Written by Moira Sullivan
“We weren’t shooting a homosexual love affair, just a love affair.”
-Léa Seydoux, actress in La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color)” and Cannes Palme d’Or recipient 2013, Telluride.
This critical piece on the film is part of our double feature on the film La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color) . Please check out Moira Sullivan’s review of the film.
Part 1: Cannes, May 2013
The French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche is adept at capturing the joy of youth in film. For his latest project he has chosen to make La Vie d’Adèle, (2013, 179 min) a film loosely based on a graphic novel written by a lesbian, Julie Maroh. La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitre 1 & 2 (Blue is the Warmest Color, is the English title; Adèle – Chapter 1 and 2 is also being used) was the film the critics were waiting for at Cannes. It stood above the other entries primarily because the creative use of cinematographic language was abundantly obvious. This exciting narrative was expressed visually with the art instrument of cinema—the camera and editing.
The film is “shown” more than “told” and the majority of the shots are huge closeups, especially of the joys and trials of youth in motion. The editing aligns these spectacular in-your-face shots and scenes magnificently. The length of the film and the concept of “chapters” promised more and there is more footage for a future film; the film was being edited up until the last minute before it screened at Cannes.
The story was told and sold as a love story, not a film about two lesbians, but two women in love, and as it just so happens, a love story that takes place at a time when France was legalizing same-sex marriage. According to Kechiche at the press conference at Cannes, this was coincidental and had nothing to do with the film—nor did he want it to have anything to do with the film. Same sex for Kechiche means two women who have sex and are in love, but are not lesbians. The logic of the well known axiom that is often found on T-shirts “I am not a lesbian, but my girlfriend is” can be applied to the filmmaker speak for his limited understanding of lesbians. A film about lesbians threatens widescreen distribution, and for the actresses, possible career problems and typecasting. Everyone wants to see the film, anyway.
Now the film is out of France away from the Holy Grail of Cannes. 1st stop Telluride.
The Plot: Adèle meets Emma
Fifteen-year-old high school student Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a student at a multi-ethnic French high school. There are several classroom scenes where passages from literature are read out loud by students, including the sensual poems of Francis Ponge. An example of his poetry, Le Savon (1969) evokes the tactility of La Vie d’Adèle, “If I rub my hands with it, soap foams, exults…The more complaisant it makes them, supple, smooth, docile, the more it slobbers, the more its rage becomes voluminous, pearly… Magic stone!” Adèle’s tears turn to snot on more than one occasion. Exarchapoulos revealed in a Telluride press conference that Kechiche instructed Seydoux to “kiss her” and “lick it off.” His requests were not always respectful, she revealed, especially with intimate scenes.
Adèle’s brief but meaningless fling with a male classmate ends after a one-night stand, which leaves the boy in tears. After the fling, Adèle realizes she is missing something. Though the girl who tells her she is the prettiest girl in the school and kisses her says it meant nothing, it means something to Adèle. These encounters awaken her desire. In between these fragile rejections and encounters, Adèle reaches under her bed for first aid, a stash of sweets.
The anticipation of desire is described in the 18th century novel The Life of Marianne by Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, one of Kechiche’s favorite writers, in Adèle’s literature class. By chance or by fate, Adèle becomes attracted to Emma (Léa Seydoux), a striking girl in her mid 20’s with blue tinted hair. After a brief encounter where Emma is walking with her girlfriend, Adèle dreams about her. Exarchopoulos complained there were 100 takes of this scene and one of them resulted in an emotional outburst by Kechiche when she smiled and ruined the take.
What makes Adèle exceptional is how Kechiche captures many of the emotions of youth that are painfully familiar. It is not only relationships that command a young girl’s attention even though the girls in the class push her to date. Adèle goes to political rallies for working rights and gay pride. Her classmates’ comments are hard and cruel when she is seen with Emma, who they call a “tomboy,” and she is bullied. She goes to a gay bar with a classmate, and later to a lesbian bar on her own. She causes a stir in the room, and Emma who happens to be there, claims her as her “cousin” to ward off admirers.
