I haven’t seen a movie in my lifetime that captures the sensuousness of eating spaghetti like Blue is the Warmest Color does. Adèle’s parents specialize in the sauce-heavy pepper-studded kind that we’ve all made in a hurry after getting home from work. When she brings her secret girlfriend Emma (Lea Seydoux) home the steaming bowl at the center of the table stands for the day laborer habits of her father, whose eyes darken at the thought of Emma pursuing a career in painting without another job to back her up (“An artistic sense is a fine thing,” he assures her). Spaghetti makes a final appearance at a backyard party that serves as Emma and Adèle’s coming-out party. In this intimate, casual setting at which the guests include homosexuals of every gender, color and taste in studs and conversation reflects the engagé spirit of this artistic community, Adèle’s spaghetti is a hit even if storm clouds of doom rumble across her face. She feels like a rube. She doesn’t understand why Emma is so insistent about Adele making a go of her writing. Is Adèle slipping too easily into the role of feminine support?
As played by Cannes Award-winning Adèle Exarchopoulos, she is a familiar type: the young person whose life at work and school is a mystery to coworkers and herself; she comes alive first writing in her journal and more devastatingly after meeting Emma. This portrait of a lady (the French title is La vie d’Adèle, Chapitre 1 & 2, and I prefer it) forms the basis of Blue is the Warmest Color, which despite the Cannes buzz is about what Elizabeth Bishop called the art of losing — parents, friends, lovers. Years pass in this film, handled without fuss, and I see the weight of them on the actors. It’s got good bon mots (“Are there arts that are ugly?”). It’s got the best outdoor buss I’ve ever seen, a kind of threesome starring the two actors and the intruding camera on a hill; the natural light gives a new meaning to “sun-kissed.”
When the film opens Adèle sits in a classroom, alert but hiding from something, herself most likely. Pressure from friends compels her to flirt with a boy. The cherub-faced high school senior with whom she has an aborted affair tries to impress the literate Adele by saying his favorite book is Les liasions dangereux. Appropriate: when passion hits Exarchopoulos it overpowers her. Red-tinged and sweat-moistened cheeks, bangs falling into her open mouth, no filter separates her from expressing abandon. Filming his characters in fullscreen smothering closeups as if to suggest the insularity of their passions makes formal if not quite aesthetic sense for writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche; the licks, sighs, slurps, and slaps are as loud as a 747 landing. He understands the isolation of high schoolers who can’t discuss sexual positions because their friends still see pussy-eating as threatening; also, the rush of fear and exhilaration of visiting your first gay bar and becoming in seconds an object of desire. It’s where Adèle meets Emma, a couple years older and sporting blue hair and sleepy eyes that don’t stop inspecting Adèle.
Anthony Lane was right to compare Blue is the Warmest Color to 1999’s The Dream Life of Angels — and both are set in Lille. What impressed itself on me about both films is its depiction of loneliness: how Adele and The Dream Life‘s Natacha Régnier have barely emerged from an experience so vastating that they can’t locate themselves again in normal life. The much-hyped sex scenes, as bombastically explicit as Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s reunion kiss in Brokeback Mountain, are its weakest moments, useful as demonstrations of one of the things Adèle does become good at. Scenes in which she marches in rallies against school privatization and at gay pride don’t ring true either. If Kechiche intends a demonstration of a young woman experimenting with selves it doesn’t quite come off; these scenes are as discrete as Emma and Adèle’s couplings. As a teacher she’s competent but unexciting. Adele in her twenties is essentially a boring person because in many ways she still has unfurling to do. It’s not clear she’s gay; it’s clear it doesn’t matter. To foil the Emma clique’s chatter about Schiele, Kechiche includes a conversation between Adèle and Samir, a Saudi who looks “Middle Eastern” enough to get cast by American producers as a bearded terrorist in action films. Bestirred by the absurd pronouncements made by a male guest (“Insofar as I’m a man, everything I’ve glimpsed is frustrated by the limits of male sexuality”), Samir nudges Adèle with questions of his own. By the end of Blue is the Warmest Color she has changed her hair, mode of dress, wears earrings. When she meets Samir again she learns he’s changed too. Whether this matters to either is for another director to plot.