Blue Is the Warmest Color ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

A great test case: beloved Palm D’Or-winning film invokes backlash, and I’m in the position to weigh both sides. But often with the case in these things, the backlash writings are often less attacking the work at hand than the initial response and writing, justifiably so because the "pro" writing is misinterpreting the merits. For Blue is the Warmest Color, many of these are correct in calling BS on the “groundbreaking work” of naturalism because the only “natural effect” here is Kechiche won’t put his camera on a tri-pod, which actually makes it all feel quite unnatural (or at least call attention to itself more than the drama at hand). That’s fine is you’re the Dardennes, but Kechiche works toward pretty classical compositions anyways, so why give us all the shake? But Kechiche’s camerawork is not without merit – he’ll often give certain shots a type of play between foreground and background, where background is just out of focus, but visible enough to put the foreground information into new context.

But in writing about how so many have given the wrong credit to the material, I think many are missing what Blue Is the Warmest Color is actually working through. Kechiche’s stand in is that guy in the party late into the film that talks about the relationship between sex and mysticism; he’s clearly interested in how natural and physical action can be transformed into something transcendent (SEE: his two previous features, which are also explicitly about this), but here also temporal and impermanent. So many of the shots of Adele’s face show her eating (though I’m not sure we needed the unnecessary candy bar stash under the bed gag – Mike Leigh did it better in Life is Sweet 20+ years ago) in which the girl won’t close her mouth, and shows off some of her ugliness or at least improperness to get a sense that this takes places in a “real” world. But, as the film’s opening scene tells us, desire is looking, looking is possession, and Adele looks at what she wants (she never really looks at her first boyfriend till she’s breaking up with him). And thus she sees a goddess in Emma’s swirling blue hair, her closed off, almost hardened face to her own more rounded and adolescent beauty. When Adele and Emma kiss in the park, the sun appears to be literally emerging out of their mouth and between their passion, a sight that unless you’re writing from an ivory tower, is quite breathtaking and stunning (essentially Reygadas without the pretentiousness).

So what is also essential and why the naturalism idea misconstrues is that the entire film needs to be seen through the POV of Adele and not some objective (or male) gaze. Everything is attenuated to her senses, and what she feels, so when things seem over-the-top, it’s supposed to be how she experiences it (she’s literally glowing from a rare foreground light when she meets Emma at the bar). We’ve already seen her kiss a girl and have sex before “the scene” comes along, but Kechiche understands is that this needs to feel and look like the greatest sex in the world for this girl. I don’t want to speak to any sort of accuracy, but those calling this high-caliber porn have clearly not watched that much girl-on-girl porn, because first of all, it’s not as explicit, but more importantly, it’s far from this intimate, which is why the scene actually becomes uncomfortable - it feels so personal between these two human beings in a way that the camera feels like it doesn’t belong, but this is her story and we need to experience her ecstasy.

So where does this film lose points? A few places—this probably comes from the graphic novel, but I don’t think we needed any of the usual LGBT commentary, especially the high school “dyke don’t come near my pussy” stuff, if the rest of the film clearly isn’t interested in addressing it anyways. And while I have no problem with the sex scene portrayal, I’m gonna agree with the claims that yoinks! that lesbian bar is over-the-top (everyone is either making out or making a move on someone else –people just like to drink okay?). I also think there’s a weird sense of temporality being worked out here - the ellipses feel rushed and never really weigh down the years of the relationship, very much unlike the film this has been often compared to, Goodbye, First Love with strong merit.

But the last thirty minutes, even if they are kind of a cry-fest (and Exarchopoulos is very heavy crier) solidify this film for me, because what it isn’t is that the older pro betrays the younger pro, but the younger loses a sense of that initial touch and excitement—mysticism as a temporal finite experience (I’m curious to whether Kechiche has read Al-Ghazali, but that’s probably pushing my luck). Thus, she searches for it somewhere else (the bar dance sequence at the bar is almost keyed directly into not how we observe Adele, but how Adele wants us to observe her own body and be looked at). The film becomes about the girl’s own failure to realize in the abstract beauty instead of the literal beauty (Philosophy vs. Literature, higher ideas versus beauty of the page), and the film’s last few scenes, especially the protracted “post-break up” meeting has a tantalizing edge to provides a certain more complex dynamic that what we get at the end of Laurence Anyways to name another epic 3-hour romance. The final note hints at the cliché ending but thankfully swerves away at the last moment, leaving us to contemplate the meaning more than give a closed-off reading, which is a bit rare given that much of the rest of the film is quite straight-forward.