“Pornographic,” “voyeuristic,” “clinical” . . . at a time when gay cinema is known for its matter-of-fact, graphic handling of sex, it’s surprising that the sex scenes in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color have had such a negative reception. Outshining this, however, is the rapturous appraisal of the film’s sensitive, nuanced, and, at nearly three hours long, comprehensive exploration of a lesbian first love relationship. Kechiche puts a lot more of his characters than just their naked flesh on show; he unpacks their lifestyles and prospects to explore the social division within the upper and lower middle class.
Blue Is the Warmest Color stands out from other gay films in that the homophobia of those around them is not the main barrier to the characters’ love. Although schoolgirl Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) experiences some playground homophobia when she begins her flirtation with the gamine, blue-haired, double-denim-sporting Emma (Léa Seydoux), far more of the film shows homosexuality celebrated. The couple attend a lively, joyous gay pride parade, and Emma’s artistic crowd are openly supportive. It is class and all its baggage — pretensions, awareness of limits — that eventually sabotage the idyllic romance. The sex scenes, therefore, are moments of hope that these barriers can be overcome. Revealing the heroines in a primal state without these affectations, the all-exposing erotic episodes reveal the organic connection between two humans that can exist outside class.
Emma, a precocious art student, is the child of professional, bohemian, wealthy parents. Top student Adèle has set her sights on becoming a primary school teacher. Although each family attempts to welcome their daughter’s new “friend,” the girls fail to slot comfortably into each other’s lives. Adèle’s loving parents are conservative and hardworking, and doubt Emma’s intentions to support herself with her painting. Emma’s parents admire Adèle’s career direction but pity her lack of creative outlet. For Emma and her family, life is glamour, ease, and self-expression; for Adèle and her parents, it is work and gratitude. We see this plainly when the girls eat at each other’s houses for the first time. Emma’s family present wine and oysters with performance and narrative. For Adèle’s family, food represents sharing and love — but it is a simple enjoyment, consumed without ceremony. Close-up shots of Adèle and her family eating, often open-mouthed (forget the sex scenes — try these for graphic!) — express their lower financial status and their lack of glamour. In Adèle’s case, unselfconscious enjoyment of simple food is like her enjoyment of sex: fresh, naive, wholehearted, without the awareness of what high culture deems valuable or attractive. It is a symbol of her immaturity, her organically sensual personality, and her social position.
It is this honesty and lack of sophistication that make Adèle a poignant and lovable heroine. She cries uncontrollably, her nose runs; she looks untidy and stumbles in conversation. Her face is gloriously readable, disguising no inner joy or insecurity. This naturalness addresses the hidden anxiety of the viewer and means that we feel everything with her. It is for this “truthfulness” that Emma adopts Adèle as her muse, fascinated by the emerging passion within Adèle that Adèle herself does not fully comprehend.
But eventually it is this expectation that pulls the relationship apart. Emma wants Adèle to be the uncultured, innocent, carnally driven muse of her paintings, but, where her glamorous social circle are concerned, she wants Adèle to assume the confident guise of artist’s girlfriend. From a background in which creative play is the highest form of work, Emma doesn’t expect Adèle’s ambitions as a teacher and urges her to express herself through writing; “I just want you to be fulfilled.” Adèle, however, lacks the confidence or the motivation to put her inner life up for sale. One of the most emotionally harrowing sequences is at the party that Adèle gives for Emma’s exhibition launch. Adèle feels herself surrounded by Emma’s “fulfilled” friends and puts herself into a servile role, cooking and serving while the guests interrogate her about her career and bombard her with cultural references that she has not yet encountered. Adèle’s discomfort and Emma’s frustration are tangible.
While Blue Is the Warmest Color is a celebration of homosexuality’s integration into French life, with laws recently passed permitting gay marriage in France, it is the unresolved alienations of class that render the relationship impossible. Seeing Emma as articulate, charming, and adored within her circle, Adèle sleeps around to get a sense of her own power. But aside from the painful scenes where the impressionable young women act out for their classes, the shots where they are alone together render a connection that is moving in its ease and lack of pretense. Perhaps this is why the sex scenes are so extended, and so very, very raw. Sex between Adèle and Emma is so natural that they need no articulation and performance. The close to ten-minute erotic scene that Julie Maroh (the creator of the graphic novel on which the film is based) has called “brutal and surgical’ can be seen as a purely physical connection, which outshines the articulations and manners of class. As the Victorian gay activist Edward Carpenter once said, “Eros is a great leveller.”
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MARTHA THOMPSON completed her English Literature degree at Goldsmiths University of London last year with a thesis examining the convolutions of traditional folktales Walt Disney’s films. Since graduating, she has balanced cafe and bar work with regular contributions to the London-based magazine The Upcoming, specialising in film, theatre and music reviews. She is beginning some research work for author Barbara Hardy and has her own blog, The Paperblonde.