Blue is the Warmest Colour

When Blue is the Warmest Colourwon the Palme D’Orat Cannes in 2013, Steven Spielberg, head of the Jury, insisted that the two stars (Léa Seydouxand Adèle Exarchopoulos) join the director on the podium. What followed was even more controversial: the author of the graphic novel on which the movie is based, Julie Moroh, claimed the sex scenes were ‘porn’; the two actors avowed they would never work with Kechiche again, as it was a ‘horrible’ experience; and Kechiche, in turn, threatened to sue Seydoux for slander. Wow!

So what is all the fuss about? This is a coming of age film, with a twist: it’s about a passionate love affair between a teenaged girl and an older woman, shot with an intensity that is visceral and overwhelming. Kechiche, a Franco-Tunisian director of some repute – CousCous won no less than four Césars – has a trademark directorial style of simply running the cameras; there’s no Action! Or Cut! He then spends hours editing the footage into the final version.

Such intensity means that the 10 minutes-long sex scene took 10 days to film; and the brutal argument that signifies the end of the affair involved real slaps, at the director’s insistence. The two stars were left physically and mentally drained; Exarchopoulos claimed she had to close her eyes and imagine herself on an island during the Cannes screenings with her family present, she was so traumatised. She was only 19 at the time.

There’s no doubt that this style results in superlative performances. 

Rewind to the beginning. Adèle is a High School student who loves literature and dreams of becoming a teacher. After an unsatisfactory fling with a handsome boy, she suspects she may be lesbian and catches a glimpse of the blue-haired Emma in a gay bar. 

They begin an intense and passionate affair; two very different people from very different backgrounds, so excellently demonstrated in the two meet-the-parents scenes. Emma’s parents openly accept Emma’s sexuality and provide oysters and fine wine; while Emma has to pretend to Adèle’s parents that she has a boyfriend, as she sucks spaghetti in an ungainly fashion. Later Adèle serves Dad’s spag bol to Emma’s sophisticated and ever-so-faintly patronising art guests, like the subservient housewife she has become, while Emma flirts openly with another woman. Perhaps some divides are too great to bridge.

As in Couscous, food and eating play a big role in the film and punctuate the dramatic moments with a social realism that also acts as a rite of passage. From family meals, to dates, to celebrations, each marks a shift of status quo –Adèle’s indoctrination into the joys of slurping oysters can be interpreted at several levels  – as does the imagery of Emma’s hair colour. We see it mutate from a soft, warm blue to a hard blonde as the relationship ebbs.Whatever the rights and wrongs of Kechiche’s directorial style, he knows how to bring out the best in his cast. Adèle’s grief is heartbreaking during the last portion of the movie, the tears constantly running down her snotty face cannot be faked. There is a real skill to this kind of cinematic immersion, conjuring it from an actress with relatively little experience such as Exarchopoulos. Like it or not, Kechiche is a master.

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