Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) — Image via wildbunch.biz

Blue Is the Warmest Color

Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche (2013)

Right around the middle of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle — Chapitres 1 & 2), there is a scene that functions as both a narrative turning point and a succinct expression of one of the film’s central themes. Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux) are throwing a backyard dinner party for a group of Emma’s art-school friends. Watched over by the projected image of silent film icon Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, the guests discuss the merits of their favorite artists. At one point, a male gallery owner takes the opportunity to hold forth on the supposed ineffability of female sexuality. At another point, Emma proclaims that Adèle is her muse. Meanwhile, Adèle moves in and out of the crowd, serving food to the guests, keenly aware that she is being watched and judged.

Many critics have interpreted this scene as a meta-level expression of Kechiche’s anxiety about his role as a male director making a film about a young woman in love with another woman. It may very well be that, but it is something else too. In this scene, perhaps more than anywhere else in the film, we come to see how Adèle is caught between her subjective experience of herself and the idealized version of her self that has been generated by the expectations of others — most particularly, Emma. One is reminded of W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory — in his case, derived from the experiences of African-Americans — of double consciousness, the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) — Image via wildbunch.bizAnother example of double consciousness arises in the film’s most infamous scene, in which Adèle and Emma have sex for the first time. As many critics have noted, much of this scene is made up of medium and wide shots, contrasting with the close-ups that dominate throughout the rest of the film. At times, Adèle and Emma even come to resemble the neoclassical sculptures they were just looking at a couple scenes earlier. Yet at other times, the camerawork is more intimate, conveying the intensity of Adèle’s personal experience. I do not think it is a stretch to say that this juxtaposition of a more distanced and a more immediate version of the encounter is something that exists not only for the audience but also for Adèle herself. She is both having the experience and watching herself have the experience.

All of this may sound rather heavy-handed, but in the context of the film, it usually works. As the camera follows Adèle obsessively over the course of a three-hour film, we see her confronted with everything from the aforementioned artistic and intellectual representations of female sexuality to more quotidian instances of “othering” such as being called a “dyke” after her high school friends see her with Emma and a “slut” and a “whore” after Emma discovers that Adèle has cheated on her with a man. We see these things happen to her, we see her reactions, and we are placed in a position to empathize with her very believable feelings of confusion and disorientation — of being trapped, but also inspired, by externally imposed images of who she is and should be.

Those images, in turn, are diverse and often contradictory. Adèle’s conventional, lower-middle-class parents are generally nurturing, but without any grander expectations for her than a good job and a good husband. At her high school, she and her multiethnic melting pot of classmates receive a classical French education (introducing her to her favorite novel, Pierre de Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne) while, like teenagers everywhere, navigating their own complex system of rules and social hierarchies. When Adèle encounters and slowly gets to know the slightly older Emma, she perceives new vistas of freedom and possibility. For one thing, Emma is an out lesbian, whereas Adèle is only beginning to process her attraction to women. Emma is also an artist with strongly held views on aesthetics and philosophy, and she comes from a wealthy, sophisticated family that appreciates good wine and good oysters. Only with time does Adèle come to realize that all of the worlds that Emma seems to inhabit so freely have their own sets of rules and expectations that can be just as limiting as those to which Adèle has been subjected in the past.

Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) — Image via wildbunch.bizAdèle is, of course, hardly the only person in the world who has to reconcile herself with the imagined versions of herself that others have created. We get a brief glimpse at someone else’s experience of this tension at the aforementioned dinner party, where Adèle meets Samir (Samir Bella), a French actor of North African origin. Samir is both the only person at the party who offers to help Adèle serve food and the only one to engage her in an actual conversation. He has recently returned to Lille from New York, where he had a job playing a terrorist in a film, and he jokingly tells Adèle about how impressed the Americans were at his ability to shoot a fake gun while shouting “Allāhu Akbar!” Something in Samir’s air of directness and ironic pragmatism seems to appeal to Adèle. The character only appears in one other scene, again briefly, but one gets the sense that he makes an impression.

As Blue Is the Warmest Color‘s French-language title, which translates to “The Life of Adèle — Chapters 1 & 2,” implies, we take leave of Adèle relatively early in her life. She has learned a great deal about herself and is perhaps ready to take what she has learned and do something with it, but much remains up in the air. If Blue Is the Warmest Color is, at the end of the day, a coming-of-age film, it is one that is embedded in a specific place, time, and nexus of influences, as well as one that is marked by an intense awareness on the part of its protagonist of the forces attempting to shape her. Exarchopoulos does an extraordinary job of inhabiting this role, allowing the camera to scrutinize her just as her character is scrutinized by all throughout the film. Seydoux compellingly portrays both Emma’s magnetic appeal and her cruel and arrogant side. As for Kechiche as director, he does not always get it right — in particular, Adèle’s last, pathetic attempt to reignite the initial excitement of her relationship with Emma rings somewhat false — but in his unflinching commitment to creating a whole picture of a fragile human being, he has created a work of art that will undoubtedly endure long after the sensationalistic chattering is over.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.