‘New lovers are nervous and tender, but smash everything. For the heart is an organ of fire.’
The English Patient (dir. Anthony Minghella, 1996)
Love, when it strikes, can be a fire that ravages you, body and soul, day and night.
In Abdellatif Kechiche’s much debated, enormously intense and painfully beautiful film Blue is the Warmest Color, love is a fever. Love is all.
Back in 2012, writing about Terence Davies’ gorgeous film The Deep Blue Sea, I declared my preference for romantic dramas over romantic comedies as films that offered some insight into love. I wrote that while ‘the nature of romantic love remains a mystery to most of us’, film, as a visual medium, could help us get a little closer to figuring it out. I concluded that ‘When we watch love on screen, we don’t just want to see it or hear people philosophising – we want to feel it. If a film can achieve this I think it’s something special.’
Blue is the Warmest Color is such a film, a very special film, a metaphysical exploration of intimacy. It asks of the experience of love – what is it and what is it like? And it takes it further. Kechiche’s camera responds, showing us what love feels like too.
In the industrial city of Lille, in the northeast of France, we meet Adèle (the glorious Adèle Exarchopoulos) when she’s fifteen. We will follow her story, her coming of age, her discovery of love and of herself, over a period of several years, but when we first meet her, running late for the bus to school, a little messy, her hair constantly requiring attention, she’s a regular French teenager. Adèle loves literature but daydreams in class, is engaged (like so many French) with politics and social issues, and enjoys eating her father’s delicious spaghetti.
In France, Blue is the Warmest Color is known as La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 et 2, and this apt title reminds us that what we are about to witness are just two chapters in the life of one young woman. Her story will go on.
The film’s French title also connects us with the 18th-century novel that Adèle is reading in her literature class when the film begins, La Vie de Marianne by Pierre Marivaux. Kechiche has used this novel as a source for his screenplay (along with the graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh) and Adèle is deeply connected to its sentiment. It is a novel of details, of richly textured descriptions. The passage that is read in Adèle’s class describes the heroine’s awakening consciousness of desire and love where she recalls that ‘My heart was missing something, but it did not know what it was.’ It’s a hook for Adèle’s own story and one she finds attractive.
Adèle senses that something is different about her. One day, as she crosses the road on her way to a date with Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), an older boy at her school who is completely smitten with her, she passes a woman walking with her arm around another woman. Their eyes lock. Something stirs. The older woman has a shock of blue hair. Later, Adèle will have a sexual dream in which this blue-haired woman features prominently. Time will pass. Adèle will lose her virginity to Thomas, with little satisfaction, and explore her as yet unnamed desires through a secret kiss with a female school friend who has no interest in taking it further.
More time passes. Adèle turns 18. One night, out with her gay friend Valentin (Sandor Funtek), Adèle wanders off and finds herself in a lesbian bar, as she says, ‘by chance.’ Here, she encounters the blue-haired woman again. Her name is Emma (Léa Seydoux), a university student studying art, who will become the first (and possibly only) great love of Adèle’s life.
Films about young love and first love are not new terrain. In recent films, like Show Me Love (dir. Lukas Moodysson, 1998), Submarine (dir. Richard Ayoade, 2010), Goodbye First Love (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011), Like Crazy (dir. Drake Doremus, 2011) and Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson, 2012), first love is transformative.
Listing my favourite films of 2013 I wrote that James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now was a special film for me in part because it answered the question of what it feels like to fall in love for the first time. I feel like I need to revisit that extravagant assessment in light of viewing Kechiche’s film. As explorations of the experience of first love, the landscape traversed by both films couldn’t be more different and the young women at the heart of both films couldn’t be more dissimilar in the expression of their desires. Of course, this has always been one of the most striking disparities between American film and European art cinema. And it’s not just around the question of sex (and its representation). It’s quite definitely something else, something that emerges as a distinct language of its own. What Marivaux was attempting to achieve with his unfinished novel La Vie de Marianne was a metaphysics of emotion and I think that Kechiche achieves this visually. He submerges us in the emotional language of love through his extensive use of close-ups and creates an intimacy between protagonist and audience that forces us right into the frame. Kechiche places us so close we can feel Adèle’s heart beating.
In an interview with Jonathan Romney, Kechiche has said of cinema, ‘I don’t want it to look like life … I want it to actually be life. Real moments of life, that’s what I’m after.’ For the three-hour duration of Blue is the Warmest Color our life is intertwined with Adèle’s. It’s her reality that we share, her experience, her pleasure, her ecstasy, and finally, her suffering. As A.O. Scott writes in his New York Times review, the film ‘is ardently and sincerely committed to capturing the fullness of Adèle’s experience — sensory, cerebral and emotional.’
And as it turns out, it’s quite astonishing to witness love happen from the beginning. And when it comes unstuck, equally intense. In following this trajectory, Blue is the Warmest Color reminded me of another film that made exquisite, evocative use of colour for emotional cues, Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece, Happy Together (1997). Both films show us a relationship from the inside out, allowing action to evolve through sensation.
