Before we dip into the latest reviews of the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes (as well as FIPRESCI‘s Grand Prix for Best Film of the Year), there’s no getting around the war of words between director Abdellatif Kechiche and his two stars, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, who’ve declared that they’ll never work with him again. Kechiche, for his part, announced that “the film shouldn’t be released, it has been soiled too much.” The Palme d’Or was “a brief moment of happiness,” but since then, “I’ve felt humiliated, dishonored… like I’m cursed.” We won’t dwell on all this; the Playlist‘s Kevin Jagernauth has boiled it all down pretty well. But today, Kechiche has told Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn he wants to see Blue Is the Warmest Color out in the world after all.
For Farihah Zaman, writing at Reverse Shot, this story of “the dizzy rise and excruciating decline of first love” is “so universal in its portrayal of love, so honest about the role that sex plays in becoming an adult, and so painfully accurate in capturing that hollow feeling that follows losing someone against one’s will, that the experience of the film transcends flaws both real and imagined.”
Slant‘s Ed Gonzalez: “Abdellatif Kechiche is a rhythm man, building the novelistically lyrical realism of his movies with the trickiest of notes: plaintive glances, surreptitious cuts, seemingly improvised dialogue. He memorably etched a panoply of converging ethnicities in L’Esquive, a document of a moody teenage wasteland where language clanked like weaponry, and again in The Secret of the Grain, which warmly allowed us to inhabit the lives, and dinner tables, of characters whose passions are roused by familial and romantic conflicts, as well as by the food that sits heavily in their bellies.” Blue, “based on Julie Maroh’s acclaimed graphic novel, is beholden to a less multi-ethnic premise, but it hums just as vibrantly in its articulation of the refulgent sense of electric connectivity that would seem to forever bind two women when they catch sight of each other while crossing a busy city street.”
“At first,” writes Time Out New York‘s Joshua Rothkopf, “the title suggests a link to the dyed shock of aqua hair on Emma (Léa Seydoux), a punky artist who awakens enormous feelings of lust and tenderness in high-school-age Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos). But as this beautifully paced French romance stretches through the years—via a few explicit sex scenes that almost spoil the vibe—it’s clear that blue indicates a mood: that moment when kindred souls stop resonating.”
For the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd, “the acting is not just crucial, but kind of the whole show—though I’d also argue that Seydoux’s work isn’t quite as essential. Make no mistake, she’s excellent in the film, as the blue-haired object of the heroine’s burgeoning desire. But Blue Is the Warmest Color belongs to Exarchopoulos, an astoundingly expressive young actress whose face—frequently framed in close-up, the better to read every telling, minute shift in emotion—becomes the film’s defining image.”
The Dissolve‘s Scott Tobias notes that Kechiche “allows key scenes to play out over a sustained stretch—not just the sex scene, but confrontations that explode with different shows of passion. It’s likely that Exarchopoulos and Seydoux were put under great duress to bring scenes like those across. It doesn’t make those scenes less powerful. Or it shouldn’t, anyway.”
Back at the AV Club, A.A. Dowd reports that Kechiche is considering a biopic of 70s porn star Marilyn Chambers as his next project. Brian Truitt profiles Julie Maroh for USA Today. And Anne Thompson spoke with Seydoux and Exarchopoulos at Telluride.
Update, 10/13: Kechiche and Exarchopoulos were on hand—together—for the press conference, and the Playlist‘s Kevin Jagernauth notes that Kechiche said he wasn’t opposed to exploring further chapters in the life of Adèle:
Update, 10/14: Blue is one of the films Peter Labuza and Tony Dayoub discuss in the latest Cinephiliacs podcast.
Update, 10/15: “Kechiche takes his time,” writes Elise Nakhnikian at the House Next Door, “giving his film three hours to ‘breathe,’ as he put it at the Q&A after the press screening—where he also said that he plans to add 40 minutes more to the final cut. But except when the director spells out a theme a little too literally, foreshadowing Adèle and Emma’s meeting with a discussion in Adèle’s class of an 18th-century novel that, as Adèle says later, really ‘puts us inside the skin’ of its heroine, the film never feels padded or tiresome. Other scenes that feel a bit over-determined at first, like the meet-the-parents dinner with Adèle’s parents that is a too-neat mirror opposite of the one they just shared with Emma’s, redeem themselves by building on the symphonic emotional arc that is this movie’s backbone, the actresses’ nuanced reactions telling us more about the love that is keeping this couple together and the forces that are pulling them apart.”
Updates, 10/18: “Blue‘s a well-acted plot outline lacking sexual or psychological specificity, exactly the details needed to make the well-trod beats of a relationship drama work,” argues Vadim Rizov at Filmmaker.
