It’s Brody! Right at the end of episode eight of season three of Homeland on C4, in a corner, on the floor! *sighs* That’s all I have to say on the matter in this week’s Telly Addict, which has more time for Dominic Sandbrook’s old guessing-game trick on Cold War Britain on BBC2; the chilly one-off Cold War Britain drama Legacy on BBC2; my first ever episode of Last Tango In Halifax on BBC1 (and my last); a catch-up with the excellent but I suspect little-seen Portrait Artist Of The Year on Sky Arts 1; and a superb edition of Imagine … on BBC2 about children’s author and illustrator Judith Kerr, Hitler, The Tiger and Me. Oh, and those Gogglebox people on C4, who do my job but pithier and wittier than I do it. Discuss.
There are three distinct reasons why Blue Is The Warmest Colour threatens to be an uncomfortable watch. One, it’s a film about a lesbian relationship. If you are a heterosexual male – and I am not the first to entertain this taboo thought – discomfort might extend from a feeling of being unfairly judged by others for choosing to go and sit in a darkened auditorium to see two young actresses pretend to fall in love, because of the common heterosexual fascination with lesbian relations. I’m self-aware when it comes to my feelings about sex, which are frankly prudish and distorted by a deep sense of guilt about the “male gaze” and institutionalised sexism; and this makes me ill at ease around porn. You’ll know that the thumbnail sketch of Blue Is The Warmest Colour since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes is predicated on its explicit same-sex sex scenes.
Which brings me onto the second reason for discomfort: Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, who won the combined acting prize at Cannes for their lead roles in the film, are on record complaining about the “horrible” way they were treated by director Abdellatif Kechiche. To be fair, this assessment was as much about the emotional demands of the roles as it was the gruelling sex scenes, but they did state that they’d never work with him again. It’s not easy to know that when you watch the film.
The third reason for trepidation was, for me, perhaps the most pressing. The film is 179 minutes long. It’s had rave reviews, mostly four- and five-star ratings, so it was vital that I saw it, but the prospect of sitting still for three hours was daunting whatever the subject matter. (When a three-hour film is compelling, such as the Romanian film Aurora a couple of years ago, it’s amazing to be able to lose yourself in it. If it’s a stinker, it’s an ordeal.)
Well, I steeled myself on all three counts yesterday and saw Blue Is The Warmest Colour and the first thing I want to say is: the three hours fly by. Clearly, it’s not a porn film and never was going to be, and although the couple’s first bedroom exploration – for the younger girl, Adele (played by Exarchopoulos) it’s her maiden Sapphic experience; the elder, Emma (Seydoux) is a seasoned “out” lesbian – goes on for a full and frank ten minutes, it’s both narratively and artistically justified. The build-up has been slow and gradual, and it explodes with pent-up feeling and, yes, love. The camera by definition exerts a “male gaze” – there’s a man behind it, and one whose tactics were “horrible” – but you are able to lose yourself in the story. It’s all about the story.
Onscreen sex has been getting more and more explicit for years in any case, and not just in foreign movies – think of Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs, or the English-speaking Intimacy – but at least in all of these cases, it’s a long way from Hollywood sex, that glossy, soft-focus, blue-filtered, slo-mo pantomime. The sex in Blue Is The Warmest Colour is corporeal, and sweaty, and urgent. There’s no saxophone, is what I’m trying to say. The Hollywood kind is way more embarrassing. I’m not a lesbian, and I have never seen real lesbian sex, so I’ve no idea if lesbians smack each others’ arses as much as the couple of Blue Is The Warmest Colour, but it seemed a little excessive.
Moving on from those ten minutes to the other 169 minutes, what’s compelling and moving about the film is the acting. The two leads are definitely fearless for those ten minutes – especially as we know that scene took days to shoot – and deserve our respect and admiration. But the emotional ups and downs are even more demanding, and both, but especially Exarchopoulos (only 19 at the time), rise to the challenge. Utterly convincing. Kechiche’s technique of always framing their faces so they fill the screen, gives us access to some very clever acting. Adele changes a lot over the course of the story, as she has further to grow up, and she effects these changes subtly; she leaves school, takes a job as a classroom assistant, then teaches “first-graders”, and you can see her maturing as this takes place.
