Saturday, March 8, 2014

Review: BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (2013, France)

dir. Abdellatif Kechiche

Love stories abound in film, and have been told in various forms and styles, but very rarely do these stories feature front and center an erotic love between two people outside the heterosexual mold, let alone one between two females. A shifting socio-political landscape for LGBT equality over the past few decades has turned the entertainment industry’s attention to the needs of those previously underserved. Their stories then formed a distinctive sub-genre, and their fictional surrogates began to figure more heavily in mainstream movies, albeit in limited roles. The representation of gay characters continues to incrementally improve, and so has the visibility of same-sex pairings as a viable alternative in romance narratives. Although there is a long way to go, homosexuality is becoming a taken-for-granted part of our moviegoing experience, and today’s knowledgeable audiences demand more quality productions about this specific subject-matter. Additionally, as gay experience is more thoroughly integrated into everyday cinema, the distinctions between traditional and gay romance are blurring, with the latter resisting habitual genre pigeonholing and gaining universal appeal.

That’s where, I suppose, Blue is the Warmest Color comes into the picture. Written and directed by the Tunisian-French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche and starring French actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, the unanimously anointed Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival premiered to critical acclaim, but also stirred up the controversies everyone interested has heard of by now. While rebuffing the accusations of the male gaze or a patriarchal view on female sexuality (“Do I need to be a woman to talk about love between women?”), Kechiche stressed his intention was to portray a love that is at once absolute and cosmic. Meanwhile in her interview with “The Daily Beast,” Seydoux made a point of emphasizing that what’s dealt with in the movie is more than homosexuality. The director and the actress, apparently no longer on speaking terms after accusations of what amounts to bullying on set, unified to bring the universality of love to the forefront of the discussion.

Love is indeed everything and everywhere in the life of Adèle, played by Exarchopoulos, a sexually confused teenager who shares a turbulent affair with an older artist named Emma (Seydoux). If this synopsis smacks of utter banality, an actual unfolding of these chapters of her life is quite engaging and teems with intense emotion, sensuality, and of course, body parts—especially faces. Unabashedly displaying his obsession with his newly discovered muse, Kechiche keeps the camera in such close proximity to her that one can almost imagine him having some sort of separation anxiety whenever she slips out of frame. Hers is not the only face that dominates the screen—an overreliance on close-ups is essentially the director’s default mode; he shoves the camera into the faces of all those who interact with or surround Adèle. Such ultra-tight framing is not merely intended to reinforce the character’s subjectivity. It also seems Kechiche exploits those close-ups to establish the visual language that actively discourages looking beyond the surface of the characters’ actions and feelings.

Apart from his monotonous shooting style, Kechiche insists on crude literalness in splicing scenes and visual elements together. Early on, Adèle’s teacher and classmates discuss the French realist novel “La vie de Marianne” in her high-school literature class. The words or phrases they read aloud here include, “I am a woman. And I tell my story,” “her heart was missing something,” “exchange glances,” and “love at first sight.” Kechiche won’t just get the story started; he goes out of his way to announce what happens in the scenes that follow. So as expected, once Adèle has a few experiments under her belt, she meets and falls in love with Emma. They eat and have sex. Throughout, Kechiche draws symbolic parallels between Adèle’s voracious appetite for food and for sex. But his presentation is so deliberately transparent that the audience cannot possibly miss what her oyster shucking during a meal with Emma’s family signifies. And those two family dinners—one at Emma’s liberal home and the other at Adèle’s practical-minded one—are supposed to suggest the couple’s class differences. But the director’s attempt at social commentary feels half-baked, despite the inclusion of other party scenes of similar import.

Then finally, there are those notorious sex scenes. The most sensuous and tactile moments in the film, they have been criticized for idealized images of the female body. The critics’ suspicions have been sort of confirmed by Kechiche himself: he intended to shoot those scenes like paintings or sculptures. In fact, the pair’s postcoital position recalls, say, Gustave Courbet’s Le Sommeil, and their lovemaking looks extra-beautiful under carefully designed lighting. But even outside the bed, shots that constitute the lovers’ courtship are by turns naturalistic and highly romanticized—yes, with lots of close-ups and the camera’s lingering gaze on their faces. 

There’s no denying that representations of women’s sexuality have been, and remain, an important issue. But to uncritically invoke the male-gaze concept, essentially a product of second-wave psychoanalytic feminism, is to base the criticism on heteronormative/gender-essentialist assumptions; to say that these sex scenes were only orchestrated to arouse the male spectator is to overlook the female viewer who might find the couple’s sex just as exciting. Indeed, reactions in lesbian communities have been wildly mixed, as some individuals' subjective romantic experiences are inevitably more aligned with the film's depiction than others. Keeping women making love in medium shot, for instance (the sex scenes in Chantal Akerman's  Je tu il elle spring to mind), helps achieve an admirable sense of distance and neutrality, but it may not necessarily be the sole way of communicating the bliss of two people desiring and consuming each other. In spite of the film’s slightly clunky transition or awkward class-commentary, Kechiche is consistent about his thoroughly literal, primitive approach; close-ups mean intimacy and an exchange of looks means desiring. Whatever the director’s flaws, co-leads Exarchopoulos and Seydoux succeed in channeling the kind of love he wanted to depict—with infinite tenderness.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

86th Academy Awards Predictions & WINNERS

My last-minute predictions for the 2014 Oscars:

Best Picture

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave  --  WINNER
The Wolf of Wall Street

Will win: 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Could win: Gravity
Should win:
Should have been here: I could do without more than half of these nominees, but the inclusion of Inside Llewyn Davis or Before Midnight would have been nice. But year after year, the AMPAS just refuses to play nice.