But Ambrose Heron admires “the film’s embrace of the complexities of sexuality and human relationships, with both characters behaving in believably erratic and confused ways.”
Updates, 10/23: “If it’s all too much for Idaho, how will the rest of us cope?” asks Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. “Well, here’s an idea: sit down and watch. And here’s what you will see: a three-hour character study, set in the northern French city of Lille, and spread over several years. The French title is La Vie d’Adèle—Chapitres 1 et 2, which is plainer and more accurate, yet more affecting, since it implies that, if life is a novel, there are more chapters in store. I hope so, not because I expect a sequel but because the end of the film makes you long for Adèle to be happy, though you fear that such a day may never dawn.” All in all, the film is “the most consuming and most exhausting of its kind since The Dreamlife of Angels, fifteen years ago.”
Writing in the Voice, Stephanie Zacharek notes that “when passion dies in a partnership, well-meaning confidants will often advise cheerfully, ‘Sex isn’t everything!’ They’re happy to wave it away for you, if not for themselves. Blue Is the Warmest Color refuses to wave it away. Maybe that’s why it’s gotten under people’s skin, and maybe that’s why the actresses themselves, both still so young, may not fully understand the power—not just sexual but simply human—of what they’ve put onscreen.”
“Supposing jealousy and infidelity to be de rigueur in the LGBT lifestyle, the filmmakers are still oblivious to the fact that these are merely symptoms of a broader low-self-esteem epidemic,” argues Martin Tsai in the Critic’s Notebook. “Mr. Kechiche glaringly omitted Adèle’s heterosexual liaisons when they are in fact integral to the plot, rendering the already sensationalistic lesbian sex scenes even more gratuitous.”
“It takes considerable artistry to achieve such perfectly timed mistiming,” writes David Edelstein. “Every one of the couple’s interchanges is off the beat, raw, and, for Adèle, perched on the edge of an abyss—insofar as losing Emma would mean losing her sense of completeness and even reason for being…. People who’ve been through a terrible recent breakup—or can conjure up the sense memory of one—should approach Blue Is the Warmest Color with care. It might not just open old wounds. It might show you wounds you didn’t know you had.”
Also in New York, Jada Yuan talks with Exarchopoulos and Seydoux.
Update, 10/24: “Kechiche is not a subtle director,” writes J. Hoberman at Artinfo. “Blatant metaphors and rampant color-coding abound and the film’s several discussions of art and painting are similarly cartoonish…. The most discomfiting thing about Blue is that it ultimately feels like a menage a trois, involving the actors and the camera, staged for the benefit of the director.”
“Much of the criticism has run along the lines of Maroh’s, focusing on Kechiche’s purportedly leering male-gaze setups,” writes Benjamin Mercer at the L, “but less remarked upon has been the awkwardness of his attempts to sustain an atmosphere sensitive to sensual delights, so that the film’s open style takes its cues from Adèle’s achingly visceral, head-on engagement with the world as she grows into it…. Kechiche spends far too much time simply reaffirming this resilient young woman’s coming of age as a banquet that’s constantly careening off course, both for better and for worse. It’s off-putting that a film of such emotional energy should so often feel adrift.”
Meantime, Kechiche is “now fanning the flames of controversy in an open letter published on the website Rue89,” reports Rhonda Richford in the Hollywood Reporter. “In a extensive takedown of several critics, he targets the newspaper Le Monde and journalist Aureliano Tonet as well as his star, Léa Seydoux, whom he believes said ‘slanderous’ things about him and the production in an effort to gain attention following her historic Palme d’Or win. While he begins with attacking the negative stories about the production published in Le Monde, star Seydoux is hardest hit in the letter, with Kechiche calling her an ‘arrogant, spoiled child.'”
As for the younger Exarchopoulos, she tells Matt Prigge at Metro: “Yeah, it was really hard to shoot this movie. But it was the best school I’ve ever had. And you remember more when it’s hard. Abdel would ask a lot of you but he would give a lot, too. Sometimes he’s hard to follow. He’d do many takes because he loves to work when you’re really tired. He wants to capture your deepest feelings. For me, he’s the best director in France.”
“This is not a movie that could easily be trimmed to an R,” writes the NYT‘s A.O. Scott, “or a case of oversensitivity on the part of the Motion Picture Association of America, whose ratings board issues the classifications. According to the MPAA Website, it reserves NC-17 for a film that ‘most parents would consider patently too adult for their children 17 and under.'” He notes that New York’s IFC Center “will not turn away curious youngsters” and that he himself is “the parent of two mature, inquiring teenagers, one of whom, my 14-year-old daughter, has seen it twice… I am not necessarily holding myself up as a role model. You have your own rules… In France, Blue Is the Warmest Color has a ’12’ rating, which means that anyone over that age is permitted to attend. This is the second-least restrictive classification, roughly equivalent to our PG-13. Autre pays, autre moeurs, but in this case I think they have it right.”
