Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bildungsroman: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray DVD Release of Blue is the Warmest Color

When Steven Spielberg awarded the Palme d’Or to Blue is the Warmest Color – released on DVD this year by the Criterion Collection – last May, he remarked that the jury had taken the exceptional measure of bestowing it not upon one artist but three: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux, and Abdellatif Kechiche. Directed and written by Kechiche, who adapted it from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel of the same title (with the help of his regular collaborator Ghalia Lacroix), Blue is a coming-of-age story of startling intimacy. At its core is a love affair between two women, Adèle (Exarchopoulos), a high school girl whose deep appetite for sensual experience is flared by a momentary chance meeting with a blue-haired stranger on a city street, and Emma (Seydoux), the punkish art student who captures Adèle’s curiosity and then her passion. This picture is as entirely a collaboration as Richard Linklater’s Before movies, which he co-created with his stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, or as My Dinner with André and Vanya on 42nd Street were between Wallace Shawn, André Gregory and Louis Malle, but Blue is the Warmest Color is yet more electrically and originally sensual and more philosophically capacious. It reminded me of at least a dozen pictures I love, but it’s not quite like anything I’ve seen before: it’s a groundbreaking erotic drama.

The quicksilver performances of the two lead actresses – worked up through instinct and improvisation as much as the screenplay – are astonishing. As the painter Emma, Léa Seydoux has the nervy bravado of a young Marlon Brando – the homage is unmistakable in an early scene in a lesbian bar in which Emma, peering slit-eyed at the young Adèle sitting alone, struts toward her with a hungry self-assurance. Seydoux had small roles as the beautiful antiques dealer in Midnight in Paris and the young assassin in Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and both were memorable, filled out by her striking, preternatural grace. Taking apart that grace – finding hard, masculine edges as well as an ugly fury within it – is just the beginning of her achievement in Blue. She has proved herself an actress of raw force and tremendous craft. But Exarchopoulos is something else – her performance is so primal and naturalistic it seems to come from a place between waking and sleep. Her Adèle gets stoned on sensations – that’s when she’s most awake; she looks glazed, a little numb, even, when inside she burns the brightest. Kechiche reportedly integrated B-roll footage of her out of character, including when she was sleeping and eating, into the picture – he even gave the character the actress’ name (in the novel she is called Clementine), and truly it is impossible to know where one Adèle ends and the other begins. Her performance is all depths and no edges – it’s oceanic.

It’s easy to imagine how a director as visual and intuitive as Kechiche could become entranced by Julie Maroh’s graphic novel: her watercolors, which combine grey-scale images with iridescent tinges of blues, reds and greens, convey an almost anguishing emotional intimacy. But Kechiche goes far beyond Maroh’s story, which he uses less as a map than as a set of keys. Tiny details from the novel – the strawberry milk Emma orders at the lesbian bar – are robustly filled out. In the graphic novel, Clementine’s first meeting with Emma’s parents is only a single-frame image in a montage of passing years – Kechiche rounds it out to an entire scene, but it’s clearly derived from Maroh; the parents are costumed faithfully. And by building up the classroom and social life of the high school – as Kenneth Lonergan did, similarly, in Margaret – Kechiche is able to give a revealing context to the homophobic reactions Adèle’s girlfriends have to seeing her with Emma: it comes from that mixture of sexual competitiveness and attraction so common to friendships between teenage girls. When Adèle begins to spend time with Emma, her friends lash out against her because her obvious sexual difference exposes the homoerotic bonds within the group. (I found the scenes between Adèle and her school friends eerily recognizable.)

Kechiche suggests overlapping meanings for the love affair between Adèle and Emma: he sees it as the relationship between an artist and her muse, and a sexual (and intellectual) mentor and her disciple, as well as a conflict between an upper middle class artist and a lower middle class dreamer, and between a woman with a sexual identity – Emma is forthrightly lesbian – and a woman whose passion is so violently consuming she cannot find an identity. The most dramatic sequence in the graphic novel – when Clementine’s parents discover her in bed with Emma and kick them out of the house – was reportedly shot by Kechiche but edited out of the theatrical release. Adèle’s separation from her parents is implied but never stated, and the ambivalence she feels in the second half of the film, caught between a childhood to which she can never return and an adult life she cannot fully embrace, is yet more potent as darkly brewing subtext.

A detail from Julie Maroh's graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color

The turning seasons, exquisitely filmed by Sofian El Fani, are the setting for the film – light floods the camera in the springs and autumns of Adèle and Emma’s long courtship, and even when they have their first conversation in a dark bar they both appear lit from within, glowing with an impossible luminescence like the subjects of Baroque painting. Painting is both a theme in the film and a formal idea: their intertwined bodies in bed are filmed to resemble the cool, marble-skinned nudes and odalisques of neoclassical painting (think of Poussin and Ingres) with the brash ecstatic sexuality of the subjects of Gustave Courbet’s modern realism.

In the final pages of Julie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Color, Clementine contracts a mysterious disease and dies suddenly, a martyr to eternal love. Kechiche mercifully imagines a new ending. (Most of the final act, including the spectacular graduation party scene for Emma around the midpoint of the film, is entirely his creation – only the breakup between Adèle and Emma comes from the novel.) The movie remains open to an uncertain future, just as everything in Adèle remains painfully open, without resolution. Through much of the movie the camera stays so close to Adèle’s face it is as though she is a camera, recording everything that she experiences through all five senses – the device is reminiscent of the French New Wave fascination with female interiority, but without any of the exoticized mystery of Brigitte Bardot in Contempt or Anna Karina in My Life to Live or Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim. The realism of Godard and Truffaut was so explosive that I don’t think it’s a coincidence all of those heroines also, like Maroh’s Clementine, met untimely ends; it was as though all the characters were drifting through a lawless Sartrean world, and only acts of extreme violence could give life, or narrative art, any shape. But Kechiche sees it differently – he finds in realism the hope that Emma finds in existentialism, the belief that the terrifying open-endedness of life is what gives individuals their freedom. That’s why his original title for the picture was “La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2” – his version of the story is not a Passion but a bildungsroman, a novel of experience.

Amanda Shubert writes about film, books and the visual arts. A founding editor of Full Stop, the online magazine of literature and culture, she is also a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Talking About Pauline Kael (Scarecrow Press, 2014). Most recently, she interviewed the actress and folk singer Ronee Blakley for The Rumpus.

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