Obsession is ready for its close-up in this poignant tale of potent desire and despair. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Blue Is the Warmest Colour

Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour.
Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour.
Credit: Getty Images

Blue Is the Warmest Colour opens on faces in a classroom. The high-school students are taking turns reading from Marivaux’s The Life of Marianne, an early Enlightenment novel about the doomed love affair of a provincial girl who aspires to nobility. We see the faces of the students in tight close-ups; they are French, but their heritage is as much West African and Arab as it is European.

The camera returns again and again to Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos). For a large part of this three-hour film, it will be Adèle’s face in close-up that will be our focus. But when the camera does cut away, it often frames her within multiethnic communities and locales: in this film about how Adèle navigates her emerging homosexuality, we are constantly reminded that she lives in a world where she is far from the only outsider.

For the first half-hour or so of the film I was anxious, concerned whether Exarchopoulos was capable as an actor to survive the relentless attention of director Abdellatif Kechiche’s camera. In those early school scenes there is a tentativeness to Exarchopoulos’s performance, and I remained distant from her character. But then, on meeting Emma (Léa Seydoux), Exarchopoulos’s performance coheres, and her early withdrawal and sustained blankness make sense. In falling in love with Emma, Adèle is awakened to her body and to her sexuality. With Emma, she is no longer guarded and Exarchopoulos expertly conveys both the trust she feels in her lover and the fierceness of her desire. That earlier mistrust is never completely gone: it returns when other people enter or invade their space. But Exarchopoulos is startlingly alive in these scenes of flirtation and courtship.

Léa Seydoux, too, is a remarkable actor. In the 2012 Swiss film Sister, she played a working-class young woman, and her performance was so nuanced and authentic that I had a momentary shock in adjusting to her as a bourgeois art student. It is a very generous performance that Seydoux gives in Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Emma falls deeply in love but she doesn’t share the obsession that drives Adèle. Seydoux is wonderful in conveying that mixture of arrogance and intellectual curiosity that motivates the artistic student, that daring to pretentiousness if it means being open to new ideas. But we are aware of how Emma is always thinking, always intellectualising her emotional responses. That detachment lends a certain coldness to Emma, and I think this is what is giving in Seydoux’s performance, that she allows our sympathies to remain fully on Adèle.

The initial extended sex scene between the two women has been a controversial focus of attention since the film won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. I think the inclusion of this scene is crucial. Adèle and Emma’s relationship is founded on, and is sustained, through the potency and exhilaration of sex. It is the scent of each other, the taste of each other, the touch of each other that brings the two women together.

Soon after, there are two remarkable sequences that brought me emotionally into the film. In the first, Adèle visits Emma’s accepting, liberal mother and stepfather. In the second, Emma is invited to Adèle’s working-class home where her parents are ignorant of the real nature of the women’s relationship. It is one of the strengths of this terrifically written and performed scene that one is aware Adèle’s parents are complicit in their own ignorance. Kechiche’s work here is complex, and neither set of parents is reduced to stereotype. But both scenes prefigure what will be the tragic resolution to this love story, that desire is not enough to sustain the affair; that the world – of class, of identity and place – will always intrude.

The film abruptly shifts from the beginning of their relationship to Adèle and Emma having made a life together. Adèle teaches elementary school; Emma is cementing a career in the art world. In a pivotal scene, we see Adèle as hostess of a dinner party, having cooked a large rustic meal to feed academics and artists and critics who are all connected to Emma, and who have little interest in Adèle’s life as a teacher.

The one person who attempts to make a connection with Adèle is Samir (Salim Kechiouche). He is an actor of North African heritage, who jokes about his getting parts in Hollywood films playing fundamentalist terrorists. Samir also encourages Adèle to visit New York, a city that represents to him possibilities not available in France.

We are reminded of an earlier scene, of Adèle alone in her bedroom, before she has met Emma, where a photograph of New York City is tacked prominently on the wall above her. It can’t help but resonate with so many of us who have spent adolescence mired in suburbia, fantasising of the magical city that spoke to fantasies of self-liberation and self-transformation, a city of multicultural and class-transcending dreaming.

There will be one more image of New York. Their relationship has ended, brought about by a sexual betrayal by Adèle, itself arising from her lack of confidence in being part of Emma’s middle-class bohemia. Adèle, who has fallen into bleak and consuming despair that comes from the authentically broken heart, contacts Emma in hope of reigniting the relationship. A black-and-white image of the Brooklyn Bridge hangs on the wall of the restaurant where the two women meet. The desire between them is still ferocious; they can’t stop touching and smelling and fingering each other, but Emma pulls away. As Emma can, but Adèle cannot. Exarchopoulos, all in close-up, mostly in silence, is astonishing in this scene: it is as if we see her ageing in front of us, see her realising that not even in love can we be equals.

In the final scene, Adèle attends the opening of Emma’s exhibition. Again, as in the early dinner party scene, the one character who attempts to make a connection is Samir. He asks if she has visited New York yet and she shakes her head. She asks if he is still acting. No, he answers ruefully, he has become a real estate agent.

The last shot isn’t a close-up: it is a longshot of Adèle walking up a Lille street, her back to the camera, the blue of her beautiful but loud dress the only vibrant colour in the evening light. Love has transformed Adèle, the film makes this clear. But fate has also played its part in this love story. Like Samir, Adèle cannot fully escape or transcend the world in which she lives.

This is a richly humanist and generous film, but it is also deeply melancholy. Love and desire are not enough, for we are more than our bodies; and we exist in the world outside the close-up.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 1, 2014 as "Shades of blue".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

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