The Pleasure Principle
by Farihah Zaman

Blue Is the Warmest Color
Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche, France, IFC Films/Sundance Selects

Told through the eyes of a young woman named Adèle, Blue Is the Warmest Color follows the dizzy rise and excruciating decline of first love. Although much scrutiny has surrounded its frank depiction of sex between two women, as well as crew allegations of a less-than-strict adherence to labor regulations, Blue is so universal in its portrayal of love, so honest about the role that sex plays in becoming an adult, and so painfully accurate in capturing that hollow feeling that follows losing someone against one’s will, that the experience of the film transcends flaws both real and imagined.

Adapted from the lauded graphic novel of the same name (which was originally titled Blue Angel) written by Julie Maroh between the ages of 19 and 24 while, we might imagine, she was experiencing some of the same rites of passage as her young characters rather than looking back on them, Blue charts the coming-of-age of a French high-school student (Adéle Exarchopoulos). She is subdued, but passionate: about literature, about politics, but not yet about another human being. Although she begins to date a shyly handsome boy a few grades above her, largely at the behest of her more advanced friends, she has yet to experience anything truly revelatory emotionally or physically—until she meets Emma (Léa Seydoux). From the moment the two lay eyes on each other, they share the kind of electric connection that one would assume only exists in books until its shimmering, almost tangible appearance in the real world. That jolt of instant connection is one of life’s small miracles, perfectly captured in the scene in which Adèle and Emma pass on the street, both appearing exhilarated and disturbed, their sudden sense of possibility wrapped in fidgety anxiety.

The story then moves through several years in their lives with a kind of thrilling randomness; sometimes stopping at the moments that in other films would be considered crucial milestones, sometimes not. We experience the first time Emma and Adèle meet each other’s parents, for example, but Kechiche omits scenes that might have shown Adèle finishing high school and moving in with her lover, instead blithely leaping from the early stages of their relationship to a meticulously detailed exploration of a dinner party thrown for Emma’s art school friends. The effect is enchanting, and works so well because the acting is so authentic: the way they touch, look at, and speak to each other always feels completely accurate to a particular point in their relationship. Any and all of these points will be poignantly familiar to those who have experienced such an arc, because there is no awareness of the comedown while standing at the top. Our hindsight as viewers lends Adèle and Emma’s romance a feeling of either nostalgia or melancholy, sometimes both. Kechiche cares more for the feeling of a moment in time than the traditional narrative signifiers, and so is able to focus on less conventional, and therefore more evocative, details. It doesn’t necessarily matter who did what on the day that Adèle moved in with Emma; what matters is what it feels like in the home they share, and that Adèle makes fried dumplings from scratch.

Although Blue won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the months leading up to the film’s U.S. premiere have been marred by notices of off-camera drama and gapingly varied reviews. While some critics consider the film a masterpiece, others, notably a few prominent female writers such as the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, believe it to be voyeuristic or distasteful in its depiction of lesbian sex. The lead actresses, though never claiming they were surprised by or coerced into performing these scenes, expressed frustration with the way in which Kechiche handled them as a director. (It should be added that there has also been speculation as to the source of their complaints; in a tweet referring to Léa Seydoux’s family connection to Pathé and Gaumont, critic Sam Adams said, “I do think you have to factor in the politics of a Tunisian director being attacked by a white French aristocrat,” and Slate writer June Thomas points to the actresses’ calculated distancing of themselves from the sexual proclivities and actions of their characters as a sign of potential homophobia.) Most damning, perhaps, Julie Maroh, a lesbian herself, had serious criticisms of some of the liberties Kechiche had taken, particularly in terms of the sex scenes, which she called “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn.” There is a general feeling around these issues that by shifting the voice of the storyteller from a gay woman to a straight man, the film is more concerned with the male perception of lesbian love rather than the actual experience of it, but the problem with that suggestion is that Kechiche is exploring something more general than lesbian identity.

Kechiche is no wallflower when it comes to delving into uncomfortable sexual politics; his previous film, Black Venus, which also enjoyed a U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival, in 2010, tracks one African woman’s descent into hell in 19th-century Europe as she is forced into deeper and darker acts of degradation. The film specifically addresses the idea of exploitation vis-à-vis race and thus social circumstance; the protagonist Saartje Baartman’s lower status as a black woman is made horrifyingly concrete through her sexual subjugation as, alternately, scientific specimen and prostitute. This is easily one of the most disturbing cinematic experiences in recent memory, right up there with Ulrich Seidl’s contemporary-set but similarly themed Paradise: Love; my face during Black Venus was an ever widening rictus of discomfort at Kechiche’s display of unrelenting, oddly mundane cruelty. After exploring sexuality depressingly devoid of desire, the filmmaker is now exploring the opposite, sexuality driven by profound, uncontrollable desire, by a pulsating need to have someone in every way.

