Thursday, November 21, 2013

Beautiful women

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color won the Golden Palm at this year’s Cannes festival, with the jury (headed by Steven Spielberg) unusually including the two lead actresses, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, in the award citation. It wasn’t the most popular of choices: some called it a masterpiece, but others saw only a more artful gloss on the same old story of a male director indulging his fantasies of beautiful women. This line of criticism gathered some ammunition when a public spat developed between the three: they accused him of cruel and dictatorial behaviour; he responded defensively and petulantly, even suggesting at one point that the film shouldn’t be shown anymore. In a somewhat odd Globe and Mail piece, Liam Lacey purported to advise Kechiche on behaving more “like a media-wise North American,” with talking points on how he might reclaim the narrative. Sample advice: he “should point out that personality clashes often lead to great work: Stanley Kubrick and Shelley Duvall in The Shining, or Frances Ford Coppola and Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.”

Blue is the Warmest Color

It might seem a bit odd that in defending an intimate French film about a young woman’s life experiences, one would cite two of the most dominating edifices of mayhem in modern American cinema. Or maybe that inadvertently points to the film’s recurring problem, that just as Kubrick and Coppola’s works might be judged as knowing apotheoses of the horror and war genres respectively, Kechiche seems to have set out to create a kind of greatest hits album of young contemporary lesbianism. Here, among much else, is Adele’s initial unsatisfactory sex with a boyfriend; the unexpected first kiss from a female classmate that gets her mind running; the first nervous venturing into a gay bar; the falling in love with a more experienced and worldly girl, Emma; the wonderful lesbian sex (lots of it), and then the bumpier relationship terrain thereafter. Adele and Emma are both gorgeous, and there’s hardly an ugly person in sight elsewhere either; everything is softly and seductively orchestrated in typically “French” style, with lots of talk about art and literature and philosophy. It’s an alluring creation if you just let it wash over you (which it does somewhat slowly, given the three hour running time), but is there anything here warranting much more attention than that?

Taking down the film in Film Comment, Amy Taubin wrote that the film lacks “recognizable contemporary young women, regardless of their sexual preference” and added: “more than 40 years of struggle over the representation of women seems to have made no impression on Kechiche.” The latter point seems fair to me – if you have qualms about films that define women by their physicality and sexuality to a degree that men rarely have to endure, you won’t find much consolation here. The former point, insofar as I can judge, is probably well-grounded too, but that might almost be cited as a strength. Throughout, Kechiche is vague about the passage of time: some important aspects of Adele’s life (like her hiding her sexuality from her family) are in focus for a while, but then they’re dropped; such indicia of the modern world as smartphones are oddly absent (perhaps the film is notionally set slightly in the past, it’s hard to tell). If the film is anything, it’s an immersion in Adele, an expression of the eternal (rather than contemporary) pleasure of losing oneself in the ambiguous interplay of actress and character.

Watching Adele

To that end, the previously unknown Exarchopoulos is a near-mesmerizing presence, making Adele’s development from teenager to young woman not just psychologically but also physically convincing. The early scene where she first sees Emma on the street, and instantly feels something, might have constituted the hoariest of clichés, except that Adele visibly blushes at the strange intensity of her feelings; it doesn’t sound like much, except you realize how seldom you see such a thing in a film. When she tears up, as she often does, her nose runs; her hair is almost a character in itself. Emma is an artist, and happy to immerse herself in the infrastructure of chatter and connections and self-branding that goes along with that, but Adele – again rather unusually in cinema – is an intelligent enough woman who’s knowingly set her sights on a “small” but manageable career, to teach young children. Emma tells her she should try writing something more ambitious than her diary, but she doesn’t want to; she’s not interested in getting to know Emma’s circle of friends. Although Emma’s course may be more impressive by the usual measures, certainly by the measures of art cinema, Adele appears to have a better sense of her own needs and limits.

Emma is the more “obvious” gay woman, as coded by her hair, her style of dress and general worldview, but ultimately we see how this might limit her capacity for self-determination and individuality. It’s harder to categorize Adele – the sense is that her next relationship might be either male or female, depending how the chemistry strikes her; it doesn’t seem like something that preoccupies her. The film doesn’t try to pretend that such matters don’t matter anymore – when Adele’s friends initially suspect her of having something happening with another woman, they’re as annoyingly obnoxious about it as you’d expect of a not yet fully liberal environment, and as I mentioned, she takes pains (at least for a while) to shield her relationship from her family, and from her colleagues.

Human mysteries

Yet these frictions only add to the satisfaction of the human mystery. Taubin is right that this falls short of documentary realism – Adele feels like a brilliant creation, a product of artistic alchemy. But such star-filtering machinery has always been a central pleasure of narrative cinema; maybe Blue is the Warmest Color works best if one thinks less about the modern world and more about old actress-infatuated melodramas (perhaps even all the way back to Louise Brooks, one of whose films plays in the background in one scene).

In that regard, the film has its fair share of the contrivances we associate with that genre, which only adds to the sense of limits. Lacey sees Adele as Kechiche’s alter ego, “an outsider who overreaches and missteps, who gambles recklessly and tries to play the wild card,” and this vaguely captures the movie’s teeming, overflowing quality. But in other respects, the film doesn’t feel reckless at all – those quasi-notorious sex scenes could hardly be more precisely calculated. Which brings us back to Taubin’s blistering critique, in which she blasts – again, not unconvincingly - Kechiche’s “stunning lack of awareness” of the operation of his own film’s structure. We end up with an odd picture of the director: an ungainly mélange of gambler, artist, tyrant and idiot. Whatever that adds up to, it’s indeed not a media-wise North American, and we can be thankful for that.

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