Sunday, December 22, 2013

Innocence and Experience

Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color

I'm not entirely sure how to process Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche), because it short-circuits a lot of the ways I tend to think about movies. It's a deeply problematic film and it's one that I would ordinarily take to task for the way it deals with sex and sexuality, but I would be lying if I said it didn't have a profoundly emotional effect on me. Somehow, it works, even though it probably shouldn't.

The film follows several years in the the life of Adèle, who is seventeen at the start of the film and still in high school, where she's beginning to come to grips with her sexuality. Her first boyfriend obviously worships her, but she's ambivalent to him, and disappointed when she finally has sex with him. One day, while out walking in the center of Lille, she spies a blue-haired girl walking with another woman, hand around her waist. They Adèle and the girl with the blue hair exchange a long, knowing glance, and soon, Adèle can't get her out of her mind. The girl with the blue hair becomes her sex fantasy of choice. When one of her female friends at school steals a kiss from her, it awakens her interest in girls. When she attempts to push for more, her friend rejects her, leaving Adèle confused and hurt. Later, she goes out on the town with another of her friends, a gay boy who takes her to a local gay club. Bored amid the mostly male queer kids in the club, she drifts around the corner to the lesbian club, where she again encounters Emma, the girl with the blue hair. This time, they exchange more than glances. Adèle gives her her phone number and soon, Adèle is having an affair with Emma, who is older and more privileged than Adèle. Emma is an artist, and Adèle soon becomes her muse. As Adèle grows into adulthood, she pursues her dream of becoming a teacher. Emma, for her part wants Adèle to aim higher--to be a writer, perhaps--but Adèle is content with teaching. She feels awkward and alone in Emma's world, where Emma's friends speak of things of which she has know knowledge except through Emma. She has the additional burden of being closeted about their relationship. When her co-workers go out for drinks, she mostly declines. One night, however, feeling alone and jealous of Emma's time out with friends, she accepts and soon is having a clandestine affair with one of her male co-workers. Unfortunately for her, Emma is soon wise to it and the break-up is ugly and heartbreaking. Emma eventually moves on, finding another partner with whom she has a family. Adèle never does. She's heartbroken and alone. But Emma hasn't forgotten Adèle at all. Adèle is still at the center of her art...

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Color

There is a central tension between the director of this film and its lead actresses. This has famously spilled off-screen into a very public feud between them, but you can see the struggle in the film itself between the gaze of a straight male filmmaker at a construction of female sexuality and the interpretation of that sexuality by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, who play Adèle and Emma respectively. When the jury at Cannes gave this film the Palm d'Or and then presented the award itself to its actresses in addition its director, it signaled that there is a disconnect in the authorship of this film. And so there is. I can't remember the last time I saw two competing visions of a film vying for dominance in the way they do in this film. Superfly, maybe, where Curtis Mayfield's landmark score undercuts the the text of the film at every turn. But even that's nothing like this. I think Abdellatif Kechiche understands that this conflict is central to his movie because he embeds his own manifesto, spewing from the mouth of one of Emma's party guests, a filmmaker who descants on the "mystery" of female sexuality and the difficulties of depicting it. There's a fleeting glance onscreen between two of the women in this scene that seems to be saying, "What bullshit!" I don't know how Kechiche lost control of the film, but it's a rebuke to auteurism.

Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color

This film is notorious for its eight minute sex scene between Adèle and Emma, and this is the central conflict between director and actresses in microcosm. This scene is long and athletic and ridiculous. It sometimes resembles girl/girl porn (which is not technically lesbian porn, btw). But then, at the end of it, there's the wonderful shot of Adèle and Emma each resting their heads on the inner thigh of the other that's the truest expression of sexuality in the film. In truth, this film would work if the sex scenes were elided or, at least, somewhat shortened. The scene early in the film where Adèle masturbates to the thought of Emma is probably the truest such scene in the film. The scene where Adèle tries to rekindle the sexual relationship between them both in a restaurant is the most absurd. Late in the film, there's a shot of Adèle showering before going to Emma's art showing that tends to short circuit Kechiche's defense of the film's sexual content, because it's the camera leering at her naked body for the sake of leering at it. Kechiche tends to romanticize and idealize both Adèle and Emma in the early scenes. Their first real kiss, for instance, is back-lit by the sun. And yet, he goes out of his way to de-romanticize them both, too. Adèle, in particular, is demystified at the outset in early scenes that show her eating in close-up. Food is a recurring theme of the film, and it defines its characters, sometimes obviously (Emma's preference for oysters, for instance), but in this scene, it's intended to ground the film's heroine as flesh and blood, not some idealized vision of queer youth. It's smart filmmaking, if a bit off-putting.

Also off-putting is the film's approach to the queerness of its characters. There's a streak of bi-phobia running through this film that bothers me a lot. It plays to the fears of queer women that their bisexual partners are only killing time until they find the right man. This film also plays to fears that lesbian women are inherently promiscuous. And the depiction of Adèle's closet seems out of step with her generation. She's deeply closeted, but is out enough to go to a Pride celebration with Emma? I have a hard time digesting any of this. This informs the sex scenes, too. These scenes are aggressive, as if they need to reinforce the queerness of the film or as if they need to give a straight audience a payoff for putting up with a queer film. That none of the key filmmakers (including the actresses) are queer themselves is a problem unto itself. One wishes that someone on this film would have stepped in and said, "Um...actually...."

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Color

And's the stark truth of how this movie got under my skin. After the film, after I had made my way to the parking garage where I was parked, I sat behind the wheel of my car sobbing for five minutes before I could drive home. The last hour of this film is a catalog of every bad relationship anyone has ever had. Here's where Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux really take control of the film, though, in truth, they'd been in control of it since their first scenes together. Their initial meeting in the bar is a long scene, but it's completely electrifying. You can't take your eyes off of it. The personal scenes between the two characters where they're not having sex are so compelling and so well-performed that the film's long three hour running time breezes by. By the time the painful break-up scenes and the non-reconciliation roll in, they have the inevitability of a tidal wave and they break on the audience hard. The hints of it are right there at the beginning, too. Adèle never fits in with Emma's world. The differences in class and experience are too great and you can feel her discomfort seething beneath the surface in both the party scene that's the beginning of the end and in the gallery scenes at the actual end. Emma is sometimes painted as the victim of Adèle's indiscretion, but she's also at the root of it. There's an uneven power balance between the two characters and Emma sometimes seems like she's exploiting Adèle in the way Henry Higgins exploits Eliza Doolittle. The art show at the end seems almost like rape, given that it fucks with Adèle's affections and it constitutes Emma putting Adèle in front of the world as naked as possible, and probably without Adèle's consent. It's the final break, and the film's last shot of Adèle in a blue dress that calls back to the hair color that originally caught her eye, walking away from the camera into a shattered and disconsolate future, is devastating.

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