Whereas for Saartje sex was both a means of enslavement and survival, for Adèle sex, as much as love, is what brings her to life. The scene in which Adèle and Emma first consummate is the climax (pun intended) of Adèle’s search for meaning in the first half of the film. The explosive physical pleasure she feels is only the most readable symbol of sexual and spiritual awakening, a single moment in which she finally attains the object of her fixation, discovers something crucial about herself, and takes ownership over her desire in the face of significant pressures toward conformity at school and at home. In short, she becomes a woman. It would be quite a tall order to reveal all this via more common ratings-friendly depictions of teen sex, often neutered farces of the partially clothed. Furthermore this moment doesn’t just catalyze Adèle’s journey into adulthood, it continues to define her as a person; although perceptive and hardworking, Adèle ultimately seeks fulfillment in her relationship rather than her profession, and says as much to Emma. When we see Adèle teaching young children in a classroom, she clearly feels at peace, but in a slightly detached way; she doesn’t feel the need to strive in this environment the way that she does in loving and caring for Emma. It makes sense that Adèle’s consummation with Emma is so lengthy and thorough considering we have to believe their connection is intense enough to change the course of Adèle life and help her begin to feel like a complete person. The film doesn’t linger on sexuality because it pleases the gaze of the director or even the audience, but because that is what pleases its characters. Rather a novel notion as female sexuality is rarely explored with a fraction of the consideration Kechiche has given it—he even makes us privy to his thought process through a meta conversation during the aforementioned dinner party between Emma and her older male mentor about the nature of a woman’s pleasure.

However, this is not to say that Blue Is the Warmest Color sexualizes its characters throughout. Rather than the purposelessly provocative way in which young women are shot in much less intellectually engaged movies, the film shows Adèle in a range of banal teenage activity sporting jeans, t-shirts, and willfully undone ‘dos. Kechiche films Adèle in the inelegant moments typical of anyone her age, and with a nearness that sometimes borders on the grotesque. Adèle slurping down a family meal of pasta, sauce smeared across her lips, or asleep with her mouth agape, drool running down her cheek. Hardly the stuff that straight male lesbian fantasies are made of. Adèle’s love of food in particular, her literal and symbolic hunger, is repeatedly shown in a manner more comically endearing than arousing; again, it has more to do with her pleasure than ours. As for Emma, by the time she and Adèle are an established couple, her nudity is practically mundane, a function of comfort rather than a desire to engage her partner sexually. The feeling of total ease between people in a longterm relationship is given its nuanced due by Seydoux and Exarchopoulos here, and such extraordinarily ordinary moments counter the criticism that the film reduces these characters to their titillating sexual acts.

As for the repeated suggestion that the sex has a “surgical” quality (a word used by the articulate Maroh but since repeated by several critics, with or without crediting the source), it is true that the cutting, paired with Kechiche’s matter-of-fact shooting style, creates a sense of aesthetic detachment that can easily be interpreted as voyeuristic in its observational rigor. Where in Black Venus this dispassion served to accentuate the unkindness of the privileged in viewing the “other,” here there is no impression that the director or cameraperson is participating in scenes of sexual ecstasy. Rather, Kechiche is able to remain objective while his characters are in the throes of passion. Cinematic technique aside, anyone who finds those scenes emotionally empty or resembling pornography may be overly fixated on the positions of the women’s bodies rather than expressions on their faces, which convey urgent, lusty, consuming love and satisfaction.

The film is not perfect, but the truest criticisms to level against it are not necessarily the most frequently mentioned. There is bit of heavy handedness throughout, like Adèle’s class reading and discussing a passage from Pierre de Marivaux’s novel La vie de Marianne about seeing a stranger across a crowded room in the first scenes of the film. The reference exists only to set up Adèle’s love-at-first-sight moment with Emma before being dropped (the literary boost is unnecessary, as we feel the charge between the two girls, and the perspective of Adèle’s tender teenage years lends all the requisite epic drama). A scene with Emma’s family in which Adèle learns to slurp oysters—a food the otherwise hearty eater has always been averse to—works in contrasting two girls’ tastes as a result of their respective upbringings, but functions less well as a cloying joke about enjoying the female anatomy. Overall, however, such minor details feel unimportant: Kechiche’s work so beautifully captures the breathless rhythms of the business of growing up that the film’s three hours absorb the viewer in a mesmerizing blur that could have been sustained for far longer. What initially feels random ends as a cumulative expression of the subjective nature of memory.

The more significant difference between the movie and the graphic novel is not in the depiction of sex, but the fact that, in the film, the relationship doesn’t end because of a premature death. Kechiche instead chooses to take a path that’s less tidy but more relatable; the love is simply not enough to sustain a relationship, undone by personal and intellectual incompatibility rather than the cruel hand of fate. When love ends in death, one can maintain the romantically naive belief that first love is singular and endless, but seeing that love slowly ebb away as a result of real world practicalities—cheating, class irreconcilability, a lack of shared interests—can be even harder to bear. It is the death of Adèle’s understanding of love, rather than death itself, that drives Kechiche’s heartbreaking but open-ended conclusion, and it is no less romantic or tragic for this.