BY LINDSAY ULRICH
Whether you like this movie will depend, at least partly, on whether you like directors who focus on the everyday—intimate portrayals of relationships blown up to cinematic levels. For me, these are my favourite stories to watch and Blue Is the Warmest Color knows how to tell this type of story very well.
Based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and in an unusual twist, the festival gave the award to not only the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, but also to the film’s two main actors, Adèle Exarchopoulos (who plays Adèle) and Léa Seydoux (who plays Emma). It’s easy to see why–their performances are incredible. Most of the movie is filmed in close-up or extreme close-up, so you become very attuned to the couple’s–particularly Adele’s–emotions.
Essentially, the film is a love story between Adèle, whom we first meet as a 17 year-old high-schooler beginning to discover her sexuality, and Emma, an older blue-haired arts senior at Académie des Beaux-Arts. They meet by chance on the street, and then later intentionally, as Emma approaches Adèle in a gay bar. Emma can tell immediately that Adèle is out of her element and takes the lead during their conversation. It’s obvious the differences between the comparatively naive Adèle (who asks Emma why her studies are called “fine arts”–are there “ugly arts?”) and the more mature, world-wise Emma, who comes to take the lead in their years-long relationship also.
That the beginning of the movie is set in a working class town in France is important; the movie is plainly a study in class, as it examines the possibility of a romance surviving in spite of the couple’s very different social spheres. Adèle comes from a working-class, practical background and her main ambition is to become a nursery school teacher, while Emma’s family is well-to-do and encourages her artistic goals of becoming a painter. Eventually, Adèle moves into Emma’s milieu, but never quite fits in there, and it is this lack of belonging that becomes the central tension in the movie. Though Adèle and Emma are drawn together romantically and sexually, their very different backgrounds and ambitions cause a fatal rift in their relationship.
At the film’s press conference during the New York Film Festival, Kechiche has said he is interested in “what happens after the initial carnal passion of a relationship [ends] and you don’t have other things to connect with” (“inevitably,” he says, ” the relationship can’t function and it breaks down”). Carnality is everywhere in the film—hunger, appetite, sex—and plays a huge role. It felt like there was barely a scene without hunger or longing displayed. Whether it’s food, sex, love, or dancing, Adèle is content with relatively simple, attainable pleasures, while Emma and her friends are much more restless, searching for recognition in the art world. Emma can’t accept that Adèle lacks ambition for artistic credibility with her writing.
Though she is remarkably silent for much of the movie, Adèle is a woman of action, and for me this was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film. She may not have the lofty ambitions of Emma and her peers, but what she does desire to do, she does, and it’s in these moments that her character is most captivating. We follow her as she does things—loves, eats, goes to gay bars as a teenager, sleeps, dances, fights, teaches, marches in austerity protests—and she does them with a mindfulness and intention that is inspiring. So when we watch Emma trying to talk to Adèle about Sartre and his idea that a life should be defined by action, we hear Adèle say, “I tried his essays, but I didn’t understand,” we know she doesn’t need to, she already lives it.
Like most great love stories, this one ends in a broken relationship. It’s painful to watch Adèle unable to have the one thing she craves most, and if you have ever lost love, you will undoubtedly strongly relate to her struggle. I’ve read that an older critic referred to this movie as a “time machine”—one of those films that has the power to transport you to a time in your life when emotions were closer to the surface. Is it worth revisiting that part of yourself? For this movie, absolutely.