I apologize for the length. My humorous title plays on the length a bit, something to the effect of: this post is long enough to warrant multiple chapter headings.
Abdellatif Kechiche’s “freely inspired” Blue is the Warmest Color turned one of the most powerful and unique stories of love into one of the blandest and universally accessible. The graphic novel was rich in character development, narrative, plot, dialogue, internal monologue (in the form of diaries), surprise, beauty, and color. Kechiche’s film transplants these wonderful elements into the mundane. We have seen this film before, save approximately 10% of the film comprised of expertly choreographed and shot sex scenes. Nevertheless, Blue is an art film in the worst sense of the word.
The film refused all the elements of the novel that I found so engaging, so my problems are about adaptation and narrative. First, and most importantly, Adèle’s diary has almost no place in the film. The novel was structured on the diary. Beginning with Emma’s brief residence in Adèle’s parents’ home, she reads through her former lover’s personal thoughts after her death. This becomes all the more interesting as the flashbacks inform us that Adèle’s parents exiled their daughter because of her relationship with Emma. In the film Adèle keeps a diary every now and then and, as if Kechiche had forgotten, about two-thirds into the film, Emma mentions to a friend that her lover keeps a diary and is an excellent writer. It is never broached again because, given the ending of the film, it would be superfluous.
The conflict between Adèle and her parents is omitted from the film additionally. In the novel Adèle moves from her childhood home and into a place with Emma. In the film, in perfect accord with the ambiguity of art film, Adèle appears as a live-in partner with Emma quite spontaneously. This would seem to mark the elusive second chapter in the film’s French title (La vie d’ Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2). No intertitle indicated chapters. In the novel, what was a heart-wrenching scene, full of tears and screams and an ejection and disavowal of their daughter, in the film, the lovers’ choice to live together is neither monumental nor terribly interesting.
The break-up between Emma and her former lover, thus replacing this monogamous partner with Adèle, is not discussed in the film. Again, in the novel, we have a confrontation between Adèle and Emma’s partner; the film does not bother to address the complications of the partner swap. What the film does feature, unfortunately, is a very jealous Adèle, a jealousy which then gives her the impetus to cheat on Emma and the latter’s subsequent ejection of the former from her home once the extra-monogamous affair is exposed. Adèle, in tears and without the capacity to account for her affair, is destroyed by Emma’s seemingly justified dissatisfaction and disapproval of non-monogamy.
And, at more than three-quarters through the story, I felt completely disappointed in the refocusing of the original narrative. A beautiful story of a young girl’s coming-of-age, her new desires for Emma, her difficulties with heteronormativity, are here turned into a universal account of a love story on par with heteronormativity (monogamy, jealousy, etc.). What is more rational, justified, and universally understandable than, firstly, jealousy and cheating, and secondly, punishment for cheating! My reading of this event in the film is that it serves as a deliberate attempt to make an otherwise inaccessible and mostly unidentifiable couple accessible and identifiable, i.e., psychologically bland and undifferentiated from popular psychological states and responses. Look here, the film seems to say, same-sex couples have the same problems as heterosexual couples! While certainly true, the novel does nothing of the sort. Julie Maroh’s graphic novel presents two unique individuals whose problems begin, first, internally, then expand into familial issues, and lastly, broach the complicated reception of friends and society of their same-sex love. Kechiche was less inspired by the novel than misinterpret what made the story so wonderful.
Take an early scene in Maroh’s book. Adèle and Emma are growing attached and fond of each other. Emma says her goodbyes for the day and, almost in tears, mentions to the sexually uninitiated Adèle that she will one day make a man very happy. Internally, we see Adèle reflect that Emma is in fact the one she wants. She rushes after her and, in this passionate scene, the two perhaps have the best sex of their lives (Adèle most certainly, since it is her first time).
In the corresponding scene in the film, the two lay next to each other in a park. Smiles are exchanged, they kiss, and the next scene is one of the five sexual encounters the film depicts. The passion has been extinguished from the beautifully drawn and dialogued graphic novel. In the novel I was almost weeping; the film bored me with this bland display of seduction.
In a recent Cineaste review (Spring 2014), Darragh O’Donoghue briefly mentions the adaptation problem as well. He writes, “Kechiche’s relationship to his source material is problematic. Whatever the merits of a much-garlanded middle-aged male filmmaker in adapting a work begun by an author in her late teens and completed over five years as a labor of love – and ironically for a film now famous for its lesbian sex scenes – it is clear that Kechiche’s charges serve to ‘un-queer’ its narrative. Maroh inserts her comic into a long-established tradition of coming-of-age/coming-out stories,” and the film clearly changes this focus.
