BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Lea Seydoux, Adele
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: Trailer, TV Spot
Length: 179 Minutes
Release Date: February 25, 2014
“Love has no gender.”
Blue is the Warmest Color is the type of film a true movie fan has to approach gingerly. It is impossible to escape the diarrhea of praise it initially received around the world, winning the coveted Palm D'Or at Cannes and becoming heralded as a courageous movie and an all-time great love story (all because the story centers around a same-sex couple).
It's almost as hard to escape the sudden turn these critics took against the movie when it was discovered that filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche was in fact (gasp!) a heterosexual, meaning the love story and blatant sexuality that once seemed “courageous” now seemed perverted and voyeuristic. This became peppered with stories about the harsh conditions the actresses worked in to achieve such envelope-pushing sex sequences, and suddenly, this film was no longer cause celibre, at least in many circles.
Aren't we talking about a movie, which is what it is on the screen and not the societal ideologies we want to place on them? Do we no longer feel what a movie has to say is valid because the person who made it doesn't fit into our idea of who should be saying such things? Do films like Chinatown, Annie Hall and others suddenly become less stellar artistic achievements because we feel the auteurs behind them have become less than respectable as human beings?
This is why, to me, it is dangerous for a reviewer to try and view films apart from our own personal reactions to them. No critic operates in a void, and all of us come to the page with our own ideals and personalities (“unbiased opinion” being the ultimate oxymoron), but while we cannot experience a motion picture event in a vacuum, we shouldn't have to experience them in the opposite of one, in a room so filled with the pomposity of breast-beating braggadocio that you can't even see the screen anymore.
I hope this review will be different from others that came before in that I intend to write about Blue is the Warmest Color as a film. I am not interested in it as a cultural event, nor as a social commentary, nor as an agent for change. As such, any praise or criticisms I write will be directed at the film's specific merits from the first frame to the last frame. Other reviewers can (and mostly have) reviewed the message, or at least their individual perceptions of the message. I hope you came here to hear about the movie itself, because that's what I came here to tell you about.
Really, if there's one aspect of the film that has garnered the most gossip, it has not been the fact that it is a same-sex love story (can anybody really call those groundbreaking anymore?), but about the graphic nature of the sex scenes that garnered the movie a solid NC-17 rating. This aspect has driven the publicity of the film for so long and been such the topic for discussion that it's almost impossible to pen a review without addressing it. So are the scenes overly hyped, or all they are reported to be and more? A little of both. In a movie that runs exactly 3 hours in length, I would wager that 10 minutes or less is dedicated to on-screen sex between the leads. However, those scenes are indeed stronger than anything you've seen in an R-rated movie, but less than what you will have seen if you've ever watched a full X-rated film (or for that matter, are used to European art-house films; Blue will really only seem groundbreaking to strictly mainstream movie fans, especially, I'm sad to say, American ones).
Were the scenes necessary for the story? Not really, I suppose. I'm no prude by any means, and won't deny there was real eroticism on display here. But I would caution directors they have to be careful when pushing this kind of envelope: the closer you make your scenes to pornography, the more risk you run of audiences TREATING it like pornography. And pornography for most is like a trip to the convenience store. You just run in to get one specific thing, and leave the second you got what you came for.
And what Kechiche has in mind here is a little more. It's a story that follows two young women around over a period of years, beginning when Adele (Exarchopoulos) is a junior in high school, and ending when she's into her career as a teacher.
Adele is adolescent, and like all adolescents, curious, frightened, and uncertain about sexuality. Her first real encounter is with a boy classmate, but it's a blue-haired girl named Emma (Seydoux) that she saw one time that begins to drive her passions.
When the two meet at a gay bar (by the way, is this for real? High school students in France smoke, drink, and go to bars? What the hell were my high school years about?), Emma is in a relationship, but the attraction between the two is undeniable. There are the aforementioned sex scenes, but also a splendid, growing relationship with two very real and developing characters.
The movie manages to avoid many of the clichés of the modern “gay” movie, for lack of a better term, but still manages to hit a few of the clichés of the typical romance story, which for me, was comforting. I'm glad to see a love story treated like a love story, and showing that whether heterosexual or homosexual, a relationship is a relationship.
In fact, one of those clichés is that of the one partner whose work always calls him (or her) away, leaving the other partner lonely and vulnerable, and what can happen when the loneliness gets too much. We've seen that in movies too many times to count. It is, however, a cliché based on a modicum of truth, and seeing it played here as though it were a story about ANY couple was alone refreshing to me.
The movie is not flawless...it is definitely too damn long for my taste. There are scenes such as Adele teaching her students to read that go on and on...and I sat there actively thinking, this movie is 3 hours long; was there NOTHING they could cut out of it? Length itself is never an issue, but a film has to earn that kind of attention. Much of this movie does just that, but too many sequences like the one just mentioned, or long philosophical discussions involving Jean-Paul Sartre (the most boring and overrated philosopher in history, in my opinion), left me restless and watching the clock.
That being said, not enough praise can be heaped upon the two leading ladies. Whether or not the stories of cruel conditions are true, one cannot deny that they did not restrain themselves in front of the camera, either sexually or emotionally. These performances are two of the most standout ones of this millennium so far...I would especially equate the work of Adele Exarchopoulos to that of Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris. She really is THAT good, with Lea Seydoux matching her almost stroke for stroke.
And the film is beautifully made, with wonderful cinematography (cleverly using the color blue in scene after scene, like the title), and a sense of space to let the relationship grow on the screen and for the emotional moments to really blossom to both highest and lowest points.
Is it a masterpiece? I won't go quite that far, but it IS a solid achievement. It makes me think back to when I think I was one of the only critics who dared to write that Brokeback Mountain was not really a great movie, despite (again) some extraordinary performances and talent. Then, as now, I was reviewing the movie itself, not what it had to say. As the years have passed, many critics and supporters have backed down, and started to admit what I said all along: as a movie, it wasn't quite all that.
Blue is the Warmest Color is definitely a better movie...not a great one, but a darn good one, and I think once all the controversy and passion about the subject matter has ebbed away, this is exactly how history will judge it...not as an event, not as a commentary, but simply as a film.
How cool is it when a modern movie gets its home video debut from Criterion? As cool as the other side of the pillow. As mentioned, this is a beautifully photographed movie, and Criterion delivers an outstanding high definition transfer here. Every frame is filled with solid and sharp detail, and the colors are gorgeous and natural-looking throughout, without a flaw to be seen in the print or the transfer.
The movie is mostly driven by dialogue, with a few bigger scenes here and there, but the uncompressed audio delivers spoken words and music nicely, with most of the dynamic range coming not from loud sequences, but from very quiet ones. Nicely done.
I don't think I've ever given one star to a Criterion disc for features before, but all this one has is a trailer and TV spot. There's not even a typically cool Criterion booklet; just a fold-out with a very lame essay that basically wants to argue the social merits of the movie instead of offering real film criticism.
I do indeed how Blue is the Warmest Color will be remembered in the decades to follow...but in my opinion, when all hype is gone and all ideological crutches are removed, in the end all that will matter is, was it a good film? This is indeed a good film that may not merit all the compliments it has received at the beginning of its life, but will deserve more from future fans than to just be dismissed as the 'event' of its day.