Feeling Blue at the NYFF…

...where the warmest color was also the hottest ticket

Movies Features

Sex sells tickets. On the last day of the recent New York Film Festival, there was a line of around a hundred people waiting to get into the three-hour, NC-17, lesbian-themed French film, Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’ Adèle ), directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. I was grateful to be one of the lucky ones with a seat in the Walter Reade theater, though my expectations were tempered. Lines had been drawn at Cannes. Critic heroines Amy Taubin and Manohla Dargis were against it. So was Cinema-Scope and those who take an anti-Spielberg stance. (In May, Steven Spielberg and the rest of the Cannes jury made the unprecedented move of awarding not only the director but also the two stars, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, the Palme d’Or.)

I was surprised to find that I loved the film, and with an affection that I hadn’t experienced for a movie or a book since I was a teen. The film was a typical coming-of-age film made fascinating because of the three-hour length. The expected beats (love spotted, won, and lost) played out at a different rhythm, with more shaded-in details, with room for repetition, silence and truth.

This allowed not only for getting to know the main character, Adèle (named after the actress who embodied her), better; it also provided a superior engagement with the coming-of-age film itself. It was possible to become intimate with the details and also the structure of a kind of film usually deemed superficial (even if affecting). Here, those messy and intense moments—wet with snot and tears and only glimpsed in films starring Molly Ringwald, for instance—are stretched out and inescapable. I left thinking this was somehow both an important film and a very good bad movie.

In the love story between Adèle and Emma (Seydoux), the prolonged break-up lasts half of the film. The small humiliations endured by Adèle were heartbreaking. The film seemed universally touching. Leaving the theater, a grey-haired man said to his teary-eyed wife, “It didn’t feel like three-hours.”

Me, I left the theater wanting bubble gum. Some have commented on a flagrant attention to bottoms in the film, but I have never seen mouths so fetishized. I walked out intensely aware of my tongue and lips, wanting to blow a pink bubble until it popped. Adèle’s sloppy vitality had inspired me to do something classically adolescent and embarrassing. I was mesmerized by the way she danced, slurped and protested. By the way she couldn’t hide her needs and wouldn’t dream of masking her blind spots. This was unexpected in a film for which I had only heard about the sex scenes. More surprising, the sex scenes were the failures of the film.

The infamous seven-minute sex scene was one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen on screen. I had read that it wasn’t choreographed (though it may have been guided), that instead the director Kechiche asked the two straight women to explore each other’s bodies. So they pantomime having sex, but each as a straight woman (who is faking it). It’s like pushing two positive sides of a magnet against each other so that each side leaps away.

Kechiche lights the scene as if it were a writhing classical painting. There is much humping and changing of positions but without any discernible sex toy. What exactly were they doing? There is slapping of asses at odd moments that would make little sense without penetration. And the orgasms have no build up, but pop up like hiccups that won’t go away. Did I miss something? I could be wrong, and I welcome corrections. But at this point, it lost any credibility for me as a story about lesbians. Instead it felt like an illustration of that old trope, a man imagining, “what is it exactly that lesbians do?”

(I consider myself a straight woman who was briefly involved with two women before I was 20. But even those very limited experiences were gayer than anything I saw here.)

More importantly, there was no guidance, no leader, in what is supposed to be Adèle’s sexual awakening. The themes of Adèle’s growth as a person, even of becoming herself by wanting to be the blue-haired Emma, are subtle elsewhere, but non-existent in the sex scenes.

But the failure here is where it got even more interesting: It’s where Blue is the Warmest Color lost any sense of realism and became something more abstract. This film works specifically because of the director’s limitations, because he tried to take on a topic the subject of which was beyond his grasp.

Vertigo has been recognized as the greatest film not because it was the film that Hitchcock tried to make, but because it wasn’t. It’s a masterpiece of the push & pull, the friction, among the three major players. (That’s not to say Blue is comparable to Vertigo. For one, Blue’s triangle doesn’t have equal sides; Seydoux is no Stewart.)

So if it fails as a lesbian story, it could be that this is a story of friendship between two straight women. (A puzzling moment at the NYFF press conference might support this. Kechiche answered a question about lesbian cinema by bizarrely bringing up a past adolescent homosexual affair between two men that became a subtext in Ben Hur!) Yet this doesn’t seem to follow the form of female friendship movies, particularly the ones I call “persona swap films,” which often do contain a sexual aspect.

Instead, the film feels like a man framing two women as reflections of the other. Kechiche uses close-ups in a shot/ reverse shot set-up that frames each lead actress as mirrors of each other. One, Seydoux, seems aware of being looked at. She is an actress. She carries herself professionally and wearily, with some invisible wall. Exarchopoulos, instead of being looked at, is looking. She is taking in everything and moves with zero self-consciousness. Her rare verisimilitude and relatability would not be as vivid if not positioned so precisely against Seydoux’s still and glazed beauty.

I don’t know if this was entirely intentional. (I don’t think so.) Kechiche’s intentions are often apparent and also often dippy, ridiculous and way too on-the-nose. The class differences between Emma and Adèle seem well drawn in their conversations with each other, but broad in the depiction of their families. Adèle’s family watches TV at dinner with noodles hanging out of their mouths, while Emma’s bourgeois family likes fine wine & seafood. And Kechiche uses slurping oysters as a metaphor for … can you guess? But the film is so strong elsewhere that it’s easy to overlook these embarrassments.

But Kechiche’s technique—countless takes to erase the actors’ self-awareness—was certainly deliberate, and wildly successful. It may have even exacerbated this difference in the two actresses that I mention above. Again, using the example of Vertigo, Stewart became possessed under Hitch’s hand, but Novak was pinched, vulnerable under his thumb; she had never been realer. Kechiche has unleashed in Exarchopoulos a different kind of realness. She became a voracious rock star of emotions, the new “I Don’t Care Girl.” It’s her movie more than his even though he created this performance. Ideal for its pre-Halloween release, the making of this film is almost like something from Mary Shelly. Abdel Kechiche has unleashed a tender monster named Adèle. No longer his creation, she’s now more powerful than he is. And like Frankenstein’s monster, she’s broken viewers’ hearts beyond reason.

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