We know it. First love has an urgency and poignancy that later love often fails to achieve. Those wrapped in its warm glow are willing to give almost everything over to it. If love is blue (the colour in all its permutations is everywhere) in this film, Adèle bathes in it (later, literally in the ocean). She feels love with an overwhelming passion, an all-consuming amour fou, that brilliant French phrase for ‘crazy love,’ for love that takes over, that is both uncontrollable and obsessive. And while this is Adèle’s first love, we feel that it will always be this way for her and that she will never feel or act in half measures. She falls so far in we have to ask if her love for Emma will make or break her.
Tentative at first (she already has a girlfriend when she meets Adèle), Emma easily falls into the role of teacher, of both philosophy and sexuality. It becomes clear very early on that the film is as much about class as it is about love as the women come from two very different worlds – one defiantly out, the other quietly in – and it’s this divide that will eventually tear them apart. Emma’s upper-middle-class family eats oysters and values all cultural pursuits. Adèle’s lower-middle-class parents believe art a frivolous pursuit and eat much simpler fare. They are content to believe that their daughter’s new friend is simply her philosophy tutor (as Adèle jokes with Emma of her burgeoning love of philosophy, ‘I love it. It’s incredibly enriching. Very interesting. Very deep. Orgasm precedes essence’). Later, when Adèle is already a preschool teacher and Emma a rising star in the art world, Adèle is encouraged to pursue loftier ambitions as if who she is isn’t enough. She should try writing, Emma says, but Adèle is content to live a simple life, made extraordinary through love (‘I am happy. I’m happy with you, like this. It’s my way of being happy’). Kechiche quite masterfully directs a party scene, in Adèle and Emma’s home, in which the cracks in their relationship are beginning to emerge around this divide.
Although the film is three hours long and covers several years, scenes unfold slowly, as if in real time. The film is rich in sensory detail. The camera is literally in Adèle’s face for much of the film, from the opening scene, immersing us in her world, her experience. And this is easy, because for so much of the film Adèle is actually alone. This gives us plenty of time to get to know her and something of the ferocity of her loneliness. Kechiche lingers over shots of Adèle’s face, so animated, with its vulnerable eyes and open mouth, as she daydreams, eats and sleeps. We get close ups of flesh and tears, flushed cheeks, runny noses. Exarchopoulos has an extraordinarily expressive face and because of our proximity we are absorbed in it, not once disconnected from her as a character. We are never in doubt as to what she is feeling. Contrasting scenes, of Adèle alone in her bedroom, or caught up in a crowd of friends at a street march, have a similar energy and purpose – to envelop us in every moment of her life.
There is truth and insight here. Adèle’s first conversations with Emma reveal how hungry she is for knowledge, for intimacy, to know more and taste more of life. She asks Emma, ‘when was the first time you tasted … a girl.’ Emma asks her to elaborate, ‘A girl? You mean kiss or taste?’ Adèle happy to take it slow, for now, ‘Kiss to start with, then we’ll see.’ On the matter of hunger, there is a lot of eating in this film (Adèle tells Emma that she’s never not hungry), which is always welcome in a visual culture (dominated by America) that seems to deny women this basic human pleasure on screen. It is true that an appetite for food is often linked to an appetite for other sensual pleasures, but I don’t concur with commentators who have drawn a simple line between food and sex (even in the oyster eating scene). For me, Adèle’s enjoyment of food, which we can almost taste along with her, also says a lot about her hunger for life, her earthiness and lack of pretensions, which are certainly partly coupled with her physical desires, but not exclusively.
We get even closer to Adèle during the much-dissected sex scenes (of which there are three, one of which lasts for nearly ten minutes), which are essential to Adèle’s experience and crucial for us to uncover the truth about her.
Yes, the scenes are confronting, explicit and daring. But what’s most confronting is the emotion on display; so raw at times that it’s almost claustrophobic. There is an avalanche of emotion in these scenes (especially the first). Blue is the Warmest Color is a film that you cannot avoid having a subjective reaction to. Roger Ebert said of his approach to writing about film, that it was his ‘attempt to reflect the immediate experience’ of what he had seen. For a film like this, so rich in sensory detail, a more analytic, cerebral response can only squander this immediacy.
I can’t comment on the credibility or veracity of the film’s sex scenes. Maybe they are exploitative; maybe Kechiche pushed Exarchopoulos and Seydoux too far. I could apply a feminist critique, at length, about how these scenes are inevitably framed by the male gaze, but that’s not really the point of this post. Maybe the film is a straight man’s fantasy of a relationship between women. I can only speculate on the director’s intent, on what it is he hoped to achieve with the inclusion of these comprehensive scenes, and I think it extends well beyond titillation. They are, after all, only three small parts of a long, rich and absorbing film. And I can only come to this conclusion because of the overall dramatic impact of these scenes and their resonance throughout the rest of the film.
