I like directors that can fill a big canvas, make films that you can be immersed in, an experience rather than just an event. Abdellatif Kechiche does that in his new film, and on a subject that is usually smaller scale: young love and the new discovery of passion, emotional and sexual. The film is called Blue is the Warmest Color, and it’s adapted by Kechiche and his co-screenwriter Galia Lacroix, from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh.
The point of view character is Adele, a high school student played by the remarkably beautiful Adele Exarchopolus. The film’s first half, roughly, concerns Adele’s tentative exploration of her sexual identity. A brief relationship with a boy is unsatisfactory; she doesn’t know why. By chance she sees a young woman with blue hair and the image of this woman stays powerfully with her. Later when a gay male friend takes her out to a bar, she meets the woman with blue hair, Emma, a college art student played by Lea Seydoux. The second part of the film concerns their relationship, with its highs and lows, joys, pains, and domesticity.
With love stories we’re used to having characters presented with complex histories, motivations, and so on. And with young love, it’s hard not to take a position from the outside, understanding and compassionate as we may be. But Kechiche’s approach is radically different. The camera follows Adele with a constant sense of intimacy. There are lots and lots of close-ups, absorbing us visually into Adele’s point-of-view. Crucially, this identification involves taking her self-discovery with complete seriousness. Kechiche doesn’t need to make her particularly unusual; she can be any young woman seeking love and fulfillment, and that experience, that subjective voyage, is all we know because it’s all she knows. The film’s patience, its careful progression of everyday event and detail, is a key part of this style. It works by making the emotions, the tenderness, the frustration and hopes, all the feelings that make up Adele’s inner world, so close to us that we feel it too. Along the way, there are many sequences, for example a party that Emma throws for her artist friends, that sum up entire moods or phases of life.
The fact that Adele discovers that her desire is for women and not for men is not just incidental, but at the same time the real drama is the love story. Some of her stupid high school friends give her grief about being a lesbian, and that is a painful ordeal, but then it’s over and we don’t see them again. We also have a scene showing Adele and Emma whooping it up at a gay pride parade. Emma is completely out, but Adele, at least to her parents, is still in the closet. There are also class differences, as you can see when you compare the two sets of parents, Emma’s more affluent and intellectual, Adele’s more working class. But beyond all this, the story is indeed the relationship. And sex is a central part of that. The film affirms this, and takes it time depicting it as well—the sex scenes are very expressive and carnal, and more frank than what we usually see. It’s all part of a tapestry in which love is inextricably connected with desire.
Exarchopolus is amazing in a part that requires her to be in almost every scene. We see her grow from age 17 to her early 20s, and the scenes of her in the classroom when she becomes a first grade teacher are really just as important in the film’s fabric as the love scenes. Seydoux is also remarkable—her character is a little more mature, aware of herself as an artist with a world view, whereas Adele is still looking for an identity, but both actresses are so vulnerable and believable, and in pleasingly different ways. This is Adele’s story, though, and the film gently allows us to re-experience the time when we felt the undeniable importance of our own lives for the first time, and struggled to find meaning in it.
There are many subtle and beautiful layers in this film—I can’t find words for them all. Blue is the Warmest Color respects your intelligence, your feelings, and your attention, and its rewards are those of a deep and lasting experience.