Stanley Kubrick was said to be interested in directing a pornographic film during his latter film days, with the implication being that a man with vision like him could somehow elevate what was thought of as a dirty medium into something transcendent. An attempt to perhaps normalize sexuality in our pervasively puritanical society, but it also says something about what place sex has in a visual art like film. Sex is for the viewers, not for the characters.
This leads to a paradox; nothing is more natural or representative of human existence then sex, and yet within Hollywood it is both vilified as a corrupting force, and celebrated in excess that strips all meaning or human connection from it. In a way, sex in movies is not obscene in itself, but it’s the way the act is repeatedly referenced and then hid with quick cutaways or made to cater to the male sexual desire that make it taboo. When filmmakers frame this aspect of sex as “the forbidden act,” then viewers make a clear distinction in their minds about what they should and should not find normal about it.
Blue is the Warmest Color is unique in it’s approach to both love and sex, and though this uniqueness can seem merely the product of a culture gap (The film is from French director Abdellatif Kechiche) it is still a remarkable feat to put these images onto film in such a strikingly straightforward fashion. Pun intended. Blue is a coming of age story of sorts, but it is not anchored by the events that occur during that story, but to the feelings and emotional progression its central character undergoes. Loosely adapted from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, it is the story of 15 year old Adèle, played with touching grace and desire by Adèle Exarchopolous, and her relationship, both emotional and sexual, with a blue haired artist named Emma.
As the same named character, Adèle Exarchopolous conveys emotional uncertainty and compelling curiosity with subtle expressions that are far more evocative of youth then any amount of makeup (Neither actress was allowed to wear any) or needless dialogue would. At times she disguises her beauty by pulling her hair into a pineapple top that sends ribbons of brown hair cascading over her face, but this gesture feels more like an actual teenage girl still trying to discover who she is rather then a traditional Hollywood toning down of natural beauty. When she smiles she resembles a more coquettish Lena Dunham, and when she kisses Emma, her face lights up in a way that expresses unbridled passion that is identifiable to anyone who has experienced something they call love.
As her co-star and lover, Lea Seydoux perfectly embodies the more self-assured lesbian whose refusal to be anything other then what she feels gives her an indomitable spirit and sense of belonging in this world. Her hair the color of soft flower petals that have matured over many years, she is at once nothing alike Adèle, and yet her blue eyes reflect the same curiosity and love as Adèle’s. She introduces her to the overwhelming tide of sexual exuberance in a way that is stunning to watch, yet does not convey the possessive lust that would mark her as a philanderer. Emma is not a Don Juan; she is a teacher who takes pupils as much to teach them what she knows as to learn from them in turn.
This bond is challenged in subtle ways, such as when Emma hosts a garden party for a group of high-class friends and Adèle finds herself alone and talking to people about her sexuality in such a frank way it unnerves her. Blue is refreshingly devoid of the standard punishing beats of the gay love story (A significant change from Julie Maroh’s novel), and apart from one scene of painful homophobia, the movie treats Adèle and Emma’s romance as no different from a heterosexual couple. Whether this, or the actresses not being gay in real life detracts from the message is up to the viewer, but it is notable how the story’s lack of these points allows the characters to define themselves by more then their sexuality, thus coming across as three-dimensional people instead of stereotypes.
Another way Blue breaks the mold of standard love fare is its utilization of close ups to establish a feeling of intimacy with Adèle. Mirroring how the love scenes are shot, the camera is almost always front and center on Adèle, capturing each smile or flash of insecurity so that the audience knows exactly what she is feeling in each and every moment. In this way her experience and feelings are inescapable, which contributes to the feeling that her emotional beats are more important then the story ones.
It is this inescapable quality that makes Blue is the Warmest Color feel so real and personal. As audience members we are used to seeing people fall in love, but rarely do we get a sense for how deep that love is beyond the way events in the story seek to test it, bending it backwards and forward as we “oh!” and “ah!” and hope that the person’s strength is enough to survive it and lead to a happily ever after. This is what will always be artificial about love stories, because they are composed of intimate feelings that simply cannot be truly felt by another, only evoked through inadequate words.
It is fitting therefore that a film that chooses to be so open in it’s depiction of the carnal act would likewise be so honest in it’s depiction of Adèle and Emma’s feeling for one another. Like the sex in the film, love is naked and honest without compromise, and so it cannot exist simply because we are told it does, but because we feel the connection as well as the devastation that comes from such a close bond with the characters. Anyone who has experienced true affection will know how it does not seek to please itself and itself only as is the case in pornography, and so even though the images of lovemaking are striking, by the end of the film it is the love between the two women that comes across as far more graphic and memorable.