June 4, 2014

Queer Review: Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

Blue is the Warmest Color
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Writers: Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix. Based on the book Le Bleu est une couleur chaude by Julie Maroh.
Cast: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Salim Kechiouche, Aurélien Recoing, Catherine Salée, Benjamin Siksou, Anne Loiret, Benoît Pilot

A talky French drama about two women falling in and out of love, Blue is the Warmest Color shows the evolution of a complex and multifaceted relationship. While glacially paced, this is a movie that offers plenty of rewards for viewers with the patience to read the Bible from the beginning all the way to Job. Seriously, the lists in Genesis of who begat who take forever to get through and anyone who can make it through those parts will have no trouble with this film.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a typical, if rather introverted, French teenager. When Adèle first has sex with her boyfriend, she finds the experience unsatisfying. At a lesbian bar, she meets Emma (Léa Seydoux) and the two begin a passionate relationship. Eventually the two move in together with Adèle taking up a career as a teacher, while Emma pursues work as a fine painter. However, their domestic relationship leads to a routine that leaves Adèle lonely and Emma unsatisfied. When Adèle has an affair with one of her coworkers, Emma kicks her out. More time passes and Adèle has trouble moving on. When she receives an invitation to an art show featuring Emmas' paintings, she goes and manages to find closure to this chapter in her life.

The Queering
Blue is the Warmest Color is filmed with explicit scenes that are designed more to develop and advance the characters than they are to titillate or arouse. Of course, as a gay man, I cannot say I can really judge how titillating they actually are. Of course, this being a character focused piece this a slow moving meditation on the nature of love and relationships. There is little effort to focus on queer or lesbian issues specifically. Adèle goes through a period where she is clearly questioning her sexuality and has to face homophobia from friends when the suspect that she is dating a woman, but this becomes a non-issue once she moves in with Emma. Futhermore, the characters never come out to anyone that the audience is made aware of. As it is, outside of a scene where Adèle marches in an anti-austerity march, the film is largely apolitical.

This doesn't stop the film from raising questions about depictions of female sexuality and desire. Given that the director is a man, the male gaze is of course utilized but as far as I could tell, never subverted nor averted. However, Director Kechiche does raise questions about it. In one scene, a character comments on how men are the ones who most often depict female sexuality in spite of the fact that men cannot know what women really experience when it comes to sex. It's a philosophical question and one reflective of Platos' views of art in general. Plato, as it were, had a pet peeves was that since our world was merely a copy of his beloved Forms, then the highest thing art could aspire towards was being a second hand imitation of a copy of a copy of the "original" forms.

It makes sense then, that Kechiche films Blue is the Warmest Color in a cinema vérité style with many hand held camera shots, no voiceover, and a minimal soundtrack. Blue is the Warmest Color tries to be real, even while it acknowledges in sometimes subtle ways that it's not. Furthermore, all we ever see of Emmas' drawings or paintings of Adèle are brief glimpses, yet there implications that the Kechiche is trying to frame Adèle through the same lens that Emma views her in. That is just as Emma paints Adèle on canvas, so too does Kechiche attempt to present Adèle through the eye of the camera.

When people refer to the "male gaze", they invariably mean the "straight male gaze". But this raises the question: Is there a difference between the straight male gaze and the lesbian gaze and if so, what is it? Furthermore, can a difference between the two gazes be established at all without resorting to gender essentialism?

At the end of the day, it is Kechiches' willingness to address this issue that sets Blue is the Warmest Color apart. At nearly 3 hours, with little action, combined with the slowest of plots, it would seem that this would be a drag to sit through. It is a testament to those involved that Blue is the Warmest Color manages to be engaging from start to finish.

For fans of dialog heavy films that focus on characters over action or plot, this would be worth crossing the most depressingly warm blue ocean in existence in order to see.

The Rating
3 out of 4 stars.


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