Updates, 10/25: Having argued that families rather than the MPAA should decide who should see it, the NYT‘s A.O. Scott‘s turned in his review: “Blue Is the Warmest Color is a feverish, generous, exhausting love story, the chronicle of a young woman’s passage from curiosity to heartbreak by way of a wrenching and blissful attachment to another, slightly older woman. Although there is plenty of weeping and sighing, the methods of the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, are less melodramatic than meteorological. He studies the radar and scans the horizon in search of emotional weather patterns and then rushes out into the gale, dragging the audience through fierce winds and soul-battering squalls.”
The NYT‘s Manohla Dargis has a second piece on the film as well: “I first saw Blue Is the Warmest Color at Cannes, where I wrote 399 dissenting words on the movie and raised some of the issues I had with it…. In truth, it isn’t sex per se that makes Blue Is the Warmest Color problematic; it’s the patriarchal anxieties about sex, female appetite and maternity that leach into its sights and sounds and the way it frames, with scrutinizing closeness, the female body. In the logic of the movie, Adèle’s body is a mystery that needs solving and, for a brief while, it seems as if Emma will help solve it. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir wrote that ‘the erotic experience is one that most poignantly discloses to human beings the ambiguity of their condition; in it they are aware of themselves as flesh and spirit, as the other and as the subject.’ This is the ideal, but for Adèle, the erotic experience leads to despair, desperation, isolation. The body betrays her—just like a woman.”
For NPR, Bilal Qureshi: “B. Ruby Rich writes about the portrayal of women and sexuality on-screen, and she says American critics need to get over their obsession with explicit sex…. Rich says for her, Blue Is the Warmest Color is not a film about sex. It’s a film about a relationship that sparks across a societal divide.”
“In contrast to its source material, Blue Is the Warmest Color is not a coming out story,” notes Merve Emre in the Los Angeles Review of Books: “we never find out whether Adèle has come out to her family or friends. It’s not even a ‘lesbian drama,’ except incidentally. Rather, Kechiche is preoccupied with the everyday things that conspire to make loving another person unfathomably difficult as time goes by. Simply put, Blue Is the Warmest Color is one person’s story of growing up in the colorless space carved out by heartbreak.”
“While there have been plenty of movie romances not unlike this, there’s never been one told in such an ambitiously immersive way,” writes Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com.
“Adèle experiences every feeling, not just her sexual urges, with a volcanic intensity,” writes Time‘s Richard Corliss. “Exarchopoulos is a solidly built young woman who resembles a more vibrant and giving Jennifer Lawrence. She takes Adèle on the journey of discovery, from a teen who gobbles candy bars as an antidote for her misery to a woman in her mid-20s who attempts one last play for the elusive Emma. The actress’s gift—so ferocious, it’s almost a curse—is to be able to telegraph each of Adèle’s emotions on her face, instantly and in the boldest shades.”
Blue is “perhaps the first great love story of the 21st century that could belong only to this century,” writes Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir.
Updates, 10/26: “Blue Is The Warmest Color’s drama-queen back story was omnipresent enough,” writes Slate‘s Dana Stevens, “that by the time it finally opened in the U.S. this week, I went in half-expecting it to somehow resemble the saga its creators have been enacting before the press, with bitchy, backbiting characters and graphic sex scenes leered over by a voyeuristic camera. Instead Blue Is the Warmest Color is just the opposite: a gentle, wistful coming-of-age (and coming-out) story with some of the most intimate love scenes I can remember in any recent romance, gay or straight.”
The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody: “Kechiche is what the French would call a republican; he was born in Tunisia, but his cinema is French. His subject, here—no less than in such films as The Secret of the Grain and Games of Love and Chance—is the conflict between cultural inheritance and group identification. And for Kechiche, the site of conflict, is the body. Blue Is the Warmest Color is a political film in the deepest sense; its harsh physicality is a visual sort of Occupy France, a struggle for an impartial but well-defined civic space where people aren’t threatened, literally or metaphorically, by religious, ethnic, or political-party bonds of exclusion. Yet, at the same time, he shows (whether in scenes of Adèle’s persecution in high school or her inhibition with her parents) that groups erect walls of identification as a psychological (and, when necessary, even physical) means of self-defense, when society at large doesn’t do so. His film is a radical lay work (no pun intended) of tolerance and inclusion—and the terrifying furies that ravage Adèle and Emma as their romance founder—seem to be ripped from France’s headlines.”
