Blue is the Warmest Colour (La vie d'Adèle chapitres 1 et 2) Review

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) sees herself as an average teenager in her French town (mostly shot in and around Lille), with school, her friends and her parents taking up a large part of her life. She has ambitions to teach young children. And there are boys, with her relationship with Samir (Salim Kechiouche) hesitantly becoming serious. But something is lacking, and a chance encounter with arts student Emma (Léa Seydoux), older, with dyed-blue hair, openly gay, changes Adèle's life.

When it premiered at Cannes in 2013, Blue is the Warmest Colour, was an instant tip for the festival's main prize, the Palme d'Or. It duly did win that award, and for the first time in the festival's history the two leading actors, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, were cited along with the Tunisian-born director Abdellatif Kechiche, thus tripling the number of female Palme d'Or winners. (The only previous one was New Zealander Jane Campion, who jointly won the Palme for The Piano in 1993.) But along with the accolades came controversy: speculation as to whether Seydoux and Exarchopoulos were actually having sex on screen (they weren't, due to the use of prosthetic genitalia in certain shots), the length of those sex scenes, allegations by both women of Kechiche's tyrannical behaviour on set, and the writer of the original graphic novel, Julie Maroh, distancing herself from the film and in particular not endorsing the film's onscreen depiction of lesbian sex.

Let's take a look at the film's titles for a moment, both of them. Blue is the Warmest Colour is the English-language title. It's an approximate translation of the title of Maroh's graphic novel (Bleu est une couleur chaude, or Blue is a Warm - or Hot – Colour). and reflects the fact that the colour blue is a leitmotif in Kechiche's film. Blue is at first associated with Emma, but she stops dyeing her hair about halfway through, and the colour becomes increasingly associated with Adèle: the colour of her dress in the final scene is no accident. However, in its original language of French, the film is called La vie d'Adèle Chapitres 1 et 2 (The Life of Adèle: Chapters 1 and 2), and other countries have used their translation of that title for the film's release there. Blue is the Warmest Colour may seem to be about the beginning, middle and end of a lesbian relationship, and that is a very important part of the film. But what it really is, is what would be called a Bildungsroman if it were a novel: the story of the formation of a person. We get Chapters 1 and 2 of Adèle's life: Chapters 3, 4, 5 and so on can be assumed to continue into the years ahead after the final shot has gone from the screen.

For it is Adèle's life we are watching. There are no voiceovers, so all we know of her is what we see her do and hear her say. Kechiche bases his film on an act of faith: that by close observation we can know a person, this person in particular, and observe her he does, frequently in close-up (in Scope). This is an approach which both enables and is enabled by the extended running time. Yes, when Adèle and Emma's relationship becomes a sexual one, we observe them in the act for eight minutes (not more than ten, as some have claimed). But we have also observed Adèle glimpsing Emma briefly from a distance. There's an attraction there from the outset, and before they have even spoken together, Adèle fantasises about her as she masturbates. But when they do meet, forty-five minutes in, Kechiche and his co-writer Ghalia Lacroix (she's also the film's editor) shows the build up of their relationship from first attraction to its consummation via friendship and we watch that too, via three long conversations. We watch Emma and Adèle talking to each other for as much, if not more, time as we watch their lovemaking. We watch them have dinner with both sets of parents. We observe Adèle at a student demo and later at a Gay Pride march with Emma. We watch Adèle at school both as a student and later as a primary-school teacher, clearly a very good one. And we watch her in private moments too: masturbation as previously mentioned, in the shower, getting dressed and putting on make-up to go out. Kechiche might well have filmed her sitting on the toilet if he found a way to reveal a further nuance of her character. We are watching the formation of a young woman, from the age of sixteen or seventeen at the start (a high school junior, as the rather Americanised subtitles put it – the equivalent of the UK Year Twelve) to her early twenties. Her sexuality is certainly part of that – from the heterosexual-but-with-something-undefinably-lacking young woman at the start to a full participant in a lesbian relationship. Given that Adèle has sexual relations with men both before and after Emma she could be called bisexual rather than gay, but that's for her to define for herself – a process still ongoing by film end, one suspects.

This wasn't Adèle Exarchopoulos's debut feature, but she was only eighteen when it was shot. (Her character was originally called Clementine, but Kechiche made a virtue of her being called by the actor's name when she was in character on the streets and on trains.) Sharing the Palme d'Or in lieu of the Cannes Best Actress award is certainly fitting. While Cate Blanchett would not have lost the BAFTA and Oscar, the fact that Exarchopoulos was not even nominated is a travesty, though the Oscars wouldn't have rewarded a controversial foreign-language film that played in the USA with a NC-17 rating. (The timing of its French release date made it ineligible for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar.) This is a quite astonishing performance. If Kechiche observes, Exarcholopoulos provides, and also ages quite convincingly from just below her actual age to three or four years older than it, helped by some subtle makeup and hairstyling variations and changes in her body language – not to mention wearing glasses towards the end. This is one of the most emotionally transparent performances I've seen in ages: when Adèle cries – which she does more than once – those are real tears and real snot on screen.

