Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La vie d’Adèle)

France (2013) Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche

Hype comes in many forms – through either bludgeoning mass media promotion or a reputation stemming “high brow” critical acclaim. The big winner of this year’s Cannes film festival falls into the latter category and thus it is with a combination of excitement and anxiety that I get to feast my eyes this much talked about, controversial opus.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a typical high school girl with typical high school girl problems, although the main one appears to be living up to the highly sexed bravado of her school friends. Somewhat late to the party yet keen to fit in, Adèle accepts a date with interested classmate Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte) and eventually sleeps with him but Adèle isn’t satisfied.

A few days later Adèle passes a young woman with blue hair, Emma (Léa Seydoux), in the street and is beguiled by her. They meet properly later at a gay bar and strike up a conversation before heading into a full on relationship.

Adapted from the graphic novel Le bleu est une couleur chaude by Julie Maroh, Tunsian actor/director Abdellatif Kechiche delivers an epic sprawling tale of a lesbian relationship that doesn’t flinch from showing the finer intimate details of the union, both physical and emotional.

Arguments will be made against the lengthy run time and there are moments of pointless indulgence, longueurs dialogue and quotidian activities that could have been shortened, but when one looks at the entire journey Adèle goes on Kechiche’s vision starts to make sense – even if his propensity for long films has already been established such as 2006’s two hour plus restaurant drama Couscous.

The story is fairly straightforward yet suffused with complexities to depict the life of a young lesbian in modern France. Maroh’s tale suggests that France being seen as a less homophobic nation than others isn’t a false belief, being a key issue explored here. When Adèle is spotted by her friends with Emma and their gay bar meeting is revealed, the outrage she is subjected to is sheer 1960’s paranoia.

One friend angrily expressed her betrayal towards Adèle as they once innocently shared a bed together, claiming Adèle was lusting after her. Others throw the old “dyke” line at her and in the space of two minutes Adèle has gone from friend to dirty, diseased outcast in their minds.

This may seem like juvenile ignorance (they are supposed to be fifteen-sixteen year olds although they looks and behaviour suggest older) but later in the film, once Adèle and Emma have become an item, Adèle is still reluctant to introduce Emma as her partner, instead telling her parents she is her philosophy tutor while not mentioning Emma at all in her adult life when Adèle eventually becomes a kindergarten school teacher.

Unfortunately this is just one of many bumps that surface late into the relationship that have a lasting negative and damaging effect, which feels like a shame since the pair have created a believable and convincing partnership.

Everything is intimately shot, almost putting the viewer into the role of voyeur with its near cinema vérité style – especially during the sex scenes – taking us deep into the heart of the relationship and the girls themselves. Much has been made about the explicit sex scenes and yes there are a few of them.

There is no escaping this aspect of Kechiche’s work – something Maroh herself has supposedly condemned – and while they are unquestionably the most pornographic scenes ever in a “mainstream” film (bar extreme close ups of genitalia, use of sex toys and obscene OTT utterances), they is something palpably real and warm about them, a credit to the two actresses for their utterly committed performances in these scenes.

For this reviewer’s taste, I don’t think there were completely necessary and I am sure some viewers might find them uncomfortable viewing (as others will for a different reason), and truth be told, if they weren’t in the film it would be about twenty minutes shorter, but they do play an intrinsic part in conveying the strength and passion of the love between these two women.

That said, the actresses didn’t enjoy their time on set and had harsh things to say about working with Kechiche, but such is their professionalism that it doesn’t show at all on screen.

Adèle Exarchopoulos gives not just a career making and career defining performance but arguably the performance of the year. This 20 year-old (19 when filming) bares all, both literally and emotionally, to deliver one of the most raw, honest yet multifarious characterisations committed to screen.

We follow Adèle from an awkward and confused fifteen year-old to a sexually confused adult, yet she retains some of her childish naivety throughout. With a combination of subtle body language, gentle and tender tactile movements and full on displays of emotional outpouring, Exarchopoulos dominates the film with an unflappable confidence hidden beneath the unsure shell of the girl whose life she inhabits.

An equally commanding presence is the apparently ageless and chameleon like Léa Seydoux as Emma, who looks half the thirty years of age she is on the cusp of. She is the energy and the anarchy of the film, the yin to Adèle’s yang yet they compliment each other beautifully and the naturalness of their chemistry, physical and emotional, feels too real to be acted yet we have to believe it is. Again the magic is in the nuances of the two actresses’ ability to convey so much by doing so little.  

Blue Is the Warmest Colour deserves much of the praise and the attention for its bold confrontation of a taboo subject, superlative performances and powerful storytelling. It won’t be for everyone yet it is a film that should be seen by everyone if only to challenge their perceptions on lesbian affairs.

This is a sublime and enriching experience without question, although a little prudent restraint on some of its indulgences would make it an unchallenged and exceptional one.