Blue is the Warmest Colour – Review

James Gallagher

There has been a lot of hype about Blue is the Warmest Colour – known in its native France as La Vie d’Adèle: Chapitres 1 & 2 (The Life of Adèle: Chapters 1 & 2) – ever since it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival back in May. In a major break with precedent, the Cannes jury decided to bestow the award not just on the film’s director, Abdellatif Kechiche, but also on its two central performers, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. Six months on the film has opened to near-universal acclaim from all sides of the critical spectrum, even in the face of colossal expectations, and is now a real contender for the title of best film of 2013.

Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Julie Maroh, Blue is the Warmest Colour is a film about two young women – Adèle (Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Seydoux) – who embark on a beautiful but intense relationship that spans almost a ten-year period. The film takes us on a journey in which we discover all the intricate details of both of their personalities, from their ambitions to their insecurities, from their beliefs to their fears and even their deepest sexual desires… more of which shortly.

The strength of the film rests on the shoulders of the two magnificent performances from Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, both of whom more than deserve their special Cannes award. It’s been a while since I’ve seen performances quite this powerful, and for such young, relatively inexperienced women they’re utterly superb. I felt able to invest in their relationship from the word go because they both embrace their roles with vigorous passion. Each laugh, each tear, each simple emotion is captured so perfectly by both of them that all of the other characters just fade into the background. Thanks to them this isn’t a film about lesbianism – heck, it isn’t even a film about a lesbian relationship – rather it is a film about Adèle and Emma. Their individual eccentricities and insecurities shine through with real nuance and subtlety, and no matter what else is going on it is impossible not to care about them quite deeply.

Similarly, the film tells a tale that will appeal to everyone who has ever fallen in love. You don’t have to be a young lesbian to “get” this film. Adèle’s confusion about what she wants, Emma’s insecurities about her work and the conflict between their different backgrounds culminate to create a story that we can all relate to. Most of the people who write for this site will know what it’s like to discover and come to terms with your sexuality, yet what’s so great about it is that the lesbianism is little more than a feint through which some simple but universal themes can be explored. It’s about the trials and tribulations of all first relationships and deals with issues like compromise, betrayal, regret and nostalgia. Furthermore, it does this simple job brilliantly; the plot is engaging, the characters are fascinating and not once during the film’s three-hour length was I left feeling cold or bored.

However, Blue is the Warmest Colour hasn’t come without its controversies or its detractors. With its three-hour length it is very long, and indulgently yet unashamedly so. Maroh herself has criticised the film for its over-explicit sex scenes stating that “as a feminist and lesbian spectator” she feels unable to endorse the direction that Kechiche took on these matters, while Exarchopoulos and Seydoux have both claimed that they won’t work with Kechiche again because of the “horrible” manner in which he treated them. It’s tough to get such statements out of your mind when watching the film, especially when you realise just how little is left to the imagination. As the first instance of explicit lesbian sex began to unfold on the screen at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield – surrounded by middle-aged men and women who didn’t know where to look or what to do – I began to feel a bit like an extra in the adult cinema scene from An American Werewolf in London, just sitting uncomfortably and waiting for the pornography to end…

I agree with ALL of these people…

Now, I’m a liberal, broad-minded guy who has no problem whatsoever with rampant sex in the movies (or preferably out of them…) but even I thought that the first of these scenes – which lasts for well over five minutes – was totally unnecessary. It added absolutely nothing to the film; in fact, if anything, it served to drag me out of the expertly-established drama as nervous titters and hushed groans began to dance around the screening. What’s more annoying is that the other two major sex scenes – which are just as explicit, though at least a little shorter – really do suit the film because they’re sandwiched between scenes of everyday banality, thus providing a lovely juxtaposition between the central relationship and the lack of passion in all the other character’s lives. The first one, however, is just an indulgent exercise in boundary-pushing and is exactly the kind of thing that often drags films like this down.

The problem then, at least for me, boils down to Kechiche’s voyeuristic approach to sex. There’s a great scene about two hours into the film, in which some pretentious wanker colleague of Emma’s is droning on about how women experience passion far more majestically than men. He talks about how in art men experience pleasure through women whereas women experience it of their own accord. He’s a total tosser, as one of the women in the scene points out when she suggests that what he’s arguing is just what men want to believe. Then it struck me; this tosser is the embodiment of Kechiche. Kechiche views lesbian sex through the eyes of a man. He portrays it in an unrealistic, pornography-inflected way presumably because that’s what he wants it to be like. The performers are flawless, the sex is overly choreographed and it all feels incredibly forced. It isn’t at all realistic, rather it is Kechiche’s projection of what he wishes were realistic.

So, despite its obvious brilliance, I’m not sure Blue is the Warmest Colour is a film that I’ll actively go out of my way to watch again. It’s a fantastic piece of narrative cinema that ticks all of the right boxes as far as awards season is concerned, though once you dig beneath the surface a little you realise that there isn’t all that much going on. The film is beautiful but shallow and I’m not hugely keen on a rewatch. Then again, perhaps once is enough. After all, while it’s far from perfect, Blue is the Warmest Colour is an emotional rollercoaster of a film that tells a tale with universal appeal that made me laugh almost as much as it made me cry. It is at least half-an-hour too long and nearly runs out of steam towards the end, yet thanks to its sensational performances, its raw heart and its witty and affecting screenplay, it is a film that more than deserves all of the praise it has thus far received and one that everybody should watch.

Bit of advice though; if you do go to see it at the cinema, just make sure you prepare yourself for an experience even more awkward than the time you first saw the Carrie shower sequence in the presence of your parents…


Blue is the Warmest Colour is out now. 

About James Gallagher

James is a film addict, a bitter misanthrope and a graduate from the University of Sheffield. Raised in Birkenhead, he is like a (very) poor man's Paul O'Grady. He has lots of opinions – almost all of which are wrong – and can normally be found reading, writing and drinking whisky. @theugliestfraud