Blue Is the Warmest Color Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche

[Sundance Selects; 2013]

Styles: drama, romance
Others: The Secret of the Grain, Weekend

Somewhere in the first half hour of Blue Is the Warmest Colour, a scene arrives that perfectly encapsulates the film’s aesthetics. There is a long shot of a high school hallway. Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a 15-year-old girl suffering the social stigmas of her first breakup, walks down the stairs in the background, and swiftly moves towards the handheld camera. When she gets close up, the camera tracks backwards a little shakily, as though her presence itself were forcing the it’s movement. Adèle’s face is tightly framed as she ignores her friends calling out her name, swinging to them for half a second before thinking better of it and moving on with her.

Whatever disputes have arisen between director and adaptor Abdellatif Kechiche and his actors, it must be granted that he has an extraordinary confidence in them to carry the film on their shoulders, and that the performances captured by the cameras (which use long lenses to keep a little more distance than it may seem) are simply magnificent. Not a moment goes by when Exarchopoulos’s face doesn’t suggest her character’s depth or turmoil, and much of the same praise can be granted to Léa Seydoux as Adèle’s college senior lover Emma.

Blue Is the Warmest Color’s extreme emotional articulation is its unflagging trademark, and very often it makes the film incredibly absorbing. But it’s a double-edged sword when it’s not tempered with careful pacing. Each and every scene goes on for much longer than convention would dictate, and while this isn’t something that hurts its best moments, it does make the film a bit of a slog — and not in that draining, “I’ve been through the ringer with this character” way. It’s over-articulation, and sometimes it’s simply hard to stay invested.

In the early part of the film, Kechiche paces out the tension with droplets of perspective: after an especially awkward or strained dialogue plays out (inches away from the noses of the characters), the scene bounces to a surprising wide shot, then back in to show the last reactions of the characters. It’s an effective cutting method, giving the audience a deep breath but still ending on the faces that Kechiche relies on for emotional conduction. So it’s disappointing, then, when he drops the approach in favor of an ‘all close ups, all the time’ strategy. Much credit must be given to cinematographer Sofian El Fani and his camera operators, because those close ups are, in fact, lovely: miraculously in tune with the film’s characters and well-composed for the notorious shakiness of a long focal length. But, combined with the dogged lengths of each and every scene (and the movie as a whole), shots begin to feel like they’re insisting on themselves. Even so, they do reveal the faces that keep us grounded in the film, as well as splashes of light and color. The latter is perhaps the most unsubtle aspect of a film that lands on the nose more often than not, but that’s what makes the work so natural and at-home. I was taken with each and every streak of blue across the locations, production design, and sex scenes.

Those sex scenes have gotten a lot of notice; they are very long, surprisingly graphic, and filled with breathing, yelping, and slapping placed aggressively high in the sound mix. But although they’re undoubtedly erotic and important to establishing the lust between Adèle and Emma, they also simply adhering to the “most, always” approach of the rest of the film. While the final half hour is certainly an improvement over the tacky ending of the source material (the comic Blue Angel by Julie Maroh), it’s also inconclusive to a fault. Ironically, Blue is the Warmest Color’s methodology is so one-note that over the course of its three hours, articulation gives way to extrapolation.

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