At Festivalists, Yoana Pavlova notes that Kechiche has given Blue the shape of a “French novel from the 18th and 19th century.” Simon Hattenstone talks with Exarchopoulos for the Guardian; Julian Sancton with Seydoux for Esquire.
Update, 10/27: “When I first spoke to Kechiche a few weeks ago in Paris,” writes Jonathan Romney in the Observer, “he was at pains to understand what people meant when they said his film was made from a male point of view. ‘Do I need to be a woman, and a lesbian, to talk about love between women? We’re talking about love here—it’s absolute, it’s cosmic. I’ve had testimonies from a number of women—including one who’s lived with a woman for 15 years or more, and said that the film revitalized her sex life with her partner.’ Kechiche is an unconditional devotee of realism—or even of something beyond everyday realism. ‘I don’t want it to look like life,’ he says of his cinema. ‘I want it to actually be life. Real moments of life, that’s what I’m after.'”
Update, 10/30: “If Kechiche doesn’t have David Cronenberg or Catherine Breillat’s gift for using sex scenes to tell a story or establish character, he’s pretty good at talking about class in fairly subtle ways,” writes Steve Erickson for Gay City News.
Update, 11/5: “Kechiche brought trouble on himself—not by the decision to film sex scenes between two women but by the audacity of his artistry in doing so,” argues the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “The problem with Kechiche’s scenes is that they’re too good—too unusual, too challenging, too original—to be assimilated (despite Dargis’s protests to the contrary) to the familiar moviegoing experience. Their duration alone is exceptional, as is their emphasis on the physical struggle, the passionate and uninhibited athleticism of sex, the profound marking of the characters’ souls by their sexual relationship.”
Update, 11/10: “In most critical responses,” notes Tom Paulus at the top of a terrific piece at Photogénie, Blue‘s “literary context, specifically the connection to the almost synonymous unfinished novel La Vie de Marianne by 18th century wit, Académicien and enemy of Voltaire, Pierre de Marivaux, has been almost completely ignored. This is especially odd given that in much of contemporary French art cinema, even more than in their New Wave forebears, the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade still holds precedence over pop culture: Melville, James and D.H. Lawrence closely followed by Carax, Denis, Benoît Jacquot and Pascale Ferran, Chardonne by Assayas, Barbey d’Aureyville by Breillat, Marivaux by Kechiche and Jacquot. At best, critics have ridiculed the subtitle in the context of the controversy surrounding the director’s portrayal of female/lesbian sexuality.” He then focuses primarily on arguments made by Amy Taubin and Manohla Dargis and asks “in which respect, other than in the lengthening the shot (by now a received tactic of art house cinema), is Adèle different from the current bombardment of closely framed single shots?” His ultimate point, though, reverts back to his opening:
Marivaux’s novels are closely tied to the rise of the sentimental and the psychological novel. He was a psychologist first, but one whose insights into character were always tied to their social sphere. His interior characterization sprang from and developed external action. Although his novels are, like Adèle, filled with unessential incidents, the inevitable result of their fragmented form, they share a strong narrative through line, often highlighting the act of storytelling itself. In Adèle there is very little storytelling: devoiding himself of simple things like story, dialogue, situation, to focus exclusively on the dramaturgy of the face, Kechiche has failed where Marivaux succeeded with only words: to communicate information about the emotions of his characters.
Updates, 11/16: Blue “is a movie about a lesbian, not a movie about all lesbians,” Jim Ridley reminds us in the Nashville Scene, where Jason Shawhan interviews Exarchopoulos. Further, Kechiche is not necessarily “innocent of concerns about the gaze he directs upon the leads. (Nor am I, for that matter.) But since that’s the topic of the movie’s very first lines of dialogue, and a thread that connects the heroine’s public emergence in high school to her subsequent life as an artist’s lover-muse-subject, it’s a little foolish to suggest he’s not aware of it or working to complicate it.” Blue offers “something better than a committee-approved facsimile of realism: the messy, electrifying interaction of characters we come to understand as individuals…. Adèle is going to turn out just fine. It’s some of the movie’s audience that needs to grow the fuck up.”
Kristin M. Jones in Film Comment: “As in Kechiche’s earlier work, social class, and the divisions it creates, are a vital thread; he even changed the first name of the story’s passionate protagonist from Clémentine to that of his actress, partly because it means ‘justice’ in Arabic. His fascination and familiarity with the world of pedagogy, as shown here in Adèle’s touching reverence for teaching, is another notable characteristic.
Update, 11/20: Sophie Monks Kaufman talks with Exarchopoulos for Little White Lies.