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 analysis of the film’s making and reception.
La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color) (2013). France, 179 minutes. Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. Starring: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos, and Salim Kechiouche.
I am writing about La Vie d’Adèle from the perspective of an accredited Cannes critic who has had her share of films about men, by men, for men; who has had her share of films being rewarded by men, for men, by men.
Suddenly in this jungle of cinema at Cannes with an overpowering aspect of commerce and an Official Selection of 20 films comes, seemingly out of nowhere, a film about two lesbians. I am sure they are lesbians because Adèle has her first taste of a young man and finds it unsatisfying. She has kissed a woman and wants more. And then she sees a woman with blue tinted hair, Emma, and the fated meeting reveals that everything she has longed for in a young life of desire is fulfilled and answered.
I am mesmerized by director Abdellatif Kerchiche’s use of closeups, not of the face but of young people in motion. The tight camera work tells the story as much as the dramatic tension. There are frequent closeups of students reading literature out loud, hanging around the schoolyard, marching in the streets and protesting for gay rights. This ability of the filmmaker to show rather than tell the story makes it an evocative delight.
The film is three hours long, with three hours of brilliant camera work. A love story that puts two lesbians center stage at Cannes is unusual .There have been few high quality technically artistic films elsewhere about two lesbians , such as the Wachowskis’ Bound in 1996. Gina Gershon and Meg Tilly play two women, Corky and Violet, separated by a wall between two apartments, longing to connect. The only problem is Violet’s husband Felix (Joe Pantoliano), a punk Mafioso working for “The Mob.” The two women outsmart Felix and “The Mob”, and get each other. Felix falls into white paint splattered all over the floor as Violet shoots him after years of bullying, and his red blood stains the paint like strawberries and cream. Visually and technically this is a brilliant film. And the girl gets the girl. Godard’s axiom really works: “all you need is a gun and a girl”.
La Vie d’Adèle is not as slick as Bound but overwhelmingly authentic. This time there is no mobster to knock over; there is nothing but the confines of a relationship that begins in the spirit of liberation, companionship, sexuality, and creativity. The two actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulus as Emma and Adèle are so captivating in their roles that you forget this is a three-hour movie. There are no cell phones in the film, no texting, no heads lowered in reverence to electronic equipment, no social media. The young people in this film discuss Sartre, Bob Marley, Egon Shiele, Francis Ponge, and Marvivaux. They have discussions at meals, and engage socially at school, at work, and in their free time.
The ellipses in the narrative only serve to heighten the intensity of this very passionate relationship. For a starved filmgoing public that seldom sees well-crafted cinema about young women in love, it is absolutely brilliant. Clearly the actresses, who shared the Palme d’Or at Cannes with the director in May, received no consolation prize since it wasn’t an award in the acting category—it was for the film that they created together. They command every scene, and every scene is devoted to them. They are creators and the auteurs. There are no minor characters with parallel stories, which is so common for films today, as if two characters are not enough to fill screen space. These actresses do, and they bring to the screen exceptional performances.
The first time I saw this film, as other critics with only a brief glance at the publicity notes, I savored every scene and couldn’t believe it was happening. It was such a good dream without ever wanting to wake up. But I noticed that people were giggling, talking, and fidgeting during the screening. Not everyone had my experience and some were having difficulty with the reality of the subject. Here were the people that the original creator of the narrative, Julie Maroh, was trying to reach getting in the way of the message.
It was the conceit of Kerchiche to often show a man hitting on Adèle, as if Emma wasn’t enough. It was clear that she was, and they were. One gets the sense though that Emma can’t handle Adèle’s intensity and real problems surface.
Julie Maroh who wrote the graphic novel that the film is loosely based on, created two characters, two lesbians, to show that lesbians love as anyone; to combat the banalization of lesbians, to attack the insults, neglect, rape, and murder of lesbians.
After watching the film, I learned that the director and the actresses preferred not to use the word lesbian. I am only glad that I didn’t hear this before. Now the film is being sold as a film with graphic sex. This is not true; there are scenes no different than any other modern love story.
It is not comforting to know that the making of this film was problematic because the director refused to acknowledge gay rights, that for him it was “militant” to call women in love lesbians, and that the actresses didn’t acknowledge that they were playing lesbians either. Yet by distancing themselves from their subject matter, they allow the spectator the freedom to see the characters as lesbians, in spite of the fact that they can’t. Although this was disturbing to her, acknowledging positive lesbian characters is the message of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel and she succeeds after all, since the film provides such characters in spite of the director’s and the actors’ stance on the issue.
Maroh’s graphic novel and the film are different kinds of animals. She had civil words to say about not being involved in the film set, invited to Cannes, and asked to join the director and actors on the Red Carpet. Having been on the Red Carpet last year at Cannes as a member of the Queer Palm Jury, it is really no place for a lesbian because of the festival’s enforced binary dress code and heteronormativity.
In a parallel critique, I explore the reception issues of the film and the making of the film.