A Spoonful Of Sugar: A Review of ‘Blue Is the Warmest Colour’

blue-is-the-warmest-color-posterSPOILER AHEAD!!!!

Much has been made of the graphic scenes featured in Blue Is the Warmest Colour, (or, if we literally translate the French title: The Life Of Adele) and many critics have focused on the sexual orientation of the characters.  These elements cannot be discounted, as they are integral to the narrative.  The film does a fantastic job of humanizing and legitimizing same-sex relationships (not that they needed legitimizing, but with hate-crimes based on sexual orientation still very much a reality, humanizing this kind of love in a way that people from all walks of life can understand may help reduce  tragic violence).  It doesn’t hurt that the central characters are two gorgeous women.  How does the old adage go?  A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down?  Hyper-hetero men who cannot satiate their sexual fantasies may watch this film for the wrong reasons, but the hope is that they come away from it recognizing the legitimacy of same-sex relationships (though I know I am hoping for too much here).  The film is about so much more than that this, however.  It is a postmodern epic that speaks to the performance of gender and sexuality, the nature and purpose of art, and the source of gender issues.  In the end, it is the story of a person trying to find love whilst simultaneously seeking to define herself.


"Everything is about sex, except sex.  Sex is about power."  Oscar Wilde

“Everything is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” Oscar Wilde

The sex scenes are graphic, but they work as something more than simply soft-core porn.  Oscar Wilde said that “Everything is about sex, except sex.  Sex is about power.”  Sex scenes like these are very much about power, but they also offer insight into people.  The first sex scene is a heterosexual pairing.  If it was longer than thirty seconds, I would be surprised.  Adele (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos), the protagonist, is on top, controlling the motions of her first sexual encounter, but her male counterpart quickly turns her over. Within seconds, he has ‘completed’ the incomplete sex act.  He rolls over and then asks her if it was good.  She lies and says it was great.  This is followed by a scene which seems to last no less than five minutes (though I did not time it).  This scene may have seemed excessive, but it accomplished several things.  First, it juxtaposed the finite pleasure of a man with the infinite pleasure of a woman.  Once a man reaches orgasm, the sex act is complete ( in most instances).  For a woman, the climax does not mean the end of the act.  It can go on, and on, and on, as it does in this scene.  One orgasm can give way to another and another and another.  The scene is also telling because both parties not only take great pleasure in the act, but make a consistent and persistent effort to ensure the other person is also taking pleasure.  When the scene is done, neither asks the other if it was ‘good’.  They both know that the experience was fulfilling for themselves and for the other.  The length, then, is needed to contrast the brevity of the initial scene, and the graphic nature is needed to demonstrate how each participant is eager to ensure the other party is pleasured.  That effectively