An hour into the film, Emma and Adèle spend the night. The sex scenes are passionate and joyful. Adèle’s voluptuous mouth, which we have seen chanting slogans, defending her integrity, gorging on junk food and pasta, now makes love to Emma. The closeups are so microscopic that you can see the tiny hairs on the women’s skin. It is time to remember what it is like at that age. As the late French actress Maria Schneider said, “Film is the memory of our time” and to this one can add, the memory of our youth. This is poignantly true of this film. Both Seydoux and Exarchopoulos command the screen with their raw, emotional performances. They are the “auteurs” of the film and understandably were rewarded for this, the only women besides Jane Campion to win a Palme d’or at Cannes.
Adèle aspires to be a teacher and Emma is a student at the School of Fine Arts (École des Beaux-Arts). Adèle wonders if there is a school of “Ugly Arts.” She compares Sartre’s axiom “existence is humanism” to Bob Marley’s “Stand up and Shout.” All this is endearing to Emma, as is her vulnerable age and eroticism. Adèle becomes an art model for Emma, whom she calls her muse.
At a party with Emma’s colleagues, a young man is interested in Adèle even though she is with Emma. He tells her that pleasure with two women is nine times more intense than with a heterosexual couple. Kechiche revealed at Cannes that when it comes to casting lesbians in his films, “telling a love story between two women means to work with two actresses to the fullest; this kind of work excites me deeply and it’s becoming more and more important in my film career.” This confirms that the male fantasy of voyeurism is more important to him than making an authentic film about lesbians. Julie Maroh wrote her graphic novel to affirm lesbian identity with authentic lesbian depictions, not stereotypes.
The differences between the two women are also notable when it is time to meet their parents. Emma’s parents accept Adèle and Emma, but Adèle’s parents are unaware of their daughter’s relationship. The internalized homophobia that both women feel comes across at the dinner table. Their lives are selectively open and closed. Adèle cannot introduce Emma to her friends after the bullying she received in school but Emma has “cultured” friends who nonetheless ask patronizing questions, such as “is this your first time with a woman?”
Emma spends time at a party with Lise, a pregnant woman her age and Adèle notices. Emma begins to spend more time with Lise, and one night stays out late with her. Adèle is slipping more and more from Emma’s mind. Adèle is not without creative interests, given her passion for literature. She also reveals to a young actor who has worked in LA that she is very interested in American cinema, especially auteurs like Kubrick and Scorsese. While she expresses this interest, a silent film with Louise Brooks is projected from a large screen.
Emma eventually tells Adèle to get an interest in life other than her. Emma’s world in high art culture differs from Adèle’s interests in primary school pedagogy, literature, and cinema. Once a source of attraction, their differences now polarize them. Emma creates a rupture by being mentally absent, and Adèle instinctively, though unknowingly, is set up to sever the relationship. Feeling abandoned and unseen, she sleeps with a male colleague on the sly and becomes the catalyst for the breakup Emma has unconsciously initiated. The scenario can happen in any long-term relationship. Lise, the woman Adèle sensed was more than a friend, becomes Emma’s new lover. There is an ugly fight where Adèle is hit, called a whore, and thrown out of Emma’s apartment, with no chance of reconciliation.
Three years later they meet in a café. The sexual attraction is still there but Emma has a family now with Lise and her two kids. She admits she is no longer in love with Adèle. When Emma has her first art show, she invites Adèle. Lise informs her that her presence is still in Emma’s paintings. The canvases in charcoal have a touch of commercialism. One of Emma’s friends claims that she is absent in her gaze in her latest work, perhaps now that Adèle is gone.
There are frequent ellipses in the story, interruptions in the time continuum, which raise obvious questions. What happened during the time that Emma was preoccupied with her art and began to neglect Adèle? Did Adèle make her own lesbian friends during the relationship or become more active in lesbian culture? Did the two of them participate in lesbian culture? Why did Emma not acknowledge Adèle’s work and support her as Adèle had encouraged her? The ending of the film, like the initial attraction was not given the same time and the ellipses prevented seeing more connections in the breakup.
