Blue Is the Warmest Colour

Blue is the Warmest Colour


Howard Adelman

We all know that blue is not the warmest colour. So why call a movie that is ostensibly about a passionate affair between two French women by that name? One reason is that the very graphic novel on which it was based by Julie Maroh was called Le Bleu est une couleur chaude. But that explains nothing since that title translates into, Blue is a Hot Colour. And “blue” is hot when referring to blue movies and this is certainly the hottest movie I have ever watched.

But why “the warmest colour”? And why that title in English when the title of the original French version is, La Vie d’Adèle, The Life of Adèle. In fact the full title is  “La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2”.  Abdellatif Kechiche, its brilliant director, explained that he did not use the title of the book in the French version because he viewed his film as a story about the education of Adèle played by Adèle Exarchopolous, about how she fell in love when she was only a fifteen year old schoolgirl (chapter 1 about her early affair) with Emma played by Léa Seydoux, and how she matured in the second chapter of her life to become a school teacher. The change in title in English then becomes all the more puzzling.

What makes the title even more puzzling is that the temperature of the film is either hot or cool and even very cold. I found very few scenes if any that were lukewarm. Like his previous films (more later), Kechiche is a very detached director and deliberately so. His style focuses on long naturalistic takes and immediate close ups largely of the face, but the perspective is detached and definitely non-judgemental whether watching the sheer joy of the women when they fall in love or the blubbering snot soaked face of Adèle when she is rejected by Emma and left isolated.

There is an irony in all this because there is one section early in their relationship when they discuss philosophy. Emma explains her love for the existentialist French philosopher, Sartre, for Sartre taught that each person was in charge of his or her own life and the decisions made in that life determined who you are and what you became. We are free to become who we want to be. In part that scene is used to convey the intellectual and class distance between the characters as Adèle responds, “Like Bob Marley” and names his most famous hit song, “Get Up; Stand Up” and is even bold enough to suggest that the philosopher and the prophet are the same, a comment Emma receives with a kind but pitying and condescending smile. But overall, both characters come across as very ambivalent and weak, including Emma who gives the impression that she knows what she wants, understands the art she wants to create and the relationships she wants to build. However, in by far the most emotionally powerful scene of the movie when Emma breaks off the relationship with Adèle, Emma reveals herself to be a poseur, as incapable of deciding her fate as she is driven by uncontrollable jealously rather than any consideration for either herself or the person she supposedly truly loves.

Unlike most reviews and comments that I write the next morning after I have seen the film, I have let this movie simmer in my imagination for several weeks. I have made reference to it in previous reviews, but I have not discussed it. Writing about Venus in Furs, Venus in Fur and The Bacchae seems to have been a necessary preparation for writing about Blue Is the Warmest Colour and a prerequisite for answering the question about the title.

It so happens that Kechiche in 2010 made a film called Black Venus. There had been a previous 1983 film with a similar title, Venus in Black, but it was a soft porn movie. Kechiche’s Black Venus was about voyeurism rather than pornography. And voyeurism is somehow an integral element in Kechiche’s films. In 2007 he directed The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mule) which won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. In 2003 he made Games of Love and Chance (L’Esquive) which won a César Award for Best Film and Best Director. In 2000, he made Poetical Refugee, La Faute au Voltaire (Blame It On Voltaire).

Some moviegoers might remember Kechiche for the film in which he acted as the American Arab hard working and honest immigrant taxi driver in Sorry, Haters, in which his brother is a prisoner in Guantanamo. The film was in the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. Kechiche began his movie career as an actor. This 2005 noire movie, inspired initially by the story of the Canadian, Omar Khadr, has a classic cynical bullying femme fatale (played by Robin Wright Penn) dressed up in a film about culture clashes and post 9/11 anti-Muslim feelings with surprising twists and a more surprising ending, a type of film that Kechiche himself would never make.  

Lechiche’s 2000 film, Poetical Refugee, La Faute au Voltaire, about an illegal Tunisian immigrant pretending to be an Algerian refugee in France deservedly won a Golden Lion for a first feature film. As a refugee film it is doubly interesting to me because it is first about an illegal immigrant pretending to be a refugee and it is not about an immigrant as victim but about one who is determined to take decisions to determine his future only to reveal himself as one of the passive, manipulated and helpless pieces of human detritus who becomes involved in a passionate relationship with a woman who ends up in control. The film established his reputation for filming detached almost documentary images that nevertheless quiver with tension.