The story, partly based on a graphic novel of the same name, is a love story, but it’s also a film about peer pressure, expectation, nature versus nurture (both sets of parents are brilliantly essayed, but it is Emma’s, the more free-spirited and bourgeois, who create the little conservative, ultimately) and betrayal. It also touches on the buzz phrase “sexual liquidity”. Adele starts out as a heterosexual, seemingly finds her true sexual calling, then prevaricates. I’m sure this is common.
It’s not perfect. The colour blue is played heavy handedly. The scenes in the classroom where literature is dissected fall a little too neatly into the themes of the action. But overall, Blue is a seriously well-played saga that never drags. You could cut the sex scenes, or scenes, down to a minute or two and it wouldn’t detract from the story. But there they are. (The second, shorter one, feels hugely indulgent; it doesn’t move the story forward one iota. But I would say that.)
Not seen as many French films in 2013 as I usually do of a year – In The House, Something In The Air – but Blue Is The Warmest Colour reminds me of why I should remedy that. Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the language. Or simply the aspirational nature of French life: bread, cheese, philosophy, really intelligent seeming kids. (Positive enough stereotype for you?) In my lists, France seems to have been edged out by superior works from Germany, Romania, Argentina, Russia, Denmark, Ireland and Italy. Not that it’s a race. Except it is.
A writer called Nick Dastoor wrote a very pertinent, honest and funny piece in the Guardian called A Single Man’s Guide to Seeing Blue Is The Warmest Colour. (They should have added “Heterosexual” to the headline.) I was fortunate enough not to have to sit in the darkened auditorium yesterday afternoon alone, but I know exactly where he’s coming from. (Don’t go below the line, though, I warn you. Seriously. Don’t.)
It’s not all Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary this week on Telly Addict, but some of it is: The Day Of The Doctor (not in 3D in our case) on BBC1; the lovely An Adventure In Space And Time on BBC2; plus some similarly nostalgic black-and-white footage from Dominic Sandbrook’s 60s-set Cold War Britain on BBC2; from a little less far back, some Gogglebox from last week on C4, reviewing the week before; and – a treat – Hinterland, or Y Gwyll, from S4C, a Scandi-style noir in Welsh that’s available here to view on their website, something I suggest you do, especially if you aren’t a Welsh speaker and can enjoy the language barrier and the concentration aid that is subtitles.
It is a fool’s errand to enshrine a list of your favourite anything-of-all-time to print. And yet, I am having an intermittent whale of a time cataloguing, illustrating and annotating The 143, that is, my Top 143 songs of all time, in no qualitative order, based on the playlist I built for myself earlier this year and which grew to 143 by itself, at which point I stopped. The only rule was that no artist was allowed more than one entry. (Solo artists and the bands they came from, or joined, were allowed one each.) I started a separate blog to give it a bit of clout. And a Twitter account, @CirclesThe143 (based on the subheading Circles Of Life), which is currently being followed by a sweetly tiny 338 people.
It’s niche fun.
Today, I added my 41st entry, Groovy Times by The Clash, a choice which I think illuminates the system. I could have chosen about 25 Clash songs to embody the six-year output of their “classic” lineup, most of them family favourites, but in the end, after much deliberation, I plumped for the third track on an EP, which captivated me when I first heard it in 1979 and captivates me still. I’m not being deliberately obscure. I chose Mr Blue Sky by ELO and Motorcycle Emptiness by the Manics. These choices are hard won on each occasion, as permanence is only bestowed by the click of the “Publish” button, at which point an entry enters the statute books. The full 143 is amorphous; I tinker with it all the time. Echo & The Bunnymen, for instance, have been flying around from pillar to post, and as I type, Killing Moon is their flagship. This may change before I commit it to blog. I’m finding it hard to dislodge the track Buck Tha Devil by the virutally unknown, Ice Cube-mentored rap group Da Lench Mob from The 143, but all the while I wonder if it really can take its place alongside Wild Horses and Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)? Time will tell.
