Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #4: Blue Is the Warmest Color

Falling in love is magical, but what happens when the fall ends? Do you land gently and continue through life in a state of perpetual bliss? Or do you crash and suddenly find yourself helpless, paralyzed with numbness and confusion? Blue Is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche's soaring, searing story of love won and lost, examines the trajectory of a fairly typical relationship with atypical tenderness and honesty. In so doing, it runs the emotional gamut, depicting fully realized characters at their best and worst: joyous and disconsolate, hopeful and afraid, empathetic and hurtful. But even as it buffets its two lovers through emotional crosswinds, one thing remains constant: It always feels true. It is not an especially happy film, and viewers who demand that their protagonists prevail may leave disappointed. Yet Blue Is the Warmest Color is also deeply compassionate, one of the most swooningly romantic movies in recent memory. It lifts you up and intoxicates you, even as it shatters your heart.

Not that it is in any rush to advertise its greatness. It opens on Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos, stunning), exiting her modest home and loping to catch the bus to school, one of many mundane moments grounding a movie that otherwise spends a great deal of time up in the clouds. With an expressive, open face and wisps of brown hair that frequently whip across her brow, Adèle is a fairly normal 15-year-old. She works hard in school, gossips with her gaggle of friends, tentatively approaches boys, and—imagine this—has a healthy relationship with her supportive parents. But one day, Adèle strolls past Emma (Léa Seydoux), and the two catch each other's eye. It's an innocuous enough encounter (though it apparently took over 100 takes before Kechiche was satisfied), but Adèle soon finds herself besotted, dreaming of this blue-haired figure to the point that her sexual encounters with men feel hollow. She initially channels her fantasies by pursuing a relationship with an adventurous female friend, but that quickly backfires, at which point she seems truly lost.

Thankfully, she finds herself, or should I say, she finds Emma, after wandering into a local lesbian bar. Emma, despite her punk dye job, is not some bad girl from the wrong side of the tracks but an art student at university, a fact that both surprises and intrigues Adèle. Yet the two women's academic pursuits are secondary to their chemistry, which remains just as palpable as when they crossed paths in the street, presaging Blue Is the Warmest Color's tonal shift from discovery to courtship. Adèle and Emma begin spending time together, visiting museums and babbling about Sartre, the tantalizing prospect of intimacy hovering in the air. It's a development that does not escape the notice of Adèle's friends, and in one excruciating scene, the movie lays bare the unparalleled cruelty of teenage girls. Yet Adèle's attraction to Emma is too acute to be waylaid by hateful bigots, and the two women grow steadily closer, not just emotionally but physically, with Kechiche gradually shrinking the distance between them in the frame. He shoots primarily in extreme close-up, a strikingly invasive approach that allows Exarchopoulos to evoke Adèle's hesitation as well as her burgeoning desire. Yet every now and then, he pulls back and shows his two leading ladies together; in one exquisite shot, Adèle and Emma are separated by only a sliver of sunlight, and the warmth radiating from the screen is enveloping. This, the scene practically announces, is what it feels like to fall in love.

Not long after that, Adèle and Emma have sex, an act that proves significant for characters and viewers alike. To wit, the movie received sharp disapproval for its sex scenes, which are—depending on the critique—too long, too fake, or too prurient. And it is undeniably true that the simulated sex between Adèle and Emma is more graphic and more vigorous, not to mention just more, than what is generally portrayed on screen. Yet the sheer intensity of these sex scenes is precisely the point. Adèle's attraction to Emma is not some casual curiosity—it is all-consuming longing. To prevent viewers from witnessing the physical component of that longing due to vague concerns for cinematic propriety would be to deprive Blue Is the Warmest Color of its forthright honesty and immediacy. It would also damage the movie's quest to answer its central inquiry: How long does love last? This is not a film about sex but about love, and it investigates, with remarkable patience and persuasiveness, what happens once passions cool and routine sets in. (To that point, the film features three major sex scenes; not coincidentally, each is shorter than the last.)

So what does happen? From a plot perspective, not much, as conceptually, Blue Is the Warmest Color is fairly rote. It's essentially a straightforward story of girl meets girl, and while Adèle and Emma's shared gender adds a layer of intrigue and uncertainty to their relationship, it is hardly their defining characteristic, especially once Adèle graduates high school and enters the real, slightly more sympathetic world. Specifically, she gains employment as a teacher, while Emma—who at one point suddenly appears without her trademark pigment and carries on as a regular blonde, a gentle visual cue that these women are changing—pursues her dream of becoming a painter. The two settle into a comfortable rhythm of not-quite-bliss, and even though Adèle seems happy, you get the sense that she is not entirely whole.

Yet her director is in no rush to turn her life upside-down. Kechiche, whose The Secret in the Grain was a half-brilliant, half-maddening look at a middle-aged man's attempt to open a restaurant, prefers simply to observe, watching Adèle closely (remember those close-ups) as she teaches her class or comports herself with Emma's friends. You may find yourself restless during these moments, wondering about their place in the narrative, waiting for them to drive the story forward. But the seeming listlessness of these scenes serves as a pronounced proxy for Adèle's gnawing sensation of emptiness. The banality of her classroom, in which she chides children for their inattentiveness, stands in stark contrast to her own days of schooling, when she heroically pursued Emma and won her heart, heedless of any consequences. And if a lengthy dinner party where Emma hobnobs with her intellectual (OK, pretentious) classmates feels off-putting to you, imagine how it feels to Adèle, who must sit awkwardly and reconcile the beauteous free spirit she fell in love with against the composed academic who now casually debates the artistic merits of classical painters. As you watch her face—under Exarchopoulos' remarkable performance, every polite smile is accompanied by silent, unreciprocated yearning—you will ache for her uncertainty. Does she belong here? Does Emma, still warm and affectionate but no longer frenzied, still love her?

I don't know the answer to these questions, and more to the point, neither does Adèle. She just knows that she's still hungry, and her attempt to sate that hunger leads to some questionable decisions with devastating costs. The final act of this deliberate, deeply rewarding three-hour film is raw and pitiless, recognizing that some flames simply burn too hot to be sustained. And for all of the attention paid to its admittedly erotic sex scenes, the movie's most visceral moment occurs near its end, when Adèle pleads with Emma and bares her soul in a display of pure, uninhibited longing. It is here that Exarchopoulos will overwhelm you, though Seydoux is every bit her costar's equal, bringing quiet pathos and hidden depths to Emma's seeming decisiveness. Their heartfelt performances transform two women having coffee into, at least for them, the most momentous meal in the world.

After the film wrapped, Kechiche came under fire for being overly demanding of his actresses, not to mention supposedly forcing his crew to work under torturous conditions. That's a concern. But as a critic, I'm forced to focus on the end result, and the end result here is a triumph. In terms of box-office gross and scale, Blue Is the Warmest Color may be a small movie, but in its own way, it is also enormous. It confirms, with heartrending clarity, the wonder and the woe of falling in love.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #5: Captain Phillips
The Best Movies of 2013, #6: 12 Years a Slave
The Best Movies of 2013, #7: American Hustle
The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

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