BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR Review: The Space Between
Think about your first love. Think about who you were and what you were as an individual when you first met that first love. Think about who you were and what you were as an individual – and as a couple – when that first love ended. Think about everything – everything you can remember – that happened in between.
Now think about the story you would tell about that first love. The beginning you tell might be the same as you remember it: who and what you were, how you met, where you met, and such. The end, as you tell it, might also be the same as how you remember it. But the details – the space between the beginning and the end – will differ. Your told story will be a highlight reel comprised of significant firsts, embarrassing moments, maybe even some suggestions of intimacy. But in your mind, you’ll remember the quieter times, the incidental touches, the routines with that first love that filled your life, that filled the space between the highlight reel moments. Those are the times you keep to yourself because you want to horde their specialness and you are afraid you might bore someone with tales of the delicately mundane.
But those details, those moments shared with no one else, that cumulation of little things that make your story whole, are not only what shaped you and what shaped your relationship with that first love, they are far more fascinating than you might realize.
Therein lies the brilliance of Abdellatif Kechiche‘s Blue is the Warmest Color: it’s a complete love story told not in highlight reel moments that might bring the viewer temporary joy and pain, but rather one told in details that engulf the viewer in the glorious extremes of love and heartbreak.
Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is your typical high school student. She has classes that she likes and dislikes, a circle of girlfriends she hangs out with, a boyfriend she’s not sure she should sleep with, not intrusive yet not disinterested parents, and even a gay confidante. Her plans for the future include furthering her education and becoming a schoolteacher.
One day, while harmlessly crossing the street (read: when she least expects it), Adèle makes eye contact with Emma (Lèa Seydoux), a tomboyish college student who is holding hands with another girl. It’s Emma’s shock of blue hair that catches Adèle’s attention, and it’s Adèle’s beauty that keeps Emma’s head turning as the distance in the street grows between them. It’s a shared moment that does something to Adèle. There is a feeling there – something she knew inside she needed but couldn’t quite identify. That night, she awakens while in the middle of a ferocious wet dream involving herself and Emma. Adèle cannot deny feelings as visceral as that.
When she eventually meets Emma again (having tracked her down in a lesbian bar), the two begin a relationship that spans years. They grow together, they grow on their own, they grow apart. As organically as it begins it ends, but it doesn’t end there, because the torch Adèle carries for her first love is bright.
When describing Adèle’s life in this stretch of time that the film allows us to witness, I’m reluctant to use terms like “coming of age” or “sexual awakening” because those terms, and others like them, suggest that some singular defining or epiphanous moment occurs that changes the character forever. This film does not work like that. That’s highlight reel. That’s fast food. Blue Is the Warmest Color is not fast food – it’s a succulent, multi-course meal that demands to be slowly savored so that your emotions are not only immersed, they are completely lost in it.
Kechiche achieves this as much by what he doesn’t show as what he does show, and it all goes back to those spaces between. For example, before Emma is part of the story, Adèle catches the eye of the high school hunk, Thomas (Jèrèmie Laheurte), but there is no “meet cute” as is so prevalent in many films. She sees him, he sees her, and the next thing you know, they are an established couple – hanging out, making out. It isn’t a fast-forward; it’s that next tender memory of something that might otherwise not make a story because it isn’t a “Hey, remember that time … ?” moment. It’s a level of intimacy in storytelling that I’ve not experienced before. The entire film is constructed of wonderfully genuine moments like this.
Kechiche likes to linger in scenes as well, allowing the viewer to nestle into each moment as the closest of voyeurs. He doesn’t simply present scenes, he presents moments in this character’s life and invites us in. The film runs at just under three hours, but every scene is so intimate and inviting that you watch the film not as a three-hour whole, you live it as a sum of its parts. This method serves so very well the telling of the relationship between Adèle and Emma.
From that first true meeting in the lesbian bar, the chemistry between them is strong – practically tangible – and it leads quickly to their first sexual encounter. From there, they grow together until, several years later, Adèle the Teacher feels … inadequate … when in the company of Emma the Artist (whose career is on the verge) and her circle of artist friends, all of whom have an air about them that suggests intellectual snobbery. Inadequacy begets loneliness, which begets suspicion, and the relationship devolves from there. Every moment between Adèle and Emma follows this format, and every moment – good or bad – is as engaging as the next.
With all respect to Seydoux, who plays Emma well, Exarchopoulos is spellbinding as Adèle. She is in every scene of the film, and how she presents this character, with so many moments of emotional and physical intimacy along an extensive timeline, is remarkable given her limited acting experience and her tender age of 19. The performance is as flawless as it is demanding.
When Blue Is the Warmest Color won the Palme d’Or in Cannes this year, much was made about the film’s sex scenes involving Adèle and Emma (scenes that helped land the film its NC-17 rating). There is no denying that the scenes between the actresses are graphic and intense, with no score to drown out the noises that come with them, and trust me when I say that there is no faking certain acts. But the hand-wringing that followed about the scenes – suggestions of exploitation and the like – are entirely unfounded. These equally-lingering scenes, like the others, are key moments in Adèle’s life and the women’s relationship that fit right alongside dinner with their respective parents.
In fact, when these scenes are compared to the sex scene between Adèle and Thomas, they further illustrate how lost Adèle was until she discovered her true self with Emma. Her phycial encounter with Thomas – borne more out of peer pressure than physical desire – is flat. She isn’t disinterested, per se, nor is it awkward. They simply don’t mesh, and it is painfully obvious in that one steam-deficient encounter (yet another testament to Exarchopoulos’ work).
After spending years with Adèle over the course of three hours, I didn’t want the story to end. I wanted to share more moments with her. I wanted to fill more of those spaces.