Games of Love and Chance (L’Esquive) is the name of the school play, for the movie, like Venus in Fur, is a drama of a play within a play, a drama about social class as a performance of roles and different appearances. Krimo, the main protagonist, grows from a young suburban Paris Arab tough whose father is in prison into an actor, though initially an unsuccessful one. Like Blue Is the Warmest Colour, it is a coming of age movie, but starts with a fifteen year old boy rather than girl. The film is about the art of drama itself and how a person transforms himself into an thespian all the while managing a relationship with the woman who introduced him to the theatre in the first place and tries to mould him as an actor. In spite of superb performances, it is a film that is hard to take for North American audiences because of its naturalistic documentary detached style and absolute refusal to manipulate the emotions of the viewers.

Kechiche’s 2007 film, The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mule also Couscous), is another story about immigrants, but about an older one with ambitions to open his own restaurant on a ship specializing in a fish (mullet) couscous (the grain in the title) and become independent. What happens is not so simple. He encounters first a realistic version of Kafka’s The Castle in an incomprehensible French bureaucracy and then a series of mishaps of his extended family’s own making that seem doomed to sabotage all his dreams — only to be possibly saved from total disaster by the erotic dancing of the young daughter of his girlfriend and the voyeurism of the French bureaucrats. Like Blue Is the Warmest Colour, the pacing is slow though within that rhythm there are hectic moments. But the pace is always unforced and the perspective remains detached. Kechiche’s films are always unsentimental, deeply layered, convey an unusual sense of authenticity and stay focused on interpersonal politics in a context of ethnic and class differences. In this film, the ecstasy is reserved for the food.

It is hard to watch The Secret of the Grain and accept as credible the stories that Kechiche mistreated his two actresses in Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Adèle Exarchopolous when she appeared on Charlie Rose’s show, certainly gave no such impression and simply expressed gratitude for how much Kechiche taught her, trusted her improvisations and gave her the room to bring forth the best performance possible. In The Secret of the Grain the women who initially appear submissive before Muslim men turn out to be the salvation for the miscues and stumbling of the men in their lives. Kechiche like David Ides seems to have the highest respect for the slaves of this world, for actors and women whom he displays as masters in the end.

That is why Black Venus (Venus Noire) initially appears to be such a strange film. Unlike the other films set in contemporary France, this is a period piece that tells the true story as a docudrama of the slave, Saatjie (Sarah) Baartman (played by Yahima Torres), brought from South Africa to London and then Paris just over two hundred years ago on the pretence that she would dance and sing but is, instead displayed like a freak in a carnival as the “Hottentot Venus” first by her original owner, the Afrikaner farmer and slave owner, Hendrick Caezar (Andre Jacobs) then an even more exploitive second promoter, the French bear trainer Réaux (Olivier Gourmet), and, finally, and worst of all, by so-called French pseudo-scientists pursuing the false science of phrenology and comparative racism. They declare her physical features to approximate those of an orang-utan, a scene that begins the film in 1815 before going back to 1810. What is their prurient interest? – the large size of her breasts, labia and rear end as she dances and sings for voyeuristic audiences. Only the artist, Jean-Baptiste Berré (Michel Gionti), who paints her preserved corpse on display at the museum with appreciation, offers a tiny glimmer of redemption, though it is too late.

The film is not erotic at all. The men might as well have been carrying whips but the enslavement is more psychological than physical. The film records the male denigrating gaze, whether of a male director auditioning a female actress, a horny male watching a pornographic film, or anyone watching someone defined as “other” as if the other person belonged to a different species where you can pickle her vagina in a bottle of formaldehyde in a the opening scene. This is really what is on view as we in the audience watch with increasing disgust at the humiliation and degradation through which Sarah has to suffer, but not without resistance. The film proceeds like a fatalistic Greek drama but with no suggestion that the victim bears any responsibility for what befalls her. However, instead of the film being a moral nineteenth century tale designed to rouse our ire and indignation, to inspire a judgement and call for the wrath of God to visit thunderbolts on heinous sinners, especially the spoiled rich aristocrats who come to leer. This combination with the directorial detachment simply allows the story to unfold and then abandons us with bottled up indignation with no one to target.

Thus, because the film is ambivalent and not ambiguous, it fails both as a piece of art and a lesson in morality. If Kechiche had been true to his artistic vision. the racism and exploitation would have remained in the film, but only as background and the story would have been told from the perspective of a Black woman from South Africa tempted by fame and money, adventure, as well as a need to survive to willingly cooperate in the sexploitation of men’s desires for her own financial gain and ambition to seek recognition. As it is, Kechiche left Sarah only with her own defiance. Sarah’s body was left on view at the FrenchMuseum of Natural History which only took down the display of the body of the 26 -year old Sarah in 1972 and only repatriated her body to South Africa for a proper burial in 2002.

