Monday, November 4, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color (**)

La vie d'Adele
Written, Produced and Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche


If certain straight people think that homosexuality is too mainstream, they should go and watch Blue is the Warmest Color. It's bullish, in-your-face and doesn't hide it's romantic entanglements behind narrative structure. It won the prestigious Palme D'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival earlier in the year, and was the first time in the festival's history that the award was given to two of the film's lead actresses as well as the director. It's part sexual awakening, part lesbian docudrama. It's part love story arc, part Mike Leigh-level improv experiment. It's depiction of the sex life between two women was explicit enough to earn the film an NC-17 rating, yet it probably spends more time peaking into classrooms, watching students of various ages read from pages of literature. Blue is the Warmest Color is one of the most important movies that you can see in a theater this year, but it is also probably one of the dullest, unequivocally muted by it's own need to capture reality, instead capturing mundanity.

The film stars a nineteen-year-old actress named Adele Exarchopoulos, whose casting here is something of a miracle. She has puffy, childish cheeks and an overbite that leaves her mouth agape almost all of the time. Her face is flushed with youthful naivete, which makes her essentially perfect for the character of Adele. Adele is a seventeen-year-old high school student, fully aware of her sexuality but with no idea of where to put it. She has a group of friends that push her toward the cute boy watching her from the other side of the cafeteria. She finally does sleep with him, but she's surprised by how little she feels from it, so she breaks up with him, breaking his heart in the process. The whole situation leaves Adele distressed, and she asks Valentin (Sandor Funtek) to take her out to a bar to distract her. Valentin takes her to a gay bar, to meet up with his friends, but once again her attention wanders and she ends up at a lesbian bar down the street.

Adele's obvious under-agedness doesn't seem to stop anyone from welcoming her into the establishment, where she sheepishly goes to the bar and orders a beer. It's here that she's approached by Emma (Lea Seydoux), a blue-haired painter with a deviant smile permanently-affixed on her face. Adele has seen Emma before, her blue hair standing out vividly on crowded streets. Adele has even had detailed sexual fantasies starring Emma, so when Emma begins to grill her on her curiosity in a lesbian bar, Adele can barely hide her excitement. Emma waits for Adele outside of her high school the next afternoon, and Adele coldly ditches her gossiping friends to go walking with Emma down the street. The next day, when her friends angrily confront her and accuse her of being a lesbian, she fights back defiantly, loud declaiming that she is in fact straight. Later that day, she kisses Emma for the first time and it begins a relationship of profound sexual and emotional discovery.

The film has gained a lot of attention for its portrayal of lesbian love-making, and rightfully so. The film has several extended scenes featuring Seydoux and Exarchopoulos in such compromising sexual positions that will make many watching ask themselves, 'How did they simulate THAT?'. And indeed, these scenes are titillating, overflowing with gynecological exploration and erotic ecstasy, but to what end? The director, Abdellatif Kechiche, realizes that audiences get extra stimulation from seeing actors actually putting their mouths in places that they're usually pretending to put it, and smartly sandwiches these scenes in between the more procedural aspects of Adele and Emma's relationship. In these scenes, Kechiche works extra hard at tip-toeing the line between erotic and pornographic, and perhaps Kechiche is pointing out that the difference between the two is marginal - I'd actually agree with that statement. I just wish enough time and effort had been paid to the other aspects of love between Adele and Emma. Nearly everything we're privy to is purely physical, which puts the stakes of the relationship rather low on the totem pole for me as the story moved along toward its heavier moments.

Of course, much has been made of Kechiche's filmmaking process in the press lately. He's been accused by crew members of harassment, verbal abuse and violating certain labor laws. Even Seydoux and Exarchopoulos have claimed that they'd never want to work with Kechiche again. Perhaps most damaging, and most relevant to the film itself, is graphic novelist Julie Maroh - who wrote the book on which this film was based on - who has described the lesbian love scenes "a brutal and surgical display - demonstrative and cold - of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn and made me feel very ill at ease". I'm sure this comes with the territory when you consider this is a heterosexual male directing two heterosexual women in homosexual sex without any homosexual consulting. Now, I don't believe that all lesbian sex is the same, and what may seem "surgical" to Maroh may be very passionate to someone else. But it doesn't hide the fact that Kechiche shoots these sex scenes in a sterile, almost exhibitionist sense that makes the actresses feel more like props than anything.

All of this trivia is my way of explaining all of the psychological unpacking I found myself doing throughout the film, which led me to feeling bored during a movie that I wanted very much to enjoy. Blue stands at a robust three hours long, which is not a crime in and of itself, but considering that this film is mostly about one relationship, I could feel Kechiche spinning scenes along until they've reached their maximum time limit. Group scenes aren't settled until every possible conversation point between several people has been exhausted, and we're given several glimpses into the French classroom where students read from literature passages that may or may not relate to the main narrative at hand. I was reminded of the classroom scenes in Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret which also toiled around, inserted seemingly only to fatten the running time. There seems to be an attempt to replicate Mike Leigh's effortless realism, but Leigh is a true master and his scenes are more manipulated then they seem. You never finish a scene in a Mike Leigh film debating the point.

Individual moments in Blue are brilliant, others more tedious. Even the performances are uneven. Exarchopoulos will get plenty of credit for the bravery in her work here, and I think a lot of that is earned. I found certain aspects of her performance to be a spot-on portrayal of the wasteland of teenaged sexual frustration, but she has several other scenes filled with snotty blubbering that felt redundant by the film's third hour (I realize that's an editing issue and not a performance issue, but it unfortunately effects the performance as well).*(SEE BELOW) The film's best moments deal with the relationship between Emma and Adele. The are two great individual scenes in particular, where the girls meet each other's parents. These moments present pieces of relationship politics that are rarely shown in films. But considering what the plot of this movie is supposed to be, scenes like these two actually come few and far between. Not to mention Kechiche's apparent obsession with handheld close-ups. This film is simply too long to also be so visually conventional; it starts to grate on the eye when you're seeing a medium close-up for the hundredth time.

I remember the thunderstorm that was the release of Brokeback Mountain, a film which gave straight people a chance to pat themselves on the back when a film directed by a straight man (Ang Lee), starring two straight film stars (Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal), dared to explore homosexuality as Hollywood romance. I think Brokeback has earned its place as a landmark film, but it's still a film that tells a homosexual love story through the prism of shame and hiding. I'm not sure why the same attention isn't paid to the films of John Cameron Mitchell, a person who has made films about sexual identity and has dared to do it with non-heteroes. The movie business is fine with gays and lesbians as long as they're not controlling their own image, which is a trend I'm beginning to tire of. Blue is the Warmest Color has charmed many, and I do believe it's a film that people should see, if only because I find America's puritanical dealings with sex in movies to be so prudish. But this film is no revelation or masterpiece. I'm sure Kachiche thinks he's channeling the moral dilemma of Ingmar Bergman, when really it's just the charged eroticism of Adrian Lyne.

*TANGENT: One of my least favorite trends in movies is filmmakers and actors trying to convince us that people don't wipe their nose when it's runny. Give these actors a goddamn a tissue. Nobody wants to see that.

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