Part 2: Reception at Cannes
The Cannes critics, particularly the French, were in love with the characters in the film and the way they are represented on film. It is the kind of cinema that is appealing to a French audience: literary and cinema references, gourmet meals and wine at parties, plenty of erotic scenes and a focus on French education. Twelve out of fifteen French critics in Le Film Français gave it a “Palme d’Or” rating.
At the press conference on May 23, Kechiche revealed there is enough material for two more films and is willing to create more chapters since he shot a total of 700 hours and cut them to three. Both Léa and Adèle said they are willing to go on with the story and surprised at the final cut noting the bulk of the scenes were left out. The theatrical release in France was October 19 and October 25 in the States.
Kechiche was prepared to cut the sex scene to pass censorship boards, especially in the United States. Distributor Wild Bunch stated that the film has already been sold to countries, including the States, and wouldn’t cut anything.
After the film’s screening in Telluride, it was revealed by the French unions that the film violated French labor laws with more than eight-hour days, exceeding the schedule by months, and not paying the cast and crew their worth, something Kechiche said was untrue and was confirmed by the production team in Lille. Blue is the Warmest Color, already a hot topic, was getting hotter.
Part 3: Lesbian politics and culture
If Kechiche has any insight into lesbian culture given his adaptation of Julie Maroh’s work, he should know that “the personal is political.” His denial that the two women together are more than just two women together is intriguing, given that the women are lesbians.
“Lesbian” has often been called a “label.” This is true for even lesbians. Yet a “label” is not the same as “being,” an important distinction that the reception of the film awakens. It is noteworthy that Kechiche introduces an existentialist philosopher (Sartre), an obscure 18th century novelist (Marivaux), a surrealism-inspired poet Ponge, and expressionist artists (Klimt and Schiele), whose combined work is considerably complex and which he believes the audience will embrace. Naming two women lesbians in the film is on the order of Odysseus sailing between the two pillars of Hercules. Few films have depicted the ups and downs of a relationship with more astonishing humanity and sheer gravity. So why can’t they be lesbians, especially when they are lesbians.
Sartre’s Being and Nothingness referred to in the film, can be applied to this paradox. Being lesbian has its own negation, its own “nothingness,” for the filmmakers and actors confirm that there are no lesbians in the film.
Kechiche insists that the story of two women who are attracted to each other is like any other love story, and that he does not emphasize the sexual politics. “It’s not good to delve or say anything about homosexuality,” said Kechiche at Cannes. Seydoux and Exarchopoulos, who are both heterosexual, as is Kechiche, share this philosophy. Kechiche dedicated his Palme d’Or to Tunisian youth at Cannes. When asked about the uprisings in Tunisia, Kechiche insists “no revolution is complete without a sexual revolution” (the words of Austrian psychoanalyst William Reich), yet for him, gay marriage or being a lesbian is not part of any revolution.
Seydoux was asked by a male critic at the Cannes press conference if the sex scenes were “as surprising to her as to the audience” (in other words, “Was it as good for you as it was for me?”). To avoid the voyeurism of the question, Léa replied that she was “unaware of the camera during the shoot.” Kechiche’s doublethink that the relationship is about ‘sensuality’ and ‘love’ and not a same-sex relationship is contentious. Though gay marriage was hotly debated in France at the time, he wanted to avoid the subject in Adele even with violent gay rights protests in the streets of Paris during the shoot.
Charlotte Higgins from The Guardian asked Kechiche at Cannes about the film’s reception issues, especially for LGBT audiences. He replied that he didn’t make the film to comply with “a political culture” or a “militant film on homosexuality.” For him to name the women lesbians would make it a militant film, so he is avoiding that. “It can be seen as such, it doesn’t bother me,” he added.
Adèle is not without moments of legitimacy. The film shows homophobic reactions by Adèle’s classmates and how she gets into a fight when a friend ridicules lesbians. She has to deny that she is lesbian. Is this any different from Kechiche and the actresses denying the characters are lesbians? Kechiche is not in touch with how the content of his film opens up this discussion. If it were just a film about “sensuality and love,” Adèle would not have encountered mobbing at school, there would be no need for her to go to gay pride demonstrations, and no one would march against same sex marriage. Emma’s artistic circles and parents shelter her from the realities that Adèle faces in her school and among her family and friends, but both live in a world where homophobia is an undeniable fact.
