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.

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