I wish we lived in a world where I could accept that the sexuality of the protagonists of Blue is the Warmest Color do not matter. The graphic novel by Julie Maroh on which the film is based is rooted heavily in queer themes, almost all of which are eschewed in this adaptation, and thus the thought that kept popping into my head as it trundled along was this: “Why do they need to be queer women?”
The film never satisfactorily answers. There are hints, of course, but it’s more wrapped up in a fairly binarist exploration of class wherein Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), the middle class public school attendee, is thrust into the aspirational world of art and fine society by her first love, Emma (Lea Seydoux).
There are flashes of queer experience here, but it couldn’t be more obvious that the film evolved under the watch of a straight director and two straight co-stars. While I would not argue that it’s wrong for a film to tell a story about queer characters while eschewing almost all queerness, I would say that it’s quite significantly problematic.
There are roughly two moments at which the sexuality of its characters matter. First is the point at which Adele’s high school friends start accusing her of being a lesbian and one freaks out at her for having slept naked in her bed. The second is the vaguely awkward dinner with Adele’s parents, who assume that Emma has a boyfriend in a cute little nod to the increasingly ancient concept of the homophobia of the suburban middle class.
The rest of the film plays out in a blank if mildly compelling fashion. Their relationship has lightly-shaded ups and downs but never reaches the whole-hearted emotional pull and understanding of cultural complexities achieved by recent queer cinema highlights Weekend and Facing Mirrors. The fact that they are both women barely factors into their lives, which makes the extended, graphic sex scenes go far beyond erotic and into the gratuitous.
It’s telling that, at one point, the queer women sitting next to me in the cinema hissed, “What the fuck?!” and gesticulated with incredulity when the film showed Adele and Emma engaging in what is best known as ‘scissoring’. It was difficult not to laugh along with them. It’s this kind of naiveté that chips away at the film’s emotional authenticity and makes the characters’ identities seem incidental rather that fully-formed and vital.
Blue is the Warmest Color still functions admirably as a means of ruminating on the anxiety of twenty-something identity. Emma, the blue-haired artist, uses Adele as her muse, and Adele begins to feel that she exists more to Emma and her contemporaries as the girl in the paintings than as the partner, schoolteacher, and friend.
Stylistically, director and co-writer (alongside Ghalia Lacroix) Abtellatif Kechiche scarcely varies his approach throught the films relatively brisk three hour runtime. Trapped in the claustrophobia of the close-up, the film is seldom allowed to breathe or provide much context or perspective. So focused as it is on Exarchopoulos’ mane of hair or the open-mouthed way her face rests, it seems to probe for depth that only appears when she allows her feelings to messily rise to the surface.
In spite of this, her performance is admirable, as is Seydoux’s, though she is given somewhat less to do. The cinematography is fine even if it is flat; it seems almost visually interchangeable with sun-dappled American indies in the vein of Short Term 12. Ultimately its attempted frankness feels like a conventional relationship drama in queer cinema drag, and the subsequent distaste this leaves lingers and sours the experience.
Suffused with an ambition it can never hope to fulfil, Blue is the Warmest Color struggles against its own misplacedness and manages to emerge with a competence it feels lucky to have eked out. The controversy that ensued following its Palme d’Or win back in May seems to reflect the manner in which its director and stars have grasped for a hold on ‘ownership’ of the film.
The issues Exarchopoulos and Seydoux have since raised about their treatment seems to reflect the film’s sickly and unearned attempt at queerness; even Kechiche has stated that the film shouldn’t be released, believing it to have been “sullied” by its stars’ candidness. While I would not agree with him on the former point, he makes a valid point with the latter. The problem is that he doesn’t understand what truly sullied it in the first place.
[rating=2] and a half
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.