Moviegoers who enjoy reading eyes and studying faces will do well to see Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or-winning BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (2013). A deeply intimate bildungsroman, the film follows Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) as she learns about her sexuality, significant romantic relationships, and adulthood. The narrative unfolds almost exclusively through a seemingly uninterrupted series of close-ups of Adèle’s face as she looks at, reacts to and is looked at by the characters who populate her world. It is an intensely allusive cinematography that traffics in surfaces and the affective intensities they suggest.
Kechiche’s unmistakeable triumph here is the creation of an eminently watchable 180 minutes mostly consisting of watching Adèle watch others watch her, and watching those others watch her through their eyes. By “watchable”, I mean not only endurable—making three consistently captivating consecutive hours of anything, let alone alternating close-ups, is a feat—but also, at even the most basic level, comprehensible. The film’s story is easy to follow: after a disappointing sexual experience with an attractive older boy, Adèle meets and seems to discover romantic and sexual feelings for an artistic older girl, the blue-haired Emma (Lèa Seydoux), with whom she has a long-term relationship that ends tumultuously for both parties. How is it possible that the film so effectively communicates this deep emotional narrative out of such a vertiginous intersubjective style? It’s like watching the mise-en-scene of an Austen novel stripped of its interior focalization of characters’ thoughts, with a healthy dose of homosexuality tossed in. And yet, the interiority of these lovers appears as transparent as any of the self-exposing, psychological pronouncements of one of Adèle’s favorite novels, Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne, from which the film takes its French name (LA VIE D’ADÉLE).
If the bodies of the film’s characters—its young, female characters—appear exceptionally legible, if they can be successfully interpreted by its audiences, the question then arises: how is this the case? In Manohla Dargis’ sensitive criticism of the film’s representation of women, she cites a pretentious, “mansplaining” friend of Emma, who prattles to a table of educated women about the mystic intensity of “the” female orgasm, as an articulation of the film’s attitude towards female bodies: they are unknowable, mysterious. But it seems to me that the problem is in fact the very opposite, though closely related. As Dargis’s own citation of the stupefied reactions of the surrounding women attests, this man is the butt of a joke. Its female bodies are all too knowable. The film’s very narrativity is premised on the legibility of Adèle’s body. It is an epistemological dream-come-true for the dinner party’s essentializing, self-satisfied schmuck.
What are the implications of the facility with which the film’s audiences determine from 15-year-old Adèle’s face that she is unsure about her sexuality or curious, uncomfortable, amused, or sexually disappointed? One place we can begin to find answers is by looking at the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of characters’ efforts to read bodies within the film’s diegesis, which abounds with layered exchanges of meaningful glances. At a party, Adèle watches Emma with her pregnant ex-girlfriend; it seems to appear to Adèle that Emma is flirting; Emma ends the film in a relationship with this person. In the early stages of their romance, the love between Adèle and Emma is evinced almost entirely by their apparent mutual understanding and ability to read one another’s feelings, what Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls espousal. Literary critic George Butte describes espousal as an “interplay of responses, built at each point upon perception of the other’s perception, I begin to have some knowledge beyond my own consciousness”. This is antithetical to the objectifying, Sartrean gaze that Dargis identifies with the film’s cinematography and meaning.
But the film also appears to be keenly aware of the problematics of looking, the stakes of legibility. We see that the espousal model of intersubjectivity is not as easy as it seems: it misfires, particularly in the context of social power. Adèle regularly appears uncomfortable around Emma’s pedantic art school friends, and yet, at no point does Emma reassure her either verbally or through glances. Perhaps the film is acknowledging in moments like this that a kind of parity of experience and subject position is the necessary pre-condition for sharing understanding. Does such parity exist in the more-or-less unilateral relationship between the film’s audiences and Adèle? On what grounds?
For the film’s detractors, the conspicuous readability of its characters is indicative of its ficticity. Dargis says the film is “missing women of any kind… contained, prettified, aestheticized”. And yet, the film seems to acknowledge the fictionalizing violence involved in making bodies readable. While Adèle is still making sense of her attraction to Emma, her classmates impose her sexuality upon her, attempting to govern her behavior by superimposing a code of meaning onto her. Another young man explains that directors type him as an Arab and only want him to play terrorists. Bodies, we see, aren’t inherently legible: their legibility depends upon the sometimes coercive imposition of codes.
Does the film impose codes of sexuality, womanhood, and person-hood onto Adèle, wrangling her body into systems of meaning? Does it fictionalize her? It very well might, and, maybe more importantly, it certainly seems and feels that way to many women watching and writing about the film. And yet, it also seems to me to be complicated, ambivalent and, often, deeply moving and insightful.
It is also an astute and enjoyable movie in other ways. While intersubjective cinematography is the film’s primary source of narrative, its thematic structure and development comes from a lengthy set of opposed motifs that bring out major sources of tension and engage them dialectically. They also provide laughs in an otherwise deeply earnest film. An overtly disappointing, minute-long sex scene with a young man stands in stark contrast with the “the passionate and uninhibited athleticism” of Adèle’s first time with a woman; later Adèle cheats on Emma with a man, revealing her new, nuanced understanding of her desires. Adèle’s classroom education in love in novels like Marivaux’s is contrasted with the bedroom pedagogy she shares with Emma; she ultimately becomes a teacher.
Nowhere is this method of opposing images more effective than in the film’s portrayal of social power and class, played out through contrasted dinner menus. A rustic pasta bolognese acts as a metonymy for Adèle’s lower-middle-class identity while Emma’s wealthy family eats oysters and drinks an apparently endless supply of white wine; as a domestic couple, we see Adèle serve both pasta bolognese and white wine to Emma’s classy dinner guests. When Adèle attempts to close her tab at the gay bar when the two first meet, she discovers that “it’s been paid for” by the wealthy Emma; in one of their final encounters after their tumultuous break-up, a moderately famous and successful Emma offers to give Adèle a painting. Adèle begs to pay for it, even in “flesh and blood.”
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR is a challenging and engaging film. For all of the problems of its politics of looking, you might find that it speaks to your experiences and tells a story you find exceptionally meaningful—or perhaps you are not that you. See it, and find out.
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR
Now Playing at Kendall Square Cinema
Showtimes: 1:00 4:45 7:00 8:30
General Admission $11, Student $9 (M-Th Only)