by Duane Porter
The life of Adele. Every morning Adele comes out the door, adjusts her pants, and hurries down the street to catch the bus that takes her to school. In class they are reading from La Vie de Marianne, “Ideas take hold of me. I am a woman. I tell my story.” The passage being discussed considers the possibility of ‘love at first sight’. Adele is enchanted, she loves this book and is immersed in the life of Marianne. Wide eyed, her mouth perpetually half-open, she has an insatiable desire to experience life, particularly the life of Adele.
Between classes, the girls like to talk about boys. They are all sure that one of the senior boys, Thomas, has eyes for Adele. She pooh-poohs the idea but she is obviously intrigued. Then, one morning, Thomas sits by her on the bus. They talk about the weather. They talk about the book Adele is reading, La Vie de Marianne. And they talk about what kind of music they like. She likes all kinds, she says, except hard rock with long hair and screaming. He is a musician, he teases her saying hard rock, heavy metal, is what he plays, but then he reassures her that he doesn’t and says he’d like to play for her sometime. That way they can meet again.
Then it’s Saturday, but on her way to meet Thomas, Adele catches sight of a girl with blue hair walking with her arm around another girl. They pass in the street and their eyes meet. Adele’s world is shaken and she seems momentarily bewildered. She continues seeing Thomas. He agrees to read La Vie de Marianne, although he has never read a book on his own before. He kisses her at the movies and later, they have sex, but Adele feels lost, she cannot stop thinking about the blue-haired girl. Her confusion eventually leads her to a lesbian bar where she soon finds herself the center of unwanted attention. The blue-haired girl, her name is Emma, is there and comes to Adele’s rescue. They start seeing each other. Together on a park bench Emma sketches a portrait of Adele. Emma talks of Sartre, existence precedes essence, and the freedom to choose one’s own life. Adele says, “Sort of like Bob Marley. Almost… Their ideas are similar… Philosopher, prophet – same thing.” Emma just smiles. At school, Adele finds herself ostracized by her classmates but she goes on seeing Emma anyway, a stroll through the art gallery, a kiss in the park. They make love and for the first time sex is fulfilling for Adele.
From the very beginning, it is apparent that this will be an unequal relationship. Emma is older and more experienced in these matters. Secure in her sexuality, she is accepted in her career and at home. Adele, on the other hand, is having her first real love affair. She is voracious and, quite literally, wants to devour Emma. But, uncertain of her sexuality, she denies it to her classmates and hides it from her parents. Potentially more problematic, there is also the issue of class. They come from very different backgrounds. Emma’s parents are sophisticated and liberal, their worldview contrasts with that of Adele’s working-class family. The girls have been shaped by these differences. Around Emma’s friends, Emma seems a bit embarassed by Adele’s simple aspirations and Adele just feels out of place. As with many first loves these imbalances lead to betrayal and eventual breakup.
With Blue is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche has essentially fashioned a ‘coming of age’ tale. One person’s story of growing up through the experience of heartbreak. He is concerned with the common ordinary things that, given the process of accretion, make it so hard to love another person. Through his attention to these particularities he achieves a kind of universality. Consequently, this is not a film about sex, nor is it a film about lesbians, it is a film about being human and being in love.
Kechiche’s original French title, La vie d’Adele, echoes the title of Adele’s favorite book, La Vie de Marianne, Pierre de Marivaux’s unfinished 18th Century romance novel. Julie Maroe’s graphic novel, Le bleu est une couleur chaude, may give Kechiche’s film it’s contemporary setting and same sex orientation, as well as it’s English title, but it is Marivaux’s 600-page study of the life of Marianne that is so much closer in spirit and technique to what is accomplished here. As Adele points out, when describing the book to Thomas, the author has accumulated page after page of detail to get ‘under the skin’ of Marianne. To similar effect, Kechiche uses a three-hour running time and relentless close-ups to get at the essence of Adele. Using an almost cinema verite style, somewhat similar to what the Dardenne brothers did with Rosetta, he follows Adele intently, never letting plot interfere with a good meal or a conversation.
As much as I appreciate the director’s style, it is the work of the two lead actresses, Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos, that ultimately make this such a moving experience. They are wondrously natural, never once do they appear to be acting. Exarchopoulos in particular, with her face present in almost every shot, gives an astonishing performance, so real it almost seems an error to call it a performance. Every twitch of her mouth, every glint in her eyes, even the flush in her cheeks conveys meaning. She does so much with her face that dialogue is often unnecessary. I am tempted to compare her to Renee Maria Falconetti or Louise Brooks. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Pandora’s Box is seen playing on a large screen in the background during Emma’s party.
Some have said it is too long, that they resent the time spent watching Adele eat spaghetti. Some are bothered by the sex scenes because they are longer and perhaps more explicit than we are used to. Some have complained that the depiction of a lesbian relationship lacks accuracy. I only know that when I got to the final shot, I was aware of having seen something very special, and I would not change a thing for fear of ruining this moment.