Best Director

David O. Russell, American Hustle
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity   --  WINNER
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Will win: Alfonso Cuaron for GRAVITY
Could win: Steven McQueen
Should win: Martin Scorsese
Should have been here: The Coen bros, or Richard Linklater.

Best Actress in a Leading Role
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine  -- WINNER
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Will win: Cate Blanchett
Could win:
Should win: Cate Blanchett
Should have been here: Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club  -- WINNER

Will win: Matthew McConaughey
Could win:
Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio
Should have been here: Oscar Isaac

Actor in a Supporting Role
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club -  WINNER

Will win: Jared Leto
Could win:
Should win: Leto, not the movie, is fine.

Actress in a Supporting Role
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave  --  WINNER
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

Will win: Lupita Nyong'o
Could win: Jennifer Lawrence
Should win: Sally Hawkins
Should have been here: Julianne Nicholson (August Osage County)

Adapted Screenplay
Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
12 Years a Slave  -- WINNER
The Wolf of Wall Street

Will win: 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Could win: Philomena
Should win: Before Midnight

Original Screenplay

American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club
Her  -- WINNER

Could win: Her
Should win: Nebraska
Should have been here: Someone on Twitter suggested an Oscar drinking game where you take a shot each time something wins that should have been Inside Llewyn Davis. I'm joining it.

Film Editing

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity  --  WINNER
12 Years a Slave

Will win: Captain Phillips
Could win: Gravity
Should win: Gravity
Should have been here: Wolf of Wall Street.

The Grandmaster
Gravity  --  WINNER
Inside Llewyn Davis

Will win: Gravity
Could win:
Should win: Inside Llewyn Davis
Should have been here: This is probably the best group among this year's nominees across all categories, and I'd have a hard time taking one out to replace it with another. But one person I'd squeeze in is Sean Bobbitt for 12 Years a Slave. What I liked most about that movie was his cinematography -- see: those landscapes of Louisiana, group shots of the slaves on plantations or at the New Orleans slave market, and close-ups of Ejiofor's face.

Costume Design
American Hustle
The Grandmaster
The Great Gatsby  -- WINNER
The Invisible Woman
12 Years a Slave

Will win: American Hustle
Could win: The Great Gatsby
Should win:

Makeup and Hairstyling
Dallas Buyers Club  --  WINNER
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

Will win: The Lone Ranger
Could win: Dallas Buyers Club

Production Design
American Hustle
The Great Gatsby  -- WINNER
12 Years a Slave

Will win: The Great Gatsby
Could win: 12 Years a Slave

Original Score
The Book Thief (John Williams)
Gravity (Steven Price)  -- WINNER
Her (William Butler, Owen Pallett)
Philomena (Alexandre Desplat)
Saving Mr. Banks (Thomas Newman)

Will win: Her
Could win: Gravity
Should have been here: I prefer Thomas Newman's other scoring feat last year for Steven Soderberg's Side Effects, which along with Soderbergh's cinematography reminded me of Polanski's urban horror-thrillers such as Rosemary's Baby.

Visual Effects
Gravity  --  WINNER
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness

Will win: Gravity
Could win: Gravity will sweep these visual technical categories Life of Pi-style.

Sound Editing
All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity -- WINNER
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Lone Survivor

Will win:  Gravity
Could win: Captain Phillips? Haven't seen Lone Survivor or The Hobbit.
Should win:  All Is Lost

Sound Mixing
Captain Phillips
Gravity  -- WINNER
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor

Will win:  Gravity
Could win: Captain Phillips? Usually blockbusters with critical backing win in both of the sound categories.
Should win: Will be still playing that drinking game!

Original Song

"Happy" from Despicable Me 2
"Let It Go" from Frozen  -- WINNER
"The Moon Song" from Her
"Ordinary Love" from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Will win: Let It Go from Frozen
Could win: Alone Not Yet.. wait.

Foreign Language Film
The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)
The Great Beauty (Italy)  --  WINNER
The Hunt (Denmark)
The Missing Picture (Cambodia)
Omar (Palestine)

Will win: The Great Beauty (Italy)
Could win: The Hunt (Denmark)

Animated Feature Film

The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
Frozen  --  WINNER
The Wind Rises

Will win: Frozen
Could win: The Wind Rises

Documentary Feature
The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet from Stardom -- WINNER

Will win: 20 Feet from Stardom
Could win: The Act of Killing

Documentary Short

Facing Fear
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life  --  WINNER
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Will win: CaveDigger

Animated Short Film
Get a Horse!
Mr. Hublot  -- WINNER
Rooms on the Broom

Will win: Get a Horse!

Live Action Short Film
Aquel No Era Yo
Avant Que De Tout Perdre
Helium  --  WINNER
Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa?
The Voorman Problem

Will win: Avant Que De Tout Perdre
Could win: Helium

* # of wins

Gravity -- 5 Oscars
12 Years a Slave -- 3 Oscars
American Hustle -- 2 Oscars
Dallas Buyers Club -- 2 Oscars
Frozen -- 2 Oscars
Her -- 1 Oscar
Blue Jasmine -- 1 Oscar
The Great Gatsby -- 1 Oscar
Lone Ranger -- 1 Oscar