Review: Blue is the Warmest Colour

This part-adaptation of Julie Maroh’s graphic-novel saga of a lesbian love affair trades a new voice for the same old male gaze.

Sophie Mayer
Updated:

from our December 2013 issue

Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle, chapitres 1 & 2 has been retitled Blue Is the Warmest Colour for its international release. The original French title is the more accurate: this is a film of two halves. Referring to the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of a lesbian relationship in the life of protagonist Adèle, the title could also refer to the two films that have been awkwardly intertwined.

The first is a Bildungsroman about a young working-class woman exploring her appetites and identity, carried by a central performance of astounding stamina and honesty by Adèle Exarchopoulos, as Adèle, who is on screen almost constantly, often centrally framed in tight close-ups. Secondarily (although it has received the most attention), this is also a loose adaptation of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Le bleu est une couleur chaude, recounting the relationship, from love at first sight to stormy break-up via uninhibited sex, between straight-identified lycée student Adèle and out, blue-haired artist Emma.

While borrowing the source text’s lesbian relationship, the film strips out both the narrative structure – in which Emma reads her ex-girlfriend’s diary after her death, coming to understand and confront the painful effect of the latter’s parents’ homophobia – and the attendant political implications of Maroh’s depiction of a profound connection between lovers across age, class and sexual identity. For most viewers, the original graphic novel – only recently translated into English – will be little more than a titular presence, so the freedom of Kechiche’s adaptation rightly won’t concern them. Yet tonal, narrative and even visual divergences from the source text offer a critical and telling basis for understanding the film’s central problem.

To take one example, a damning playground attack in Maroh’s novel, which makes pivotal the traumatic force of state- and church-licensed homophobia, loses its narrative and dramatic coherence in the film when Adèle’s attacker backs off, conceding that she doesn’t care whether Adèle is gay. The film’s representation of female characters at ease with their desire across sexual identities – Pride is one big party here, awash with rainbow flags and hip-shimmying – could be seen as liberating and celebratory, especially given the trope of the tragic lesbian in cinema. Premiered at Cannes close to the signing of the same-sex marriage bill in France, the film appears to confirm a post-homophobic culture; in the ten years since the events of Maroh’s novel, it suggests, France has moved on to casual acceptance, an assertion disproved by the violent protests against the bill.

Like homophobia, the lesbian here melts away. As with many male fantasies of lesbianism, the film centres on the erotic success and affective failures of relations between women – what could be called the impossibility of a lesbian relationship – compounded when Emma admits to Adèle, after their break-up, that her relationship with new partner Lise is emotionally sound but sexless, in contrast to the appetitive yet unstable relationship she had with Adèle, which provides the centrepiece sex scenes.

Kechiche has said both that he drew on classical art as an inspiration for framing and showed the performers lesbian porn: a telling pairing, which asserts the pervasiveness of the male gaze. Kechiche even has a male gallerist tell Emma that depictions of women in art are always depictions of male pleasure: Emma challenges him, but he becomes her representative at the end of the film, and his statement seems similarly representative.

There’s absolutely no consciousness here of the rich body of work exploring a lesbian erotic aesthetic, ranging in cinema from Chantal Akerman’s Je tu il elle (1976) to Campbell X’s Stud Life (2012); instead, every verbal and visual reference is to the work of male artists. From the opening, with a follow-cam trained on Adèle from behind (an often repeated shot), the film asserts its conventional male gaze. It’s presented troublingly under the cover of a female point of view, despite Adèle being granted relatively few POV shots apart from her initial sight of Emma. Exarchopoulos expresses herself through a rhythmic connection between her movements and her verbal delivery, but her body is subject to a constant disassemblage by framing and editing, reducing it to parts for consumption.

In class, Adèle and her fellow students discuss Pierre de Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne, whose male inscription of a female first-person point of view appears to license Kechiche’s own. Kechiche also cited Marivaux in 2003’s Games of Love and Chance, and both films aim for the bantering philosophical speculation about desire that’s known in France as marivaudage. The clunky dialogue can’t sustain this; suggestive food metaphors – the appetitive Adèle likes the fat on ham, and learns to eat oysters via Emma – are eye-rolling. Adèle’s love of dance expresses her character more creatively, as well as allowing for plentiful hip-level shots, yet the narrow framing and lack of connection to the central relationship risk presenting her as no more than an all-eating, all-dancing, all-fucking body.

Where the metaphor of appetite works is not in Adèle’s relationship with Emma, but with her parents and her working-class background. Cooking her father’s bolognese as the pièce de résistance for Emma’s graduation party offers a neat class observation; inevitably, however, the dripping spaghetti becomes the pivot for a flirtation with Emma’s friend Samir, positioned as a potential future partner by the film’s end. The party, a study in awkwardness, is infinitely more informative and deeply felt than the sex scenes that precede it – Kechiche has a gift for social comedy, as does Exarchopoulos. As elsewhere, La Vie d’Adèle and Blue Is the Warmest Colour diverge: the focus on Adèle’s careful cooking, her dancing, her contentious citation of Bob Marley as a social thinker are all strong and specific, while the cross-flirtations and jealousy between Adèle and Emma are bland and clichéd.

Were Emma to be renamed Michel, the film would proceed almost identically, especially since Emma’s character has been rewritten as a familiar type from French cinema: the artist from the haute bourgeoisie who conquers women and discards them. Léa Seydoux does invest her with a puckish humanity, her mobile face and expressive hands fully inhabiting the role of the artist, but – compared to the grief-stricken, politically conscious Emma who provides the frame narrative for Maroh’s novel – she is a thin character, saved by performance.

In a similar alteration, which erases the story’s specificity and indeed its lesbian erotic, the colour blue migrates from Emma’s hair to appear wherever Adèle casts her desiring gaze. Maroh uses it rigorously to highlight the presence of the beloved in the black-and-white sections that represent diary entries, but in the film blue is pervasive, to the point of diluting its meaning, its jolt of desiring energy. Denim schoolbags, blue nail varnish, blue café walls, blue water: Kechiche depicts a post-sexuality society in which Adèle’s bisexual polyamory, her love of all things blue, is a sign of her sensual freedom. An overdetermined rack focus from Louise Brooks to Adèle, when Pandora’s Box is screened at a party, pairs the protagonist with Lulu, and offers a post-feminist celebration of female desire (exhibited for the male gaze) without its previously femicidal consequences.

Adèle is thus anointed by Kechiche as a new Marianne, both Marivaux’s and the Republic’s. Yet Kechiche, like Marivaux, licenses his own desires by embodying them in a female narrator who is also a commonplace feminine symbol for a liberty that offers little actual freedom for women. His familiar masculine idealisation of appetitive femininity replaces a new lesbian voice, Maroh’s, with the same old male gaze, in which libertinage is confused with liberation.

Correction: The printed version of this review stated that Julie Maroh’s source comic was “yet to be translated into English”. In fact it was published in late September 2013 by Arsenal Pulp Press. The text here has been amended.

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