Like Ghost World (2000) and Tamara Drewe (2010), Blue is the Warmest Colour is based on a graphic novel, proving an exciting expansion of the parameters for comic book adaptations beyond the well-worn superhero genre. 15 year old Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a girl like any other, dating boys and wondering what to do with her life. On the cusp of womanhood she finds herself unexpectedly smitten with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a captivating, blue-haired lesbian artist who opens up a whole new world for her. They share an intensely passionate love affair. Although Adèle hides the reality of their relationship from her conservative parents and endures a public humiliation by bigoted schoolfriends, her life is consumed by her love for Emma. Yet as time passes, the reality of the relationship struggles to live up to the fantasy Adèle built up for herself.
Franco-Tunisian actor turned writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche emerged as a distinctive voice in French cinema, scoring a brace of César awards for his early films, L'Esquive (2003) (about a group of street kids fascinated with performing a Eighteenth Century play) and La Graine et le mulet (2007) (about an ageing African immigrant's struggle to realize his dream of opening a restaurant), then floundered with flop historical drama Venus Noire (2010) which divided critics. He bounced back with a vengeance with Blue is the Warmest Colour which proved to be the most widely praised French film of 2013, winning the coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It marked the first instance where the award was shared between the creative forces both behind and in front of the camera, which was a wise decision given the film would not be half of what it is without the enthralling, viscerally moving performances delivered by Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. Seydoux captivates as the enigmatic, albeit never entirely sympathetic Emma but the real star turn comes from the relatively inexperienced Exarchopoulos. The nineteen year old actress grounds the drama with a heartrending performance of searing emotional honesty that renders her fictional counterpart a heroine for our times.
Despite widespread acclaim, controversy arose around Kechiche's treatment of his actresses whilst filming the extremely explicit love scenes. Accusing the director of psychological manipulation, Léa Seydoux vowed she would never work with him again despite praising him as an artist and being proud of her work in the film. Numerous, graphic and long including a much talked about ten minute carnal centrepiece, the love scenes are undeniably powerful as erotic spectacle but prompted some to question whether necessarily benefit the narrative. On a personal note, after initially siding with those naysayers, upon reflection one came to the conclusion that Kechiche aestheticized these scenes so that viewers of varying sexual persuasions would be aroused, yes but also moved by the passion in a relationship ultimately healthier and more life-affirming than those depicted in other taboo-breaking tales of erotic obsession like Last Tango in Paris (1972), In the Realm of the Senses (1976) or even Betty Blue (1986). The film deals with all-consuming love not shallow, destructive lust.
Ultimately, Blue is the Warmest Colour has far less in common with confrontational art-porn than it does with similarly unflinching studies of fraught romantic relationships like Blue Valentine (2010) or more aptly within a French context, Claude Goretta's similarly heartrending The Lacemaker (1977) with which it shares the intent to illustrate how social upbringing and class barriers impede relationships and can suffocate even the most intense feelings one can develop for another person. Note the contrasting reactions to the relationship between Adèle's stuffy bourgeois parents and Emma's affluent, liberal-minded mother and step-father. Indeed the film is more class conscious than concerned with issues of sexuality as Adèle grows to feel intimidated by Emma's circle of friends who are more cerebral where she is earthy, albeit no less intelligent. As a devotee of the great François Truffaut, Kechiche claimed to have drawn inspiration from the master filmmaker's more light-hearted series of Antoine Doinel films. Yet this film shares more in common with Truffaut's seminal Jules et Jim (1961) mounting a similar meditation on the ephemeral nature of love and the death of love viewed through the prism of those most prized French artifacts: culture, art and literature. Early on the characters quote Jean-Paul Sartre: “we define ourselves by our actions.” The evolution of the self comes through the gradual realization we can affect change, both in our environment and within each other. Very much a coming of age story, the film charts Adèle's emotional development and sense of self which as is often the way with vulnerable young women proves a fragile thing.
Like Truffaut, Kechiche has a knack for placing the viewer inside the shifting psychological state of his protagonists. We share the same giddy emotional highs and harrowing lows. Kechiche deftly conveys that familiar sense of restlessness and confusion that comes with being a teenager. Our first glimpse of Emma's blue hair is like an explosion of colour into Adèle's hitherto mundane world. Exarchopoulos makes Adèle a very real teenage girl rather than one constructed by a middle-aged male auteur. She smokes, binge eats, struggles to make sense of her surroundings and to paraphrase those bards of the twenty-first century, One Direction, has no idea she is beautiful. She also happens to be smart without being pretentious (comparing Sartre to Bob Marley), articulate yet insecure about who she is. It is this insecurity that drives her to try on various hats whether flirting with strong political convictions, a career as a writer, or varying sexuality. This facet of Adèle's character is crucial towards understanding her actions towards the latter half of the film.
Perhaps even more impressive than Kechiche's ability to convey the exhilarating feeling that comes with first love is the means by which he charts the breakdown of the relationship that comes about in part through Adèle's insecurity yet also through Emma's insensitivity, narcissism and pretension. The downward spiral through paranoia, betrayal, recrimination and pain proves among the most devastating in cinema. Some took issue with the hackneyed plot quirk of the lesbian succumbing to a sexual liaison with a man, but one would argue such a contrivance is excusable when viewed in context. Both protagonists relay their first sexual experiences were with boys in an attempt to quell their nascent sexuality. Hence it is not a case of a macho male setting her back on the straight and narrow. In a moment of extreme loneliness, insecurity and vulnerability one character does the worst thing she could possibly do which is betray her sense of self. Exarchopoulos is extraordinary at conveying utter despair while Kechiche makes ingenious use of rhythm and dance as a form of catharsis throughout those scenes between Adèle and her nursery school kids that prove deeply affecting. Before the fade-out he pulls off one final haunting moment satirizing the parasitical nature of art as one character transforms a failed relationship into a new lease of life while another is left a broken, despondent version of the person she used to be.