The superiority of the graphic novel is evident, to say nothing of the film’s omission of Adèle’s death. In her brief review of the film for the Criterion edition, Rich could not praise the film enough. Rich outlines the performances, the cinematography, the tactile quality of many of the images, and many other cinematic feats of a seasoned professional filmmaker. Blue is a thoroughly an art film, thus garnering the Palme d’or at Cannes last year. The film, however, takes its cues from David Bordwell’s analysis of art film.
As I’ve mentioned Blue goes to great lengths to deny a cause and effect narrative logic. It presents a heightened realist style, complete with real spaces, direct cinema cinematography, temporal gaps, and eroticism. It is naturally episodic, episodes which sometimes grant us access to the life of Adèle, other times not. The story of the graphic novel is shunned in favor of plot: “who is telling this story? How is this story being told? Why is this story being told this way?” I’m not sure how to answer any of these questions. Refer to Maroh’s book perhaps.
Furthermore, Adèle’s life is without a goal or meaning, thus Emma’s insistence that she become an artist and be more than a nursery school teacher. There is no real indication of the social or cultural forces at work conspiring against same-sex relationships, something the novel exposed with both clarity and apt critique. Rich notes the timely release both in France and the United States, both countries undergoing massive conflict about same sex marriages, yet Kechiche does not dive into such problems.
Overall the film succeeds in rendering itself ambiguous, Bordwell’s key term for a description of art cinema. Ambiguity plays itself out perfectly in the very last shot, again living up to Bordwell’s analysis of art films, namely a feature’s open-endedness. As Adèle exits Emma’s art show after bearing witness to her former lover’s new life with a new partner, the last shot is of Adèle strolling away down a street. Kechiche might as well have done a long tracking shot and ended on a close-up freeze frame of her face. But what will become of Adèle?? we think leaving the cinema or when turning off our blu-ray players. Kechiche knows about the ambiguities of life, we surmise; “he knows that life is more complex than art can ever be, and the only way to respect this complexity is to leave causes dangling, questions unanswered.” Blue is an art film, no less. As Bordwell suggests in his 2007 afterword to his earlier piece on art cinema, success at film festivals secures a feature’s status as art film. There were fewer films more successful than Blue last year.
I suggested at the beginning of this entry that this love story, touted by one critic as the greatest of the 21st century, is nothing new. In fact, if I had the time and space, I would argue that this film has already been made, both recently and in the same country. Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love (Un amour de jeunesse, 2011) follows the same narrative arc and takes place over the same amount of time. A young high school girl meets and has a relationship with her first love; they break up, get back together, and encounter each other later in life. The two films share too many similarities to bother naming, the key difference being the earlier film’s heterosexual couple. My difficult task, like Vivian Sobchack’s in her article in Film Comment (Jan-Feb, 2014) on Upstream Color (2013) and To the Wonder (2012), would be to make an argument as to why I prefer Goodbye to Blue. Sobchack’s recourse to poetic imagery to justify her preference is insufficient to say the least. I suppose a good reason to prefer Goodbye is its ambiguity; while we are left dangling, in exactly the same way Kechiche leaves us dangling, Hansen-Løve hints that the memory of that first love will shape all other loves. There is thus something ironic in the title in that one can never truly say goodbye to their first.
All my complaints aside, the eroticism of Blue is worth praising. Rich is correct in pointing to the sex scenes between Adèle Exarchopoulous and Léa Seydoux and admiring them. I’ve yet to read about the actresses’ possible mistreatment at the hands of the filmmaker and his team, but the result is as wonderful as the nude sculptures on display in the film. I enjoyed the emphasis on the characters’ backsides as something like a motif. More importantly, there has not been a sexually explicit film that takes the pleasure of its characters so seriously. Long gone are the dispassionate if not disturbing sex scenes found in the films of Kechiche’s French peers (Bruno Dumont, Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat, to name a few). In Blue the multiplicity of positions, the emphasis on vocalizing pleasure, the tendency of the camera to almost get down and dirty with the performers, make the scenes stand out from the bland story otherwise presented. Rich incorrectly suggests the camera documents every crevice, for it is still taboo in art cinema to show female genitals, even in a film as erotic and artful as this one (although the unsimulated sex is, I think, unquestionable).
Critics are right to return again and again to the few sex scenes. They are as memorable and as beautifully choreographed as they are explicit.
One last note on the Criterion edition: it had been approved by the director, which is something necessary for a film of this magnitude. What has been neglected are the lack of special features. The Criterion edition, whose products are often crammed full of interviews and commentary, features a trailer – available online anywhere -, an 18 second “TV spot,” and a short written piece by Rich. In the absence of visual content, there could have perhaps been a short text on just exactly what the controversy was regarding the actresses’ performances, or perhaps a reprinted interview with the director. For the price, this edition is lacking in substance for the cinephile or curious observer. That being said, I can forgive Criterion because the necessity of releasing the film quickly, while the hype still lingers, is certainly a smart and profitable move.