‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ and the Crippling Loneliness of Intimacy
This is not a review of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color. It has already won the Palm d’Or as well as the deserved admiration of most people who have seen it. Rather, I’d like to assess both its central premise — that if you are untrue to the love that fulfills who you are, it will boomerang and destroy you — and the way in which the film is told and shot.
One tangential thought that occurred to me while I was watching BITWC (notice how the acronym almost looks like BITCH) is how speaking French natively makes your lips twice as full and pouty as other languages, except perhaps the Slavic tongues. The particular way French is articulated causes the mouth to puff out pleasantly; after years of practice from childhood it can make even the plainest features alluring. (In a way this is relevant because BITWC explores education and how French is learned in some depth.)
The reason this tangential thought came to mind, and why I mention it, is because I would estimate that a good ninety-five percent of the film is shot in close up, often extreme close up. This extreme visual style utterly disregards sets and locations to focus on the face, on pouty French mouths and desiring eyes and subtly shifting expressions and tears and teary blue eyes and tear-streaked snotty noses and, of course, cigarettes in pouty French mouths. It’s a stylistic choice that is similar in many respects to my way of filming relationships. It thrusts the viewer into an almost uncomfortable intimacy with the main characters: you are forced to participate in teenaged Adèle’s awakening to her lesbian longings, to experience the intensity of Adèle’s attraction to Emma that overwhelms and almost destroys her, and to ride the roller coaster dynamics that characterize every romantic relationship in varying degrees of steepness and hardship.
Adèle is majoring in French literature for her high-school baccalaureate (‘majoring’ is the only word in American English that is suitable to explain the European system). One of the opening scenes is a reading in class of Pierre de Marivaux’s unfinished La Vie de Marianne. The passage is about the emptiness, the loss of a part of the self from longing that a romantic encounter can cause. This flagrant foreshadowing of the rest of the story is the sort of heavy-handed, on-the-nose sequence that I would never be allowed to get away with by my colleagues; in American cinema, only the most esoteric films allow this sort of literary allusion, and if you want to be seen outside the festival circuit you’d better ditch it. The French aptly call it tiré par les cheveux, ‘pulled by the hair,’ which can mean illogical/implausible, but in this instance I am taking it’s other meaning: ‘forced.’ For all of their pouty, dangling-cigarette, Cannes-winning cool, the French are particularly prone to pulling narrative by the hair in ways that Anglo-American culture finds a bit too Versailles. Still, not only did I allow my hair to be pulled — and you may read whatever symbolism you want into the fact I’m already bald — I thought this foreshadowing wove in well with the film’s brutal lyricism.
BITWC is a litany of these foreshadowings, philosophical discussions, and symbolic references — there’s blue on every outfit, on every wall, in every painting, on every sign in the background, in the nail polish, too. One particularly mesmerizing symbolic foreshadowing sequence is Adèle’s idealized perspective the first time she goes out to the local gays bars. As she makes her way through crowds of same-sex couples, both male and female, it becomes a relay course of kissing. Her desire for that intimacy is palpable. She will quench that desire with Emma, but it will be a sort of monkey’s paw in terms of how the fulfillment of that wish will deplete her soul. True, the film itself almost loses balance from the endless repetition of the motif of two pouty French lips interlocking, but in that respect Kechiche is being meta: his passion for portraying passion knows no restraint.
For those of us (i.e., most of us) who didn’t meet our life partners in high school and live happily ever after, we understand well the hardships of romance, the amputation without anesthetic of a part of our selves when an established intimacy is removed. While I enjoy the comfort that being so intimate with someone can bring — and probably prefer it to being single — it depends on the person with whom I’m in love. In some instances that level of intimacy can be so damaging it’s not only preferable to be single, it would be preferable if there had been no love to begin with. The denial of being with the loved one, the negation of intimacy by whatever cause and reason, creates the feeling that one’s life force — I’m reluctant to say ‘soul’ — is terminally ill. The suffering can be nearly unendurable. It can push you to the brink of non-existence.
Indeed, during a crucial seduction scene Kechiche cleverly inserts a discussion about Sartre, existentialism and the essence of being. While this sort of expository dialogue isn’t necessary for the viewer who can draw his own conclusions, the juxtaposition of intense sensuality with intellectual discourse was pleasing and believable: this is the sort of preamble to romance I might have with a lover, my oblique way of expressing fear of what is to come between us.
