Synopsis: The colorful, electrifying romance that took the Cannes Film Festival by storm courageously dives into a young woman’s experiences of first love and sexual awakening. Blue Is the Warmest Color stars the remarkable newcomer Adele Excharpoulos as a high schooler who, much to her own surprise, plunges into a thrilling relationship with a female twentysomething art student, played by Lea Seydoux. Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, this finely detailed, intimate epic sensitively renders the erotic abandon of youth. It has captivated international audiences and been widely embraced as a defining love story for the new century.
eyelights: Adèle Exarchopoulos’s performance. the realistic interactions between the teenagers.
eyesores: the over-indulgent sex scenes. the weaker second half.
“I am happy. I’m happy with you, like this. It’s my way of being happy.”
Oh, how I’ve heard of ‘La vie d’Adèle: Chapitres 1 et 2’. Released in the rest of the world as ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’, the original title of its source material, it was lauded across the board and has won countless awards – chiefly as the best film of 2013 and for the performances of its two leads, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux.
I was very much looking forward to seeing it, and even more so when I’d heard it was a sexy film (I don’t know why, but I have a fondness for those…). However, it was hard to find the time given its daunting 3-hour runtime. And when I discovered that it was based on a graphic novel, I was tempted to read the book beforehand. Hence the delay.
‘La vie d’Adèle’ tells the story of Adèle, a high schooler who is discovering that she is not heterosexual, but faces internal and external pressures to conform to societal expectations. When she meets Emma, a college art student, she discovers that there is a world of acceptance waiting for her – and she eagerly crosses over into it.
It’s a story of self-discovery, love and loss not unlike many we have seen on the silver screen countless times before, but with the distinct qualities of being a lesbian love story and of being anchored by some phenomenal turns – most notably from Adèle Exarchopoulos, who won the César Award for Most Promising Actress.
Adèle’s performance is sometimes absolutely wrenching to watch, especially towards the end, as her character (who was named Clémentine in the original book), lives with the burden of regret. She cries a lot and, when she doesn’t, it feels like she’s just about to. She’s on the verge of a breakdown, and Exarchopoulos illustrates that to perfection.
Part of the reason may be due to the director’s method: it appears that Abdellatif Kechiche was abusive on the set and pushed the actresses to their limits, frequently redoing takes to the point of exhaustion. Whether that is his usual style or an approach that he purposely adopted for this film, it worked – the characters’ inner lives bleed across the screen.
He’ll just never get to work with these actresses again because of it, is all.
That was probably the most impressive part of the picture, just how realistic the interactions felts – especially in the beginning, between the teenagers and young adults. Later on, there were moments that were less captivating, but one really believed that the students were real, that their exchanges were natural and contextually appropriate.
Apparently, Kechiche pushed his actors to improvise their dialogues precisely for that reason, and this gives it an unmatched fluidity and veracity. In fact, the overtly-scripted dialogues are far more contrived and are less engaging – aside for the opening classroom questions on the affect of love that the teacher asks his students.
When Kechiche’s hand is too obvious, ‘La vie d’Adèle’ stumbles. A perfect example of this is during the longest of the many sex sequences featuring Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, which was artificial enough that it bordered on pornography; it wasn’t erotic or truthful to me, and it was rather self-indulgent. I was enjoying it, but it was too much.
I was frankly quite surprised by the explicitness of the picture, something we probably wouldn’t see on North American screens. It is said that the actresses wore prosthetics as barriers between themselves, and it’s the only way they weren’t having real sex for the picture; this was as full-frontal as you get, including an erect penis at one point.
In that way I felt that it was a bit gratuitous. While there was a little bit of sex in the original book, it wasn’t nearly as explicit or as lengthy. I got the impression that these scenes were more for the audience’s benefit than to tell Adèle and Emma’s story. As much as I liked what I saw, it felt as though it wasn’t wholly necessary.
Interestingly, the film departs from the original book at about the halfway mark, when we start to explore Adèle and Emma’s life together years after they first fall in love. It also changes the ending of their story – effectively, although it is a surprising move given that the original was so well-received. Apparently the author wasn’t consulted.
Other notable changes from the original are that Emma didn’t want to leave her girlfriend for Adèle/Clementine because she was convinced that the latter was only experimenting; the girlfriend is barely mentioned here. Also missing is the confrontation with Adèle’s parents when they discover that the two girls are lovers, a crucial turning point.
The second half of the picture takes us into the devolution of the couple’s relationship, something that is merely hinted at in the book. Whereas the original themes were self-discovery and true love, this movie is more focused on the impermanence of love and lays much blame on Adèle even though Emma is equally the cause of their separation.
Kechiche did well to explore the characters the way that he did, mind you, even though he changed the story, because he did fill in some bits along the way that the book didn’t. Amazingly, he filmed but cut out scenes that were in the book to bring the picture down to the three-hour mark. He has claimed that he would like to add an extra 40 minutes back in.
While I didn’t enjoy the second half nearly as much, and this is hardly surprising because it’s so much heavier (old love will rarely win versus new love), it does provide us with Exarchopoulos’s best moments, and it’s worth watching all the way to the end. One can’t help but pity and feel for her, due to her sense of loss and despair.
It brought me back to some of my own fragmented relationships and I related with the emotional pain she was feeling, of trying to move forward but being bonded to someone you can’t be with. The helplessness one feels when one longs for another but at a distance, due to circumstances or irreversible personal choice is devastating.
There’s this truly heartbreaking moment when Adèle and Emma meet again after much time has passed, catch up on each other’s news and then discuss their connection. Despite the passion between them, Adèle has to face the reality that Emma has moved on, that she can no longer cling to the hope that they will someday reconcile. It’s a lost cause.
Ouch. And what a delivery.
And yet, despite the convincing cast (who were all superb, bar none), I had a bit of an issue with the leads’ age: while I nearly bought them as students (more so Seydoux than Exarchopoulos), I couldn’t see them as older adults – I still saw them as teenagers. I’m not quite sure what that was about, but the effect of time on them wasn’t evident.
However, I was pleased with ‘La vie d’Adèle: Chapitres 1 et 2’. Although it’s self-indulgent and it comes down from its lofty heights by the second half, it’s nonetheless an excellent film. Why it was lauded as much as it was, I’m not quite sure, but it’s not a picture that one is likely to forget – even as it doesn’t really leave a mark either.
Date of viewing: August 21, 2015