Emma is not the character the film pivots on, and she is onscreen less than Adèle: somewhere between half and two thirds of the running time, despite Léa Seydoux's top billing. Yet she makes every moment count. Those more qualified to judge than me have attested to how convincing she is as a lesbian. But more importantly, she's utterly convincing as a human being, and that's the reason why her scenes with Adèle – from meeting to lovemaking to arguments – are affecting and at times devastating.

And now we come to not one, but two elephants in the room. While I'm not going to condone emotionally abusive behaviour and artistic intent is not a defence for it, and while I'm not intending to downplay the effects of such behaviour on those on the receiving end, I can't help but note that some of the greatest films ever made have been made from less than pure motives and by people who may well be less than pleasant in real life. Ultimately, judge the art, not the artist. Which brings us to elephant number two. Kechiche is a man who has made a film centering on a woman, on two women in fact, and dealing with lesbian sexuality. He's not the first man to do this: John Sayles did this in Lianna (a film I admire greatly) and Robert Towne did in Personal Best (a film I saw some twenty years ago and found distinctly problematic). I'm not going to suggest that filmmakers should not deal with subject matter that is and always will be out of their personal experience, far from it. Filmmakers can make films about what they like; we can only judge the results, not the fact that they made it in the first place. There is such a thing as research, though, at least drawing on those who do have personal experience. (I like the Wachowski's Bound far less than many people do, but they did hire Susie Bright as a consultant for that film's sex scenes.)

To be fair to Kechiche, he's clearly well aware of this. Almost the first words we hear are: “I am a woman. I tell my story.” These words are not spoken by Adèle, but one of her classmates, but Adèle is listening and we are meant to take note. Emma's arts background, which culminates in Adèle posing for her, also provoke questions about representation. About halfway through, during a party, one of Emma and Adèle's friends openly speculates how he, a man, can understand female experience that's denied to him because of his maleness. But by invoking Tiresias, the mythological figure who could become either a man or a woman, Kechiche seems to imply that this is possible...and, by close observation, that is what he has set out to do in this film. I'm in no doubt it's one of the films of 2013.

The Disc

Blue is the Warmest Colour is released by Artificial Eye in both Blu-ray and DVD editions. It was the former which was received for review, and comments and affiliate links refer to that. For affiliate links for the DVD, go here.

Blue is the Warmest Colour was digitally shot on the Canon C300, which captures at 1080p resolution, the same at this Blu-ray. Apart from 35mm cinema prints, of which there were some (though my viewing was of a 2K DCP), this is a film that has been digital from shooting to editing to final release and now on disc, so you'd expect this to look the same as it did in the cinema – and it does, to the best of my memory. It's sharp, with colours as strong as they are no doubt intended to be, and shadow detail is fine.

The soundtrack comes with two options: LPCM Surround (2.0) and DTS-HD MA 5.1. There's very little difference between them, except that the latter is mixed louder than the former. This isn't the most sonically active film out there, with the surrounds mostly used for ambience. The most notable subwoofer moment is the throbbing bass of the sound system during the Pride sequence 82 minutes in. English subtitles for this French-language film are of the non-optional variety. As I mention above they are somewhat Americanised. I also spotted a couple of spelling errors: “peak” for “peek” early on, and a persistent misspelling of the surname of the artist Egon Schiele as “Shiele”. The latter is despite the fact that the name is correctly spelled on the cover of a magazine Emma is reading at one point.

The extras begin with two interviews, one with Abdellatif Kechiche (9:03) and the other with Adèle Exarchopoulos (7:34), both filmed with Artificial Eye's film poster to their right. Kechiche speaks in French (English subtitles provided) and talks about how his actors are his raw material for their films and paying more attention to using objects to balance frame composition, despite the widespread use of handheld camerawork, than he did in his previous four films. (Of his four earlier features, only La graine et le mulet - variously Anglicised as The Secret of the Grain, Grain and Mullet and Couscous - has had UK distribution.) Exarchopoulos speaks in English (no subtitles) and describes how she was cast, by performing an improvisation for Kechiche, and that she enjoyed the five-month shoot for the most part, despite her director's demands for repeated takes, and how trust was important with a film like this. Given the apparent turmoil on set, these both seem a little guarded. The extras are completed by three deleted scenes (one item, totalling 8:13) and the theatrical trailer (1:53), which contains a song on the soundtrack which isn't in the film itself and, if I'm not mistaken, some shots which aren't either.

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