Monday, February 24, 2014

Review: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Rates:  *  *  *  *

Adele is a middle class teenage girl living in Lille, in Northern France. She meets a girl, falls in love the lovers swoon, move in together, fall out, split and, to varying degrees, move on.

And that, from a plot perspective, is all.

Which seems like a thin prop to base a three hour movie on. But plot, and plottiness, is not what lies at the heart of this movie. For ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ is nothing short of an ambitious attempt to capture something of the fabric of contemporary life, from a young person’s perspective.

The film's cycle begins with Adele (Adele Exarchopolous) as a callow, but typical, high school student. She hangs out with her friends, has a fling with a cute (male) classmate and gets through her schoolwork as painlessly as possible. But a sly kiss from a bi-curious (female) classmate triggers something in her, and leads her to a lesbian club and a chance encounter with Emma (Lea Seydoux) , an independent minded university student Adele had previously glimpsed on the street.

Sparks fly everywhere.

Adele and Emma shortly move from friendship to physicality, an event that both opens the younger woman’s eyes to world’s previously unseen, and causes major upheaval in her life. She gets an unexpectedly mixed response from her classmates – some  of whom harass her before school – and decides to keep the status of her relationship with Emma concealed from her parents, which leads to an unbearably awkward family dinner.

Adele doesn't so much come out as take a series of peeks.

Change comes in a wider perspective as well, as Emma exposes Adele to new horizons in art, literature, conversation and ideas. And much of the film is devoted to broad topics like these; less the stuff of film narrative, more the currency of existence itself. Philosophy and avant-garde art share screen space with the two lovers.

This allows the film to pose questions around the nature of identity and to show how different people choose to define themselves; whether it be through their sexuality, their friends, their taste in art and books, or what they like to drink and eat. While Adele grapples with these things in turn – she has barely begun to cope with her altered sexual parameters before she has to adjust to other, pronounced, changes – Emma is presented as more poised and confident, more sure of herself and less inclined to seek outside validation. It is one of the main differences between the two, and the one most likely to cause friction.

Adele moves into Emma’s flat and the two settle into a kind of comfortable domesticity, although it seems from the outset that Emma is more comfortable than her partner. Time passes. Adele finishes high school and begins training as a pre-school teacher, while Emma starts to make a name for herself as an artist. 

Faced with making their way in the world, and earning a living, the couple spend less time together, as the honeymoon phase gives way to daily routine. Adele struggles to cope with this transition, and feels alienated from her partner and jealous of the artistic colleagues she spends her workday with.
Nervous and uncertain, Adele accepts the attention of a handsome male teaching colleague. 

The affair is soon uncovered however, and Emma aggressively breaks off their relationship. She kicks Adele out onto the street in the middle of the night, in a heartbreaking scene that gives a final summation of each woman’s character; Emma, fierce, proud and confident; Adele, confused, inarticulate and rawly emotional.

A lengthy coda follows, as Adele attempts to pick up the pieces. She advances as a teacher, tries other relationships, tries to woo Emma back and finally comes to a melancholic acceptance of things, when she attends an art show of Emma’s and sees her with a new lover.  The film ends as Adele walks down the street alone in the rain, a seemingly sad finale that nevertheless indicates a growing maturity, one borne of unhappy experience.

Writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche’s epic length drama won the top prize at Cannes last year and has garnered both critical raves and a few raised eyebrows. And it’s easy to see why. This emotionally intense treatment of a young girl’s blossoming contains a potent mix of unvarnished emotion and uninhibited sex. The frankness of both of these elements is arresting… and guaranteed to ruffle a few feathers. Although you’d have to imagine that anyone likely to be shocked by the film’s graphic sex scenes may be unlikely to venture to the local arthouse cinema to seek it out.

The film’s extreme length has both positive and negative aspects. With so much running time to play with, Kechiche and his talented leads are free to tease out their character’s traits in a naturalistic, unforced fashion, an approach that lends an unmistakable air of reality to what is depicted on screen.  The downside is that the film does linger perhaps too long at times, which occasionally diminishes the impact. This is more pronounced towards the end, which contains at least one conclusion too many.

Adele Exarchopolous is on screen, and in close up, throughout the entire film and offers an amazing, one of a kind performance. You can discern as much about what is happening by charting the shifting expressions on her face as you can from anything she actually does, a film making style that you imagine must have been exhausting for the young actor (both leads subsequently complained to the press about the difficulties of the production). Her changing manner also provides a subtle portrayal of the passage of time, crucial in a film that jumps ahead months without any other obvious signposts. Seydoux is also good, in a less well developed role.

But this is Adele's story, and Exarchopolous' show (it's instructive that the film's French title was 'The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 and 2'). And this is an occasionally thrilling, nearly always absorbing and fundamentally brave thing to watch. All the creative talents attached to this film deserve plaudits for having the nerve to attempt a project like this, and for pulling it off as well as they have done. 

Sure to be one of the years most talked about films.

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