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Critical Dialogue: Blue Is the Warmest Color

By Max Nelson on October 29, 2013

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Blue is the Warmest Color

Forget, if you can, the post-Cannes hullaballoo surrounding the film’s hotly debated gender politics. Forget the stories of Abdellatif Kechiche’s grueling working methods, the highly public feud that’s developed between the director and his two gifted young stars, the objections of Julie Maroh—who wrote the graphic novel on which the movie is based—and the MPAA’s predictable choice to assign the film an NC-17 rating. Forget, in short, all the baggage Blue Is the Warmest Color accumulated as it rolled down the festival circuit and slowly evolved from a movie into a cultural event. What’s left is a relationship drama of uncommon scope and ambition, set apart by its idiosyncratic form and its frank treatment of gay experience in its chronicle of two young women in and out of love over six years. It’s riddled with many of the problems that tend to spring up when male directors try to film their heroine’s inner lives, and ultimately grounded in familiar, well-trod emotional territory.

In fact, the movie’s most unusual feature might be purely formal: what Dennis Lim, writing on the film from Cannes, called its “dogged, airless conception of naturalism, predicated on distended scenes and a surplus of close-ups.” Whole sequences single-mindedly zero in on his two heroine’s faces while giving a dim idea of their immediate surroundings: when, for instance, the film’s teenage heroine Adèle walks down a busy street or floats face-up in the sea, Kechiche rarely shows us what she might be seeing. “[Adèle] Exarchopoulos almost never departs from the camera’s scrutiny,” A.O. Scott writes in The New York Times, praising the film for its “ardent and sincere commitment to capturing the fullness of Adèle’s experience—sensory, cerebral and emotional.” In Scott’s view, Kechiche’s scrupulous attention to his heroine’s face—which he captures in emotional states ranging from ecstatic to hysterical to reflective to resigned—is an attempt to burrow deeper into her inner life.

Blue is the Warmest Color

For a contingent of the movie’s objectors, Keciche’s visual strategy is either clouded or corrupt. “By keeping so close to Adèle,” chimes in Manohla Dargis, in the latest of several New York Times treatments of the film, “Kechiche seemed to be trying to convey her subjective experience, specifically with the hovering camerawork and frequent close-ups of her face. Yet, early on, this sense of the character’s interiority dissolves when the camera roves over her body even while she is sleeping. Is Adèle, I had wondered [at Cannes], dreaming of her own hot body?” In her coverage of Cannes for the July/August issue of Film Comment, Amy Taubin likewise called Kechiche out for having said, “with a stunning lack of awareness, that the film is couched in Adèle’s subjectivity.” She continues (noticing, like Dargis, Kechiche’s anatomical focus): “Even Jean-Luc Godard, the most dedicated of ass men—‘A woman is her ass,’ he once remarked, although I doubt he’d venture as much today—did not confuse his POV with that of the women he captured with his lens.” For these two critics, then, the chief issue isn’t that Kechiche obsesses over his heroine’s body; it’s that he tries to convince us that he’s doing so as a means of identifying with her. One response might be that, if Adèle isn’t dreaming of her own body, she might at least be dreaming of the female body in general. Reverse Shot’s Farihah Zaman, for instance, suggests that Kechiche identifies with his heroines precisely by taking on their sexual desires: “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.”

Dargis writes that “this isn’t a question of ‘the male gaze,’” but simply a more general, “run-of-the mill representational problem.” At root, the trouble might be that Kechiche stays so firmly rooted in his own perspective that he can only think to access Adèle’s subjective experience by filming her outer appearance “with scrutinizing closeness;” by lingering over the contours of her body and the classical perfection of her face. Taubin draws attention to one “stunningly obtuse scene” in which “Adèle and Emma pay a visit to a museum where they smile and laugh in appreciation while looking at neoclassical sculptures of female torsos, as if they were seeing themselves. I can’t imagine,” she concludes, “a female art-school student today looking at such a sculpture without a trace of irony—without posing the question: through whose eyes am I looking?” The broader irony might be that Kechiche himself, despite constantly seeming to ask that question—and, perhaps, despite sincerely trying to—never really takes it to heart. For Dargis and Taubin, one of Blue’s deep-set representational problems turns out to be its director’s inability to look through any eyes other than his own.

Blue is the Warmest Color

As for the film’s already-infamous sex scenes, they might say more about the deplorable way mainstream cinema tends to represent sex than it says about Blue itself. It’s rare for a dramatic film with any sort of distribution to treat sex as a prolonged, continuous event rather than a montage of disconnected close-ups; by that measure, the most notable fact about Blue’s scenes of uninhibited, acrobatic coupling might be that they exist intact at all. From that point, opinions differ. Dargis objects that these scenes “jettison the movie’s carefully constructed realism along with bodily excesses and excretions in favor of tasteful, decorous poses.” At Artinfo, J. Hoberman concurs, pointing out that the primary sequence in question was filmed in a special-effects studio with the help of prostheses. But The New Yorker’s Richard Brody takes serious issue with the implied charge that Kechiche sets up the scenes “luridly or leeringly . . . When Kechiche films Adèle and Emma making love for the first time,” Brody writes, “he does so with one of the most jolting cuts in the recent cinema… [suggesting an] immediate continuity from public to private life, from intellectual and emotional contact to the most intimate physical contact.” Here the terms of the debate tend to shift—at least partially—from subjectivity vs. objectivity to artifice vs. naturalism.

At Sight and Sound, Jonathan Romney suggests a possible link between the two questions. “The film, he concludes, “is constantly coming in close on Exarchopoulos’s face when Adèle is asleep, and I don’t think I’ve seen any film catch a sleeping face in quite such disorderly, disheveled repose. The sex scenes in Adèle will certainly prove a benchmark for the depiction of physicality in film—but so too will those tender, intimate close-ups of Exarchopoulos’s face, sweat, overbite and all.” Kechiche’s film depends deeply on the link Romney is proposing here between physicality and intimacy: we understand Adèle, it seems to say, because we are (that is to say, the camera is) literally, spatially, tangibly close to her. To what extent, then, can the “disorderly, disheveled” landscape of the human face ever reflect the movements of consciousness? And what does it take for a filmmaker to responsibly film that landscape—especially in the case of a male director staring down his female star? 

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