I saw Blue is the Warmest Colour in a packed Picturehouse cinema the other day. It was impossible to go into that film – as is the case with pretty much every movie at present – without being all too aware of the hype and pseudo-controversy that surrounds it, and as such it was pretty difficult not to be disappointed by much of it, though the combination of being sat on the second row from the front in a subtitled film and said film having a 180-minute running time may have contributed to a certain exhaustion I felt by the time the credits rolled.
A primer for those not in the know: Blue follows lead Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a French high-schooler and ravenous eater, over the course of several years as she experiments with her sexuality and falls in and out of a very intense love with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a slightly older woman.
That’s more or less it, and the trailer gives you a pretty good sense of the tone – if not the pace – of the thing:
I’m not going to go into any great detail, but I’ll just mention where I think Blue is the Warmest Colour works best and where I think it fails.
Good things first: the film is most alive, vibrant and emotionally engaging when there’s conflict on screen. Whether it’s Adele getting into a fight with a former friend over her closeted lesbianism outside the school gates or Emma forcing a tortured confession of adultery out of her soon to be ex-lover, never more than in these scenes does the movie feel like it’s got a full-blooded, racing pulse and makes me need to know what happens next. Of course, it makes sense – story is conflict, as the old maxim goes.
Which is why great swathes of the film don’t work quite as well, being given as they are to languorous passages where nothing of great import happens…very slowly. The heightened moments are too few and much too far between to work as effective punctuation in between the extended lulls. Adele might be eating spaghetti with her family while they watch TV, for example, or we might be treated to one of the many graphic, overlong sex scenes between her and Emma which, after the first minute of the first one – don’t further the story or tell us anything new about their relationship. These scenes actually end up being so long that the context of where they belong in the story and just become short, exquisitely shot sex movies.
I suppose that might be the point of them after all – the characters are so lost in each other, both emotionally and physically, that we fall into that world as well – but I really never felt like I knew either of the central characters well enough to get that intimate with them and was left feeling pretty cold by these sequences. Add to that my creeping concern that the director (Abdellatif Kechiche, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ghalya LaCroix from Julie Maroh’s comic) is much more interested in Adele’s body than her mind and Blue is the Warmest Colour takes on an unnervingly pervy perspective at certain points: Adele is constantly shown in close up, often eating insatiably (at one point she even tries to consume Emma’s hand); similarly, we’re subjected to several scenes that contain little but Adele dancing to music for minutes at a time; and opportunities for gratuitous nude shots are taken without hesitation, e.g. the leery vertical pan of the lead’s whole naked body as she showers.
There’s merit to the film, for sure: I admire the naturalism of the performances and the construction and deconstruction of a relationship are well-told, even beautiful at moments, but it all too often feels like being beautiful is the aim of the game instead of something with more substance.
At one point, a male character talks about the “mysticism” of a woman’s experience during sex, comparing it to a transcendental moment of bliss and something profound. The female characters present scoff at this, but I suspect that Kechiche aligns his beliefs much more with the former than the latter and can’t help but feel that another director – most likely a woman – could have created a much more accurate representation of female sexuality.
As a final thought, I’d like to offer up Frances Ha as a much shorter, richer and genuine exploration of female relationships, both with other women and men. Written by its star, Greta Gerwig, and director, Noah Baumbach, the story it tells feels much more on the same level as its characters, dealing in their mundanity, neurotic failures and minor triumphs with warm humour and pathos rather than – like Blue is the Warmest Colour – attempting to give epic weight to drab family dinners and keeping an oxymoronically scrutinising yet distant eye on its players.
The two certainly wouldn’t play together well as a double bill but are well worth comparing, especially given that there’s a much more complete story told in Frances Ha‘s 90 minutes, half the length of Blue is the Warmest Colour. It’s appropriate that the film’s original French title translates as The Life of Adele: Chapters 1 & 2* given that it’s got about as open an ending as you could ask for and really feels like it could do with a proper conclusion…not that I’m asking for (or even really interested in) a Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight-type continuation here.
Actually, here’s my final final thought: there’s a great movie hiding in Blue is the Warmest Colour, but a skilled editor – like Michaelangelo staring at a hunk of marble – would need to cut at least an hour out of the film to find it.
*Such a pretentious title. Why two chapters? Why does a life only warrant two instalments? Fun fact: Julie Maroh’s original comic (which is actually only credited as “freely inspiring” the film) translates to the movie’s English title, which to me stinks of Kechiche wanting to take even more ownership of the project than he already had. But that might just be me.