Blue is the Warmest Colour

One of the things I most appreciated about Blue is the Warmest Colour — about all of the last three films I saw, actually, so Under the Skin and Jodorowsky’s Dune as well — was the sense in all three of intention over cliché. This is probably old hat to people who regularly watch more foreign, arty, and highbrow films than I do, but the films all avoided the kinds of hyperbolic incident and melodrama that a steady diet of (mostly) mainstream American film has led me to expect as normal, just the way you make a movie. With few exceptions, all three kept an even keel and a deliberate hand, telling their very different stories (documentary, romance, reverse science fiction horror alien weirdness) in a way where each scene seemed expressive rather than stupidly extreme. For example, in Blue I kept waiting for something capital-A Awful to happen — someone gets kicked out of the house or disowned for being a lesbian, someone throws a lamp at someone else sending them to the hospital, someone gets raped — and the absence of it seemed not only merciful but respectful toward its characters and the reality of life. It felt honest, not because such things don’t happen in real life, but because they drown out the rest of the story in their intensity, narrow the range of reactions we’re allowed to have (either unalloyed compassion or cynicism, i.e. you either complain about being manipulated or you let it happen), and distance us from what becomes, in its density of tragedy, obviously just a movie.

I’m not a native French speaker — I have enough to recognize a lot of the words in the dialogue, but not enough that I’d be able to follow it without subtitles. So I can’t speak to the verbal acting, but it sounded natural to me, and the conversations taking place mostly seemed natural, with a few exceptions (in particular the confrontation between Adèle and her friends about whether she’s a lesbian seemed forced, compressed from the way it would normally play out, perhaps for time — one of the film’s few melodramatic moments). The film spends time listening to its characters’ thoughts on philosophy, art, and literature without seeming intent on underlining every single word as significant; the thoughts are relevant, but they’re not edited for pithiness and highlighted in chartreuse. It’s a long film, at three hours, but the pacing seems generous and not self-indulgent; willing to let us live with our protagonists, not just be shoved through a ruthlessly guided tour of the museum exhibits of their lives.

I suspect this sort of thing is one reason cinephiles enjoy foreign film. Another is probably the nudity — and really, why not? I’m not opposed to violence in movies, but I’m definitely of the camp that would, any day, prefer gratuitous sex on screen than gratuitous violence, and considers it healthier. All three of the films I mentioned are so un-American as to show penises, and two of them show erections. This seems admirably equitable, though there’s no doubt that both Under the Skin and Blue are more eager to linger on the female nudity. It’s a bit of a surprise that it’s the Hollywood star, Scarlett Johansson, who has the most “unusual” body — undeniably beautiful, but (and perhaps because) it’s not idealized or (ironically) mannequin-thin. Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos have the kinds of bodies we’ve come to expect to see on screen, and we see a lot of them. I think it’s artistically justified to feature the kind of extended sex scenes this film has become notorious for; the characters’ physical passion for one another is part of the story, and the actresses play the emotional passion of the scenes as well, such that one ought instead to call them “extended love scenes.” That said, though I myself am not a lesbian (disqualified by sex, among other things), I did wonder unprompted whether the scenes were realistic. At the very least, Adèle seems to be a quick study — if she, seemingly inexperienced with women, has anything to learn from Emma, we move past those unseen moments and into a time when they seem immediately to know each other’s bodies unprompted. Some of the things they do together seem inspired more by porn and popular myth than the reality of lesbian sex, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that these were two straight actresses being directed by a man (and furthermore that they weren’t as comfortable with these scenes as they appear). Of course this is okay, except insofar as they should at least have asked a woman who’s had sex with women whether the depiction is at all true to life. More importantly, while these scenes are passionate, they aren’t especially illuminating; we learn that these two have great sex, but we see very little of the specific emotions each is feeling moment to moment or, apart from a comment about how Adèle’s parents think she and Emma are in separate beds, the time and place in which they’re doing it and what considerations come into play. I’m not the one to say it’s problematic — I would leave that to those with more at stake in the matter — but I don’t know if it works as it should have, and easily could have.

Ultimately I enjoyed the film, sad as it was, but I did feel — perhaps in contradiction to my earlier point — that its trajectory was never in doubt. It didn’t surprise me, as Under the Skin did. Maybe this is inevitable, since it’s a story about humans and not bizarre body-snatching doppelgangers, and since all love stories are the same: they meet, they fall in love, they fight, they fall out of love, they meet again, they get back together or they part for good, the end. And as far as films seem to think, all gay love stories are even more the same: closet case meets out-and-confident, one of them may or may not be bisexual, do we tell our parents or hide it?, are you ashamed of me?, all the familiar tropes are there, including the intimidating gay bar with its leeringly forward denizens (seriously?). I knew what we’d see from start to finish, with only (!) the script, performances, and cinematography making it a decidedly worthwhile experience.

But what we tend to forget, when we’ve seen enough of these movies, is that we have yet to move out of a world where they’re relevant. There’s some young girl (or guy) out there who will watch this with her best friend and slowly or suddenly recognize herself in it, who has no more of a clue at that point than anyone what women do together in bed but knows she wants to do it, who sees that this film is based on a story that knows her, knows what she loves and how she loves. There’s a generation for whom this might very well be their coming-out film, the one they fondly remember as the one that first reflected who they were. Even if it were a terrible film — and it absolutely is not — it would be worthwhile for that alone.