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The plot of Blue Is the Warmest Color is simple: Adèle is in high school, studying literature. Everyone is interested in dating, and she has a brief fling with a boy, but she does not feel satisfied. She meets a slightly older girl, Emma, an artist, in a bar, and they soon get into a passionate relationship. They start living together, but there's some mismatch because Emma is driven to succeed in her career, while Adèle is not, and is pleased to become a teacher to young children. Adèle does not feel very comfortable among Emma's pretentious artist friends, but she is also not able to openly socialize with her fellow student teachers. She feels alone and has an affair with one of her workmates, a man. Emma discovers this and throws out Adèle from their apartment, which leaves Adèle utterly distraught for years.
Despite its simple plot, the movie lasts three hours, and that's because many scenes last a long time. We see Adèle's developing sexuality in her conversations with her friends and lovers, masturbating at home, or in sex scenes. There are long dinner parties, other parties, and demonstrations. The camera lingers on her face again and again, and shows her body when she is sexually engaged with herself or partners. We see her and others eating, tasting, chewing, swallowing, and enjoying food and drink. After watching Adèle's face close up for three hours, seeing her in various states of emotion, from boredom to curiosity, sexually unsatisfied and sexually ecstatic, content, anxious, and consumed by grief, we come to feel we know her well. The intimacy between Adèle and the viewer is at the heart of the film.
There are many other elements that make the experience rich. We see various parts of life in a French town; the high school, a lesbian bar, a café, an art museum, and a few people's houses. There are the different reactions of Adèle's parents and Emma's parents to their love affair. There are the homophobic reactions of Adèle's classmates to her new relationship, and the solidarity of Emma's art school friends. These provide lots of context for the love affair of the two young women, and make the film more interesting.
It is the sensuality between the two of them that makes Kechiche's film unusual, and the fact that it is a same sex couple makes it more unusual. Such explicit sex is normally only seen in a porn movie, and while the camera does not linger on genitals, it doesn't avoid them either. There was plenty of discussion when the film was released in 2013 whether the sex was progressive or voyeuristic, especially since the director is male. It doesn't have any great revelation about gay and lesbian culture or sexual practices, but it is remarkable as a depiction of a passionate relationship of young people. The acting is strong; and a lot of the cinematography is strikingly good too. With its focus on the small details of everyday life, it has many stunningly beautiful images.
It's true that the film is largely devoted to the face of Adèle, played by Adèle Exarchopoulos. The first time you watch it, the time frame is confusing; it isn't clear how old she is at the start, but there are moments when she seems quite childlike herself, such as when she is upset, she reaches under her bed and devours a chocolate bar. There are a few jumps in time which are not done very smoothly, ending with Adèle being in her early to mid-twenties. Adèle obviously does not change her face as much as she would really if the time had really gone by, and making her wear glasses as a sign of age seems a silly device.
There are parts that drag, especially Emma's conversations about art with her friends, which show how tiresome she can be, and how Adèle will never fit in with Emma's world. These sections also seem to serve as director Kechiche to get in some of his own ideas about sexuality and gender explicitly mentioned, but they quickly fade into insignificance. Fortunately he soon goes back to the relationship between the two, and shows with some subtlety how it has faded in passion, but Adèle still wants to make it work, despite her fears about getting excluded from Emma's life. The decline in their intimacy is hard to depict in a way that's as gripping as when they were falling in love, and Kechiche has some trouble keeping up the energy at this point. But the break-up scene is shocking and horrifying, and again is particularly memorable. Emma shows herself as a nasty piece of work.
It's hard to think of any other film which gives such so intensely portrays a relationship between two people, allowing the reader to inhabit the space of the central character. It will certainly try the patience of some viewers. It does repay careful and repeated viewing, although not too often.
© 2014 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York