A nice man on Twitter asked if this will ever become a book. I’d like that, but I am realistic after the poor sales of my last two books. Who would pay money for the 143 favourite songs of a man? That said, I slave over the entries for way longer than I should, sculpting my thoughts and working in anecdotes; this is, after all, unpaid writing. I’m doing it because I want to do it. (This explains why I have entered very few entries recently – I’ve been hard at work, with no spare time. A good and a bad thing.)
What I’m finding interesting – and I hope the handful of you who follow the blog do too – is the very personal nature of each choice. Many are connected to a formative memory. But nostalgia alone will not get you past the gates. I loved 4 Hours by Clock DVA the moment I heard it under the bedspread on John Peel in 1981 and I love it today. I play the 143 playlist directly into my head from my ancient iPod constantly. Having almost logged a third of the tracks in the blog, I feel closer to those, and at the same time desperate to describe the remaining little beauties. I’m listening to Since You’ve Been Gone by Rainbow right now. I must enter that soon. Oops, just given one away. What fun!
Why do we feel the need to quantify, order, list and catalogue? By which I mean we men. I wouldn’t insult women by endowing them with a deeper emotional response to the things they love than to sort them out and place in order, but it does seem anecdotally to be a male deficiency. Our love for songs is no less profound, it just needs putting in a labelled tin before we can sleep at night. (I’m all for a debate about this – all rules are proven by exception.)
While some artists demand to be included – Dylan, Bowie, The Fall, the Wu Tang Clan – I’ve yet to find a chair for the Beatles. There’s time. But with George Harrison already enrolled (The Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp), and both The Plastic Ono Band and Wings in the wings, it may be that The 143 has no need of the Fabs. You mustn’t force these things. If All About Eve by Marxman makes it in, and Paperback Writer doesn’t, so be it. It’s not definitive. It’s not concrete. It’s not right, or wrong. It’s mine. All I know is that no song in this eventual list will ever fail to light up my life when I hear it.
More enterprising folk than I have been following The 143 and turning it into a Spotify playlist. If you are one of these folk, please throw your links at me. In the meantime, I’m off to start writing an entry about the Psychedelic Furs album track Fall.
I’ve never claimed to be a trendsetter or a trailblazer or an early adopter with anything. I do not lead, I follow, for the most part. So I accept, on behalf of Telly Addict, that I am woefully late on Gogglebox, the C4 show whose second series is already partway through and to which I am a tardy convert. It sort of makes all of this redundant but I’ll soldier on: so, the mighty sociological experiment and armchair wisdom goldmine Gogglebox on C4; the final Poirot on ITV; more Sky Arts’ Portait Artist Of The Year; the return of Borgen to BBC4; the awful Killing Kennedy on the National Geographic Channel; The Newsroom on Sky Atlantic; Yonderland on Sky1; oh, and the Christmas adverts, which had to be done. (New producer/editor this week, so say hello to Tim.)
This week’s Telly Addict bids a merry, upbeat farewell to Series Four of Downton Abbey on ITV; measures the running time of two extra-length comedies, Fresh Meat on C4 and Ambassadors on BBC2; sings along without much gusto to The Choir on BBC2; squares up to Bouncers on C4; frets over the dog on Bates Motel on Universal; and wonders if Portrait Artist Of The Year on Sky Arts1 will draw a crowd.
Wanna see something really scary? You kind of will, and you kind of won’t in my Halloween week Telly Addict, as I’ve been careful not to put in scenes of too much violence and horror that some viewers may find upsetting, from the start. There will be blood, though, with the choleric return of Ripper Street to BBC1, the nightmarish return of American Horror Story to Sky Atlantic, the imminent conclusion of Bates Motel on Universal, and the blood-sucking debut of NBC’s Dracula on Sky Living (if you can call it living etc.); also, a celebration of screwball dialogue on Veep on Sky Atlantic and some frankly terrifying lady-in-peril thriller cliches on The Escape Artist on BBC1. Don’t submerge your head in that bath!