“A lesbian porn film made by a middle-aged pervert.”
Or so concludes what I overhear a young woman exclaim to her friend as they leave the cinema after the screening of “Blue Is the Warmest Colour” is over. I’ve just spilled my coke on the stairs and misplaced my TravelTen, but still manage to catch her hurriedly lighting a cigarette as the two hoof it towards Town Hall. “What smutty European rubbish!” her companion snorts, seemingly to no-one, in equal parts indignation of the three hour film she has just endured and defense of her apparent misreading of it.
Having just seen it myself, I have immediately three things to note. First: Adèle, the film’s earnest and titillating lead, shares the same name as the actress who plays her, Adèle (weird). Second: not since Bert and Ernie have I been so compelled by a story of revelatory lust on-screen (unexpected). Third: this is a lesbian porn film made by a middle-aged pervert (self-evident).
After all, since picking up the prestigious Palme D’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (an award presided by a blubbering Steven Spielberg) the film has sparked debate across the internet over its graphic, and at times demanding sexuality, though this has only distracted from the film itself.
“Blue Is the Warmest Colour” follows a young Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) at the height of her teenage cloddishness, moving from encounter to encounter, eternally uncertain and never quite happy. By chance, she meets the confident, successful Emma (Léa Seydoux), an art school student, who helps Adèle uncover her sexuality and overcome her unfounded fear of seafood.
At its core, the film is a heart-wrenching love story, one where adversity swells through a knotted mismatch of class, age, social norms, family structures and artistic tastes. Where it departs from the pack is the camera’s dogmatic loyalty to its two main characters – particularly Adèle. The entire film awash with his titular bluish-grey motif, director Abdellatif Kerchiche seems intent on his audience examining every detail of his characters’ expressions and emotions through endless close-ups. From meal times (of which there are plenty), when Adèle can bury her self-doubts in the safest and only way she knows how, to sex scenes (infamous though they now are) including my favourite – the Seven Minute Sizzler, during which the lady next to me squirmed with visible discomfort.
Here, the camera is the only apparent instrument of Kerchiche’s own control left to express the uncontrollable passion of the two lovers, as it reveals their contorted faces and twisted bodies in minute detail. The sex-scenes themselves are harrowingly graphic, and the film battles with the media’s problem with voyeurising lesbian sexual relationships, doubly the question of how to best adapt a young woman’s churning desire for performance on screen.
The film’s success then, is in its sheer honestly. “There is no make-up, no costumes – just your body, your feelings” Exarchopoulos remarks in a press interview. While film critic circles reeled after the unusual decision last year to award Cannes’ highest honour to not just Kechiche, but jointly to the film’s two leads as well, “Blue Is the Warmest Colour” plays out almost like a unequivocally curated home-video, a furtive peer inside the un-glamorized, unkempt life of a 15-year-old Adèle clumsily defining her sexuality. Kerchiche, with the help of his two co-conspirators (Exarchopoulos and Seydoux), guides his audience curiously – though sometimes belligerently – through the cobbled episodes of Adèle’s protracted (at a 179-minute running time) growing-up.
The film is not a lesbian genre film simply made by a heterosexual “middle-aged pervert”, nor is it a study of female sexuality, but a film of such arduously intense scrutiny of the unlikely character of Adèle, whose muted expression and bare emotions – frustration, joy, and then grief and despondency – make this such a powerful movie.
A website called ‘Posture Mag’ recently posted a YouTube video entitled “Lesbians React to Sex Scenes in ‘Blue Is the Warmest Colour’”, a video I’m not sure I can take seriously, although others would best make up their own mind. Frustratingly trite and self-indulgent, it in part furthers the bizarre idea that the two leads should have themselves been lesbians for the film to be legitimate.
“Blue Is the Warmest Colour” is not a porno, though it is graphic. It is not an ‘erotic love story’, though it is a story about love (and fierce passion). In tone and in depth, it resembles a delicately constructed but intrusive documentary, sans music or commentary. Kerchiche’s close-ups continually serve to remind us not only of our awkward, and at times painful proximity to his leads – against whom we are led to stand a little too close for comfort – but of their tumultuous experience is set against a backdrop of banality. Its triumph is in its plainness. The characters are not unique or driven by anything other than what is fundamentally human.
Just don’t see this movie with your mum.