After a filmmaker makes a film, it is no longer his or hers. Each spectator assembles the images to create personal meaning, and thereby creates a new film. Two lesbians living in a heterosexual world were on everyone’s mind at the official press conference as the film opens itself up to wide screen distribution.
Part 4: Reception outside France
Seydoux and Exarchopoulos revealed at Telluride that they would never work with Kechiche again because of marathonic working conditions and because his attitude during the sex scenes was disrespectful and raw. They could not reveal this at Cannes since they were caught up in the media frenzy and accolades for the film, yet these revelations explain the misgivings that Maroh has about the film, which she feels is part porn. On her website she has declared that she doesn’t hold anything against the director for not acknowledging her or keeping her informed of the film, or inviting her to Cannes when the film debuted, but that the framing of shots for the love scenes was inauthentic. Indeed, there are frequent shots of Exarchopoulos’ buttocks, while sleeping or making love. Although the title of Maroh’s graphic novel is Le bleu est une couleur chaude (Blue is the Warmest Color), Kechiche titled his adaptation La Vie d’Adèle, symbolizing his obvious obsession with Exarchopoulos.
In one scene when the two women visit a museum, sculptures of hairless naked women are shot mostly from behind to reveal buttocks or hairless genitalia. In the sex scenes both Exarchopoulos and Seydoux’s bodies resemble this ancient ideal of women. Maroh’s comment about the film being part porn addresses why critics think the initial sex scene is too long, and why it is not a film about two lesbians but two straight women having sex, cued by the director.
In response to the actresses’ remarks at Telluride, Kechiche remarked that Seydoux as the granddaughter of Pathé chairman Jérôme Seydoux used her privilege to speak out, and that Exarchopoulos got to go to parties, stay in luxurious hotels, and walk the Red Carpet at Cannes.
On October 23 he spoke out in Rue89 in a letter titled “ A ceux qui voulaient détruire La Vie d’Adèle” (To those who want to destroy La Vie d’Adèle) and criticized Seydoux for being “opportunistic” and a “spoiled child.” He also attacked the founder of MK2 cinema, Marin Karmitz, and the cultural section of Le Monde for printing Seydoux’s comments. He claimed that had the film not won the Palme d’or he would have been ruined, “a dead man.”
Why so many become enraptured about lesbian sex on screen is already asked and answered: it sells. It is a well-known male fantasy, but as far as a female fantasy, this depends on how the scenes are shot. Maroh has already addressed the problems. The nearly 10-minute sex scene is considered “long” by both standards, and the primary selling point of the film. The actresses explain that they wore fake genitalia during the shoot and really didn’t know what they were doing. The Wachowski brothers at least hired a lesbian sex expert from “Good Vibrations” for Bound (1996), a film about two women working for the mob who fall in love. Adele’s director does not think that these are two lesbians and doesn’t know what a lesbian is, just what he thinks lesbian sex is. Léa Seydoux, at least did some homework to look authentic as a lesbian by studying hair styles, gait, gestures, and clothing
Kechiche seems to fault Emma for her high-art career and focuses on Adèle’s work as a teacher. Sex isn’t as passionate with Emma’s new girlfriend, who moves in the same circles as with Adèle, and he makes sure Emma and Adèle can’t end up together. The frequent scenes with men who are interested in Adèle have more impact. Kechiche often scripts them coming on to Adèle to create a rift between the two characters. Emma’s art suffers as a result. Her paintings no longer have the emotional potency they had when she was with Adèle. This is pointed out at her vernissage after the two breakup. Kechiche is satisfied with breaking them up, since for him it seems it was only the sex that kept them together.
Emma tells Adèle in one of their first meetings how much Sartre meant to her for liberation, but in the end she can’t live by that. Kechiche polarizes the women—Adèle the sensuous, passionate, schoolteacher, who is not a lesbian; Emma, a fine art connoisseur, who is a lesbian and who lives off of Adèle’s joie de vivre, but in the end prefers a safe girlfriend. It matters little that the actresses and director repeat the mantra that this is a film only about love and sensuality. The film’s reception will open the film to multiple meanings.