It's never a wise thing to read a lot about a movie before seeing it, but very few American film-goers will sit down to watch Blue is the Warmest Color without having first treated themselves to an appetizer course of the tabloid gossip and feminist jeremiads that the film, in the weeks leading up to its October 25 U.S. premiere, has generated.
Binge on enough of the noise surrounding Blue, though, and you risk ruining your appetite for the film itself. Does it, for instance, hurt or enhance the viewing experience to know that, following the movie's big win at Cannes, its two stars, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, openly lambasted director Abdellatif Kechice, calling the film-making experience "horrible" and vowing to never work with him again? Should we watch Blue, as the New York Times' Manhola Dargis might advise, from a cool distance, understanding that it's a movie about two women filmed by a man working in a notoriously male-dominated industry? Or should we allow ourselves to be put under the movie's spell, to forget who's filming whom and what is and isn't being shown? Isn't that the pleasure, even the purpose, of movies — to be swallowed into a world of someone else's making?
Yes — and that may be precisely the problem. In her famous psychoanalytic reading of Hitchcock and Sternberg, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey writes: "It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention .... There is no doubt that this [passionate detachment] destroys the satisfaction, pleasure and privilege of the 'invisible guest,' and highlights how film has depended on voyeuristic active/passive mechanisms."
For those who consider themselves intellectually responsible, then, it's largely impossible to watch a movie with undiluted joy. We must monitor the machinery of the very pleasure we seek, must consider, in the case of Blue, as Dargis has, such dilemmas as this: "By keeping so close to Adèle, [Kechiche] seemed to be trying to convey her subjective experience …. Yet, early on, this sense of the character's interiority dissolves when the camera roves over her body even while she is sleeping. Is Adèle, I had wondered then, dreaming of her own hot body?"
As it happens, these are issues taken up by the film itself. Over a relatively simple love story, Keciche (adapting the screenplay from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh) has applied a fine veneer of theory, raising as many questions about subjectivity, objectivity, gazes, and representation as have been asked by its critics.
The motion of Blue is determined by the choreography of its gazes. The film begins through the eyes of Adèle (Exarchopoulos), who, at 15, is content to stare blankly at the world, "voracious" in her appetites and uncompromising in her tastes. She reads Pierre Marivaux's La Vie de Marianne because it "gets under [the heroine's] skin." She eats like a savage: pasta, candy, the skins off meat. Crossing the street one day on the way to school, she stares — and stares hard — at a blue-haired swaggering fox of a girl, the first person in the film with a gaze more intense than Adèle's.
Emma (Seydoux), a few years older than Adèle, is a Beaux Arts student with aspirations to be a Great Painter. Seydoux plays her with a pitch-perfect blend of alluring confidence and repelling vulpinity: She's the artist of the story, and artists, while they do much to beautify and elevate, also frame, objectify, and possess.
Emma begins sketching Adèle early on in their relationship, and continues to represent her in increasingly elaborate ways. Adèle — beautiful, simple, loyal — makes an ideal model, and, when the two move in together and Emma's career takes off, she makes an ideal Alice B. Toklas, too. She cooks for Emma's intelligentsia friends; she suffers through speeches about mortality in painting and the mysticality of the female orgasm.
The relationship begins to fray when Adèle becomes unattractive to Emma for the same reason she makes a good painter's subject: her simplicity. In one of the film's tensest scenes, Emma encourages Adèle to get serious about her writing so that she can be "happy." Adèle — not realizing that Emma is obviously embarrassed by Adèle's lack of ambition — replies that she's just happy being with Emma.
It would reductive to ascribe to Adèle and Emma the roles of object/subject or passive/active. But Kechiche does seem to have a purpose in documenting familiar relationship power dynamics: to liberate those roles (servant, ruler; muse, genius) from their traditional gender assignations. Indeed, it's one of the film's more poignant ironies that a relationship with a Sartre-quoting lesbian artist turns out to be as constraining to Adèle as any ol' hetero marriage-prison.
Courtesy Sundance Selects.
Probably the only moment that Adèle and Emma's relationship seems entirely free of this tension is in the film's much-discussed sex scene — those 10 minutes of graphic sex that earned the film an NC-17 rating. Indeed, this is a sequence that would fit in on the homepage of XTube. In the whole three hours, it was the only moment in which I was reminded, to my great disappointment, that I was viewing a piece of celluloid made by a dude. As flawed as it is, though, it's also that rare thing — a sex scene that's actually about the sex. It's a frenzy of skin and lips and grunts that happens to hold the entire movie together. Before Adèle and Emma split off into their opposing roles, they share this singular, ecstatic moment as humans.
But the more interesting dynamic at work in Blue, I think, is the one between love and talent, between the warmth of humanity and the frigidity of ambition. As A. O. Scott has pointed out, Adèle is a Great Heroine in the tradition of Anna Karenina and Clarissa Dalloway. She shares with these women not only their depth and limitless emotional reserves, but also their propensity to be objectified — turned into Art — by others. One has to wonder why Adèle makes such a great model, but could never be an artist; why her grace and spiritual presence seem to preclude talent or ambition; why she is, to use Mulvey's phrase, "a bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning."