Blue is the Warmest Color is a quiet character study and romance unlocked by its title alone. Adele, a high school student focusing on literature, tries to fit in by dating the boy everyone knows she's perfect for. She feels nothing from the relationship and winds up meeting Emma, a university fine arts student, at a lesbian bar. Emma's bright blue hair catches her interest and helps her begin to form a sense of identity. The color blue is important to the film. It really is a subtle device reflecting Adele's self actualization. In the beginning of the film, when Adele is just following whatever her friends and family expect her to do, there is very little blue on the screen. The first memorable appearance of blue is a cross, Romeo & Juliet style, where Adele and Emma's eyes meet while crossing the street and pass without incident. A bit more blue begins to fill Adele's life as the thought of the beautiful stranger with blue hair sends her into sensory overload. The color blue grows and fades in shade (light blue is tepid, cyan is vivid, navy is overwhelming) and vibrancy to reflect Adele's mental state and feeling of independence.
It really is quite remarkable how that kind of detail can set the tone for a film. By the time her high school friends realize Adele is a lesbian, you can't avoid blue on the screen. Everyone is wearing dark wash jeans and vibrant scarves and hats. The sky is practically glowing and even the lockers in the school seem to transform. The dialogue is so simultaneously slice of life and driven by references to very specific philosophers, writers, and artists that the color conceit really opens up the text.
Abdellatif Kechiche directs a screenplay by Ghalia Lacroix adapted from his own story treatment of Julie Maroh's Blue Angel, an award-winning graphic novel. The basic story stays the same, though it shifts from the perspective of Emma to the perspective of Adele. The novel tells the story in flashbacks while the film has a very loose and undefined chronology that becomes confusing. Time is always moving forward; you just have no real indication how much.
Some things are obvious. Adele goes from being a high school student in one scene to teaching at an elementary school. Emma loses the bright blue hair with a steady job as a graphic designer. The high school friends are long forgotten, replaced by Adele's coworkers and Emma's colleagues in the art world.
But most of the time, it's far too easy to lose how much time has passed. It seems like an intentional device. Adele really is a lost soul trying to find her way. It's not even presented as a search for a sense of identity but as the slow realization that we can all fall into unfulfilling patterns of behavior. Adele does not realize she isn't happy in high school chasing after boys until she falls for Emma. She does not realize she's unhappy living at home and lying about her sexual identity until she spends more time with Emma. Blue is the Warmest Color manages to tell a story about falling into a rut without establishing a cohesive pattern of time or location.
It's the film's biggest narrative problem and strength. The same basic story--Adele doesn't realize she's really trapped--is told again and again through the lens of various philosophical, literary, and artistic schools. An early discussion about gravity as a metaphor in a high school literature class carries the weight of the film until Adele has a discussion with Emma about Sarte. Different artists, poets, and philosophers color the angle of the story, informing how the actors portray the characters and how the story is told on screen at all. A segment led by Impressionism blurs the screen with light and shadow, while a segment led by Klimt plays with perspective changes and single focus screens.
Even more clever is the play on comic structure. The actors are incredibly expressive and the lights, sets, and props are lovely and detailed. However, an entire location cannot be recalled with one cut. Sometimes, Adele or Emma are framed from the eyes to the mouth in tight close-ups; other times, they're shot in parallel conversations across the room like a two page splash in a comic book. The angles shift in unexpected ways like a noir-style superhero comic or use referential imagery like a journal comic to create context in a scene. The whole thing is a tribute to and a play on the original graphic novel without being a direct adaptation of even the style of that one piece of comic art.
Blue is the Warmest Color is a long, slow film with some pretty graphic sexual encounters, but it is a rewarding film. The risky style choices and shifts in tone/perspective are engaging at the expense of losing a clear narrative thread. It's hard to say if this story could be told in a clearer way and been this experimental. It just might have been a bit more engaging if the passage of time wasn't treated like an afterthought rather than a means of establishing perspective on the narrative arcs.
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