Kechiche wants us to feel what Adèle feels, how drunk on love she is, the monumental changes her body and soul go through. In this way, the sex scenes serve this intention well, visualizing the experience of physical rapture and the intimacy of discovery for her. The scenes are important for what they tell us about the characters we are watching, for what they tell us about their relationship and what it is becoming for both of them, but especially Adèle, as vital to her as oxygen. And in the latter part of the film, the scenes remain significant because of their absence, a memory of a passion that has waned through the pressures of ordinary life. I like what Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle) says about the sex scenes as being important not in and of themselves but for what they add to the rest of our understanding of Adèle and Emma’s relationship: ‘the memory of the intimacy informs how we watch the rest of the film, lending it an extra depth of feeling that might not have been there. Their intimacy is not only something they’ve been through – we’ve gone through it with them – and in the end, it’s the nakedness and abandon of the emotions, not the sex, that stays with us days later.’
There is more to love than sex. And in the scenes that follow we feel even closer to Adèle and Emma as they learn more about each other, meet each others families and move forward through the world together. All of these markers shot, again, within a tight frame that pulls us even closer in.
It’s warm and romantic and sexy but then there are moments where this closeness makes being a part of Adèle and Emma’s love almost too much to bear. The intensity of intimacy overwhelms in what I found to be the film’s two most wrenching scenes.
In the first, Adèle and Emma break up. Adèle has had a brief fling with a male teacher at her school. Emma has seen him drive her home, watched her from the window of their apartment, observed that Adèle has pretended to live across the road from where she actually does, probably also seen them kiss goodbye. The fight that follows is brutal, Emma enraged, Adèle desperately remorseful. Her explanation beyond regret is that she had felt alone and we believe her, seeing what we see of her growing isolation among Emma’s art-world friends. And we know that Adèle suspects Emma of a liaison of her own with her pregnant friend Lise. The fight is shot almost exclusively in close-up. Emma yells not only at Adèle but also at us. We are right there in it with them and Adèle’s torrent of tears, her leaking nose, are so visceral we can almost taste them.
A few years later Adèle and Emma meet in a café. Adèle is now teaching first grade but has not completely recovered from the loss of Emma’s love. She tells Emma, ‘I miss you. I miss not touching each other. Not seeing each other, not breathing in each other. I want you. All the time. No one else.’ Adèle’s melancholy is consuming her and we ache with her. We have seen a series of scenes previous to this reunion in which she continues to cry, barely keeping it together at work. She is mournful and lonely. Losing Emma’s love has produced a grief akin to that experienced after a loved one’s death. You only need to have had your heart broken once to have it broken again here watching them together, watching Adèle try so hard to reignite the spark. Emma has moved on, now living with Lise and her daughter, ‘her family’ as she calls them. And although they are no longer together, Emma’s feelings for Adèle still run deep as she says, ‘I have infinite tenderness for you. I always will. All my life long.’ The women kiss, passionately, the fire between them not completely extinguished, as Adèle asks Emma to touch her and she obliges. But it is hopeless and Emma must go back to her new life, Adèle left to continue crying, alone.
Some time passes again and we see Adèle in her classroom, a firm and effective teacher instructing her first-graders how to read.
In the film’s final scene Adèle appears at Emma’s art show and is warmly welcomed by both Emma and Lise. But Emma’s attention is elsewhere and Adèle finds herself alone again, forced to look at the nudes Emma painted of her when their passion was in full, sensual bloom. Adèle has a brief conversation with Samir (Salim Kechiouche), who has given up his career as an actor and now works in real estate. He’s clearly attracted to her (as he was years earlier at the aforementioned party scene, where he was the least pretentious of Emma’s friends and the only one to think of getting Adèle a plate of pasta after she was finished serving everyone else) and as she leaves the gallery, he runs out after her, but turns in the wrong direction.
Adèle remains alone but she has to walk away to start living again. As Peter Bradshaw writes in The Guardian, this ‘final sequence is heart-stoppingly ambiguous. Yet the point is surely that there is no guarantee that either Adèle or Emma will ever find anything as good ever again. The notion that they can each go on to find a better or richer experience is illusory. This isn’t young love or first love, it is love: as cataclysmic and destructive and sensual and unforgettable as the real thing must always be.’
Adèle walks out of the gallery, away from Emma, and into her future, straight into Chapter 3. Maybe Samir will find her, maybe he won’t. Maybe Adèle will seek out Emma again; maybe she won’t. As she walks away from us – and Kechiche’s camera opens up to give her the space to do this – we realise that in watching this film we have been watching something more. We have been watching a life unfold and this is just the beginning. And in the process Kechiche has created a new visual language of the erotic, sensory and deeply physical and also spiritual, that begins with hearts so full they explode on screen.