It’s impossible to watch Blue is the Warmest Color for the first time without it being the “lesbian coming of age film.” That’s not because it actually is that film, of course, but because months of controversy centered on the application of gaze theory and interviews with director Abdellatif Kechiche and actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. A second viewing reveals a film that is more about relationships, growth, and art, than about sex or homosexuality. It is the humble opinion of this writer that if one were to watch this film without knowing the gender or orientation of the director, that many of the controversies surrounding the film would be difficult or impossible to detect, so that is how I intend to review the film.
Adèle (Exarchopoulos) is a high-school student defined by her curiosity and intellect. We know that her marks vary based on how much she likes her teacher, but “they don’t vary in French because I love to read.” She’s very open to trying new things: Near the beginning, she talks to a boy about music and describes herself as liking everything from reggae to dubstep to classical but not hard rock, but she does not lose interest when the boy claims (in jest) to be interested exclusively in hard rock and metal. When she meets Emma (Léa Seydoux), she amends “I’ll eat anything” to “I’ll eat anything except for shellfish.” A few scenes later, she tries shellfish.
What makes Blue is the Warmest Color so good, and what makes its three-hour runtime entirely earned and subjectively swift is that these aren’t details plotted to advance the plot, even if that is their first function. We see Adèle dance knowingly (albeit a bit self-consciously at first) to many different kinds of music, and when she caters a party later on, she casually remarks that she used chicken, tuna, and shrimp when an hour earlier she said she “especially” doesn’t like jumbo shrimp. She is open to trying new things and eager to learn about art, to read or to go to museums and try new things, whether it’s dietary or sexual.
In this respect, Blue is the Warmest Color recalls Olivier Assayas’ Something In The Air, in which the protagonist moves across artistic mediums (specifically paint and film) as he grows, or even David Chase’s Not Fade Away, where music and film are the fascinations. But Adèle, unlike her corresponding characters, is not shaped by the politics of the time, and she is never concerned with her own writing as Emma is; she prefers to cook instead. Accordingly, the camera treats food with even more fascination than it does painting, film, sculpture, or music. Each of those art forms has its place in the story, however, brief, but the camera lingers on homemade spaghetti, oysters, and even gyros for at least as long. If Blue is the Warmest Color has a hidden agenda, it’s an endorsement culinary arts as objects worthy of their own aesthetic discussion. It’s no surprise, then, that Emma talks about food with deliberately chosen adjectives in the same way she discusses Klimt or Sartre. Indeed, when the middle-class Adèle begins to spend more and more time with the well-off Emma, we see the former cultivate a taste for good food more than we see her discuss philosophy. Food is both a symbol of class but also an art form whose taste needs to be taught and cultivated. When it comes to testing class or culture, food will do just as well as art.
Adèle first locks eyes with Emma for a brief moment, and we are treated to close-ups of the latter’s blue hair and confident smile. It’s heavy-handed in its recollection of the classroom discussion about love at first sight that opens the film, but this offense is forgivable because the film itself seems to realize it. The starry-eyed myth of love never works out, and it becomes clear that the camera is an extension of Adèle’s being. It idealizes a potential lover, hovers close to food, and, in her first sexual encounter, skirts up, down, along the body, stopping for longer shots that capture both figures entirely within the camera, and give a confused and hectic feeling to a first sexual encounter. Much has been made about Exarchopoulos’ discomfort with shooting unchoreographed sex scenes, but it is precisely that lack of choreography that makes the scenes so believable. The actresses capture all the wonder and nervousness of a first encounter.
It is here where many critics find fault with the film, focusing on the dozen or so minutes of sex and holding Kechiche responsible for their interpretive flaws. And occasionally, as his camera looks up and down Adèle’s post coital body, he is speaking a language that goes hand-in-hand with exploitation. But this time, the shot leads into a view of Emma painting a nude-modeling Adèle. The camera, then, is either Emma’s concentrated gaze or a result of Adèle’s likely self-consciousness of modeling for the first time, not a heteronormative (and enormously stereotypical) director’s attempt to insert himself into the scene. Indeed, the two lovers spend time in the nude later and the camera refuses to give a second glance.
Others, including Julie Maroh, the author of the Blue Angel novel on which the film is based, have attacked the lesbian scenes as being obviously fake and surgical. One should be quick to remember that the dozens of heterosexual sex scenes littered throughout cinema are rarely believable, either, and in any case, Blue is the Warmest Color is not interested in lesbian sex as much as the chaotic feelings that accompany various stages of first love. Even when Adèle, in a scene that captures high-school cruelty as well as any high-school film since Heathers, is ostracized by her friends for spending time with a lesbian, she could just as well have been ostracized for something else. The key here is that she is a lesbian, but that she ousted for being different, which instigates a search for identity. Sex, then, is the decision not to conform at school, and it becomes representative of what Adèle seeks from life. That is, love and desire, not professional success. The sex scenes are longer than most because for Adèle, they matter more than most. The tragedy of the film is the discovery that one cannot make simply by being a good partner. Eventually differences settle in, and what fulfills Adèle creatively and personally—cooking, teaching, sex—isn’t compatible with what fulfills Emma—painting, philosophy, leading Emma to try especially hard to transform Adèle.
Despite comparisons to Mia Hansen-Love’s Goodbye, First Love, the two films are thematic opposites: Hansen-Love’s film is about the impossibility of ever saying goodbye to that first special someone. Blue is the Warmest Color is about the inevitability of drifting apart. The former takes a tone of nostalgia and longing. It does not let its character visibly age, it drifts in and out of loves, and it emphasizes time and place. Blue is firmly in the moment. It is not distracted by time markers and it does not get hung-up on benchmark romantic moments. It highlights details and relies on performance—Seydoux turns in one of the year’s best supporting performances while Exarchopoulos may have the throne all to herself—to convey moment-to-moment feeling while highlighting character growth, not romanticized milestones.
Is the film perfect? Of course not. Adèle’s and Emma’s relationship is a bit unsettling, given the (approximately) five year age difference, and this is sufficiently addressed. It is very hard to plot the diegesis on a timeline: how many years the film covers and when those years pass is anyone’s guess. A male’s thoughts on female sexuality in art (often unfairly accused of being Kechiche’s own) never make a clear connection to Emma’s own art. But these are minor qualms in the scope of things. A few rough moments don’t stop Blue is the Warmest Color from being a vivid and enthralling depiction of love, idealization, and identity.