With Blue Is the Warmest Colour Kechiche redeems himself and the same close-ups and total immediacy of the moment work in a very opposite direction. The film deservedly won the prize at Cannes not only for the writer and director of the film but for the two co-stars.  Instead of a porno movie he made an anti-porno one, a critique of voyeurism not by a moralistic trip, however disguised, about the viewers, which leave them feeling filthy with no one upon whom to displace the dirt. Kechiche accomplished the task by using the naked bodies of two women to put on a show of true erotic passion. We cannot help but be entranced even if some viewers began to get squirrely as the scene went on for seven minutes. The scene was hot. Those who complained that it was sex viewed through the male gaze ignored the reality that the scene was not directed by Kechiche who simply asked the two actors to improvise and act out a feeling of erotic passion for one another. So any disgust and embarrassment some lesbians and others may have felt about the film arose from their own inhibitions and repressions. They were not free or just if they expressed a desire to displace their disgust onto the director.

In Kechiche’s film we get eroticism and sexual ecstasy at its height because it is an expression of love, but that expression takes place in a context where it is neither sentimentalized nor trivialized but allowed to play out its destructive pattern like a Greek drama. For the film shows the illusion of agency and freedom for people act out in destructive ways. But the movie is redeemed because, in the end, it is a film about education, about how Adèle emerges out of her pain to become a teacher herself of young children. Her profession becomes the metaphor for all of life (and love). Adèle Exarchopoulos testified on the Charlie Rose show that the whole film was an experience in seeing, learning and performing, and the expression of profound principles. The film is a true paean to Venus and Dionysus since it is at once spontaneous and intuitive, visceral and immediate, instinctive while expressing desire in its most embodied form. It is a film that needed no make-up artists or costume specialists and the actors were allowed to grow for the director was not someone brought up in the guise of the director/playwright, Tom Novachek of Venus in Fur.

Instead of using the proposed name of Clementine, the actress was permitted to keep her own name. It suited the play for, as Kechiche told Adèle, her name means justice in Arabic. And the film is constructed on the basis of Greek views of justice. (Cf. E. A. Havelock’s 1978 volume The Greek Concept of Justice from its Shadow in Homer to its Substance in Plato). Dikaisyne or Dikē (yes, “dike”), that is, justice, not in the sense of Plato as a utopian writer who held up justice as the supreme virtue upon which humans could live in perfect harmony  in service of the good, but as a goddess, like Venus, who does not bring order like Eunomia or peace like Eirene, for justice between and among humans is impossible on earth. Justice is not righteousness, let alone self-righteousness. Kechiche may record that in French society people are still prejudiced against gays, but that is just a fact, not the subject matter of the film. The movie is about learning to do what is morally right after doing what is morally wrong – Emma leaves Adèle to stew in her own loneliness, Adèle is unfaithful to Emma and Emma in a jealous rage throws Adèle out onto the street. The moral virtue is whether you learn from your actions, take responsibility for them and grow to be a better, if always imperfect person.

So the movie is about education in justice, the very theme of Plato’s Republic. It is not about modern theories of distributive justice of either a neo-Kantian like John Rawls or a utilitarian like John Stuart Mill. It is the every opposite of those who read Plato through quasi-Marxist eyes as a utopian advocating justice as an Apollonian virtue to ensure rational order with every class in its place performing its predetermined duties. Plato wrote a dystopia not a utopian book to show such a vision was an impossibility and that is why the book ends with the myth of Er. 

Instead, justice is how we handle irrationality, how we respond to adverse set backs and how we put ourselves back together after being torn apart by the rages of desire in conflict with life, by the contest between one who would exercise mastery – whether man or woman – and another who would willingly surrender and become the master’s slave just as Adèle, as a character in the film,  as an actor and as a real person, is fed and led by Emma, again as both a character, an actor and a real person, to learn and become who she is. Unlike Sartre, we do not define ourselves in isolation as Emma seemed to believe as a person who idolized Sartre, but only in relationship to another. And it is a painful process. It never has an ideal outcome. Venus lives in heaven We are stuck on earth with each other. And Kechiche observes and records but offers no judgement.

Blue is the warmest colour because it is about soft porn and this film is about heat and cold, about the extremes of passion and despair, about intimate togetherness and extreme loneliness. It is an authentic love story for it tells how eros overcomes divisions only to see pre-existing divisions acted out in other ways to breed new splits and separations. The title of the film is ironic and tells us what the movie is not about.

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