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.)