Ars Amatoria: Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Colour (2013) – Blu-ray review
Auteur theory be damned. With actresses this alive to a story’s possibilities, Kechiche needs only to ensure he has the best seat in the house.
Blue Is The Warmest Colour
(Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
What makes a great film great? A strong story to hold the attention? Ravishing cinematography to thrill the eye? A directorial vision to impart wisdom? All of these things, of course, but chiefly it’s down to the actors to provide that spark of emotion, the connection to draw you in and hold you there. And yet seldom are actors regarded as the auteurs behind their films – at least until the Cannes Film Festival broke with convention and made Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux joint recipients of the Palme D’Or with director Abdellatif Kechiche.
Blue Is The Warmest Colour is a three hour lesson in how performance matters. Especially from Exarchopoulos, who is in every scene as Adèle and journeys from naïve, earnest high school student to hard-bitten twenty-something over three hours of bliss and heartbreak. But Seydoux matches her as Emma, Adèle’s Döppelganger and polar opposite, at once her ideal partner and yet the yin to Adèle ‘s yang.
Their scorching sex scenes have become the chief subject for debate and it is here that a level of performance – of shared intimacy and longing, of passion in the eyes as much as the bodies – justifies the decision to be so graphic. Yet they can’t help but distract from the slow-burning story of Adèle’s growth, and there’s a period where this has a touch of the 9 Songs about it. To be honest, the moments that send chills arrive earlier, during their courtship – their first, electric exchange of glances, or a stand-off of repressed lust at the end of a date as they stand staring into each other’s eyes, wondering, hoping if the other will make a move.
Kechiche is determined to anatomise the relationship, to chart the women’s fluctuations of mood through variations in body language, and he has a capable subject in the expressive Exarchopoulos. Her mouth creases in amusement or shyness, her face flushes with embarrassment or lust, her cheek flares with anger during a hostile scene with homophobic friends. All the while her eyes are cascading with an intensity of emotions she scarcely understands and cannot control. Particularly in the early sequences of the film, Exarchopoulos nails a character who can’t hold back. Nor can Kechiche, who is so besotted he virtually ignores his Widescreen frame to focus exclusively on her face. Especially when she’s dancing in a student march, we’re as lost in the moment as she is.
The film is as intoxicating and beautiful and vibrant as its story of first love, but all good things must come to an end and – in typically French style – it comes down to a tussle between heart vs head. Emma is 100% committed to the life of a Bohemian artist, in her blue hair, painting, oyster-eating family and cultural but snobbish friends. Adèle is blind-sided with infatuation but remains her own woman: she wants to settle down and teach, something Emma doesn’t understand. And yet nor does Adèle appreciate Emma’s immersion into her world: she is at once the sensible one, and yet deluded into thinking that Emma shares her conformist – dare we say, ‘straight?’ – value system.
So the final hour or so is brittle compared to what comes before, but a necessary corrective. In a running gag, the literature that Adele studies in class provides a Greek chorus that anticipates the life experiences she’s about to have – and the virtual impossibility of being able to pigeon-hole it. By the end, Adèle is the one with the knowledge to pass on and duly becomes a teacher, with the difference that she prefers to teach young kids about joyous things rather than share the painful experiences of growing up. For that, there’s no substitute for living the real thing.