone. That said, I do share at least some of the reservations noted by critics like Manohla Dargis of The New York Times, who complains about the male gaze of the director vis-à-vis the graphic sex scenes in the middle of the movie. I know nothing about how lesbian women actually make love to each other, but if it’s true that the director and actresses “are all straight, unless proven otherwise” – as Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, opined in a critical editorial she published on her blog (as quoted on Indiewire) – then I think those who find the sex unrealistic may have a point. Then again, since we are all individual beings with minds of our own, I am also sure that there are probably lesbians who do like the sex on display. I don’t care either way. I do, however, find the sex the weakest part of the story. We don’t need it – at least, we don’t need it for as long as we see it. The raw performances of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux – clothes on – are enough to sell us on their attraction: their kisses say more than their orgasms.

Kechiche’s decision to show three of the two women’s sexual encounters goes hand in hand with the rest of his filmmaking aesthetic. Less is never more. More is more. In The Secret of the Grain, we are repeatedly treated to close shots of food and the weathered facial topography of the 60-year-old protagonist. In Blue Is the Warmest Color, we see eyes, noses, mouths, ears, tongues, breasts, and vaginas, as well as plenty of food and wine, as well. Life is to be savored like a good meal (a tried and true French philosophy). Or, if not life, then at least “la mystérieuse faiblesse des visages d’hommes” (“the mysterious weakness of human faces,” a quote by Jean-Paul Sartre that features prominently in the film).

The film won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it really is a masterpiece, of sorts. But at 187 minutes, it is too long, like its sex scenes. What is initially involving can, when on the screen for too much time, become less than the some of its parts. Even if you find the lovemaking exciting, you will, after a moment, begin to take a clinical approach to all of the grinding and groaning. Kechiche needs a (respectful) editor. More may be more, for him, but sometimes showing less is better.

Still, I highly recommend it. Kechiche and his actresses may no longer be on speaking terms with each other, but the emotions and storytelling on display, while not always perfect, are extraordinarily powerful. If you’ve ever been in love, you’ll be able to relate.

So what’s it about? 17-year-old Adèle (Exarchopoulos), heretofore straight, meets twenty-something Emma (Seydoux), and it’s love at first sight (a “coup de foudre,” or lightning bolt, as they say in French). They begin an intense relationship that lasts a number of years (the timeline is vague, though we know that Adèle progresses from school to her first job), before mutual incompatibilities take their toll. Adèle, though bookish, is simple in her cultural tastes, while Emma is a much more worldly rising visual artist, whose circle of friends often leave Adèle feeling stupid and provincial. By the time the film ends, Adèle – whose first real relationship this is – has transformed from the girl we first meet into a more experienced – if saddened by that experience – adult woman. The French title translates as “The Life of Adèle,” and the focus is truly on her.

It may not seem like much of a story, but – whatever its flaws – it is deeply affecting. There’s a great French verb – bouleverser – which means to turn upside down. It’s used to describe an emotionally wrenching experience: ce film est bouleversant, for example. And it is.

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