Like most people, I understand this trauma from the negation of intimacy well, and that’s why the film has succeeded with a relatively broad audience, despite being so fervently gay. In the past few years I have struggled through what is, passively, the most passionate and arduous of the numerous romantic relationships I’ve had in my life. There have been several obstacles that the young man in question and I have surmounted, tried to surmount, or are currently trying to surmount. One is similar to a minor-but-important conflict in BITWC: my lover’s ongoing battle with and acceptance of his sexuality — he is what is known in the sex-therapy world as a ‘transitional bisexual.’ Another is that we live on opposite ends of the country, which is my fault; yes, one could argue that he is a filmmaker and if he wanted to be with me he would move from New York City to L.A., but that isn’t taking into account how much the first obstacle affects his psyche. The third, most taxing obstacle for me and the relationship in general is his intimacy issues, which are uncommonly acute, so extreme that they would be seen by psychiatry as symptoms of a disorder, but I prefer to view them as a personality trait.
Regardless of the deep love I have for this guy, I have tried to terminate the relationship a few times. It has often been toxic for me, a lot like how absence from Emma affects Adèle in the last part of BITWC. For better or worse, and unlike Emma, my guy won’t have it, will not let me go. He relies on the hackneyed truism that love conquers all, or conquers many things, including my sense of self-preservation, and he’s right.
In order to survive, what I had to do was arrive at complete acceptance of who he is, to trust that his personal evolution will right things in the end, and one thing he has done over the four years we have been together while being apart is evolve. By necessity, I had to get to a point where the absence of intimacy no longer hurt me in the least. But I had to get there genuinely, never pretend that I was unaffected. The process has had a healthy outcome in two ways: I have succeeded in complete acceptance of who he is, which is something of an ideal in terms of achieving that elusive thing called unconditional love; and he has been the basis for one of the more successful characters and relationship dynamics I have written thus far, for a commissioned screen adaptation of a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald — I have donned him in a frock and transformed him into a modern Zelda/Daisy Buchanan, and it works.
Our journey hasn’t been easy for either of us, and in that respect I was able to indentify with both Adèle and Emma’s struggles — Kechiche doesn’t allow the pain to be one-sided. However, you want to protect the younger, frailer Adèle from the experience and the shock; you worry that she might not make it, so intense is her passion and how that passion makes her suffer. But there is also a point when you know, regardless of how Kechiche and his co-writers are going to end the story, that Adèle will survive. You know because you have experienced this and survived yourself.
In some ways, BITWC is akin to my work both in execution and theme: the intense use of close ups and long lenses; the choice of comely protagonists over “real people”; the power play and perils of intimacy and relationships; the struggles of class, of intellectual and creative imbalances. There are distinct parallels to be drawn between this and my Fitzgerald adaptation, but there can be between any drama that focuses on a hero’s journey through romance.
In other ways, my work and Kechiche’s film are as distinct as American and French cinema are from each other — Kechiche even manages to reference that disparity both visually and textually in his film. There will be no hair pulling with foreshadowing, symbolism, and philosophical discussions in my Fitzgerald piece. It will follow American rules: if it doesn’t advance the plot or develop the character, it will be left out. There will be no lingering in close up on the protagonists’ expressions, no lengthy graphic-sex scenes, no meditative-but-unnecessary tableaux depicting the joys of youth, or the articulation of pain and depression. As a result, my film will come in at a little over two hours versus BITWC’s exhausting three. In my opinion and experience three hours is over-egging the pudding, utterly extraneous to effectively exploring the push-and-pull dynamic of intimacy.
But there I go reviewing when I said I wouldn’t.
Thanks for the Euro-cultured but-still-American discussion of the themes in this film. It’s the first such piece of writing about BitWC that I’ve encountered. You know how we American Americans are: Oh my god the sex scene. Did you see the sex scene. Is it sexy? Is it shocking? Did it at once arouse me yet offend my puritanical sensibilities? About that sex scene….
I have a big backlog of stories to read here, but the day still only has 24 hours.
Formerly Eric J Baker It’s sex sceneS, actually, and they are well done. Believe me, the French are as obsessed with them as we are, just with more pouty pseudo-insouciance. To its credit, I could write a great deal about this film — the glamorizing of tacky mainstream gay culture, for instance, is worth a few thousand words, at least; I’ve never wanted to attend a pride parade so badly as I have after seeing the one in the film. I’ve never wanted to attend one, period. And the American versus the European teen, and what that means having been an Ameropean teen… I could squeeze a series in Cahiers du Cinema about this.
We do miss you.