Blue is the Warmest Colour (London Film Festival 2013)
Many RSS feeds have been stuffed with Blue is the Warmest Colour articles since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. After a flutter of 5-star reviews, the pre-release backlash came not from critics, but the director and lead actresses: the two stars listed unpleasant anecdotes about the filming process, causing Abdellatif Keniche to temporarily disown the whole feature. However, none of them criticised the film itself, which proves to be a moving, naturalistic teen romance with a three-hour running time that, if anything, isn’t long enough.
The French title loosely translates to The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 & 2, which is a more direct description of a plot centred on a 15-year-old’s early steps into adulthood and first love. Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoloulos) is introduced as a fairly typical teenager who eats spaghetti bolognaise for dinner and gossips with friends in the canteen hall. While not a complete introvert, she displays signs of shyness: she is easily coerced by her friends into spending an evening with a boy simply because: “He looked at you. I’ve seen him do that before.”
It’s unclear if Adèle is motivated by dissatisfaction or curiosity, but she wanders into a lesbian bar; on her own and underage, she attracts the attention of onlookers. One of them, Emma (Léa Seydoux), is a blue-headed art student who’s instantly caring and aware of Adèle’s inexperience. Instead of a lascivious chat-up line, Emma provides sympathetic, polite conversation and takes a genuine interest in Adèle’s admittedly not-that-interesting life. The mutual affection is evident, alongside a dynamic that will play into their long-term relationship.
Unlike Adèle, Emma is over 18, a frequenter of gay bars, and sexually experienced with both genders. Emma is also quick – perhaps too quick – in pointing out these differences, but her honesty is appreciated from an early stage. The “graphic” sex scenes signify that trust in each other; sticking a tongue into someone else’s crevices is shown to be the deepest exploration of love on a physical level. There’s also juxtaposition: Adèle’s first time with a boy is an awkward affair ending with him embarrassedly asking, “Did you like that?” With Emma, the noisy lovemaking doesn’t require any post-coital survey.
And is the sex actually that graphic? There’s certainly more nudity and realistic-looking orgasms than anything else shown at the cinema (apart from some regions of Soho), but there’s no sense of performing to the camera. After all, Adèle’s sexual awakening is a defining moment that needs to be documented in what is supposed to be the first two chapters of her existence.
If those scenes are called graphic, I think the real adjective is “honest”. Keniche’s filmmaking style takes that ideology even further; if reports are to be believed, the director’s off-camera demeanour was frightening and prompted real tears. At time, the acting is so devastatingly convincing, it often struck me that Adèle’s crying absolutely had to be real – tears stream down the cheeks, snot droops into the mouth. (Some actors use special eyedrops for artificial weeping, but is there a nosedrop equivalent?)
The tender romance gently evolves through the film’s 179 minutes, with minimal screen time spent on Adèle’s homophobic friends or if her parents ever find out. They both demonstrate a rich, pure passion that’s shown in close-up for a large percentage, literally and figuratively. Blue is the Warmest Colour also doesn’t shy from love’s downsides; as Emma’s blue hair dye fades away, so does that crucial abstract term: “honesty”. But, for a while, honest love exists, with all the emotional, snotty baggage.
Blue is the Warmest Colour is the gala screening of the London Film Festival’s “Love” strand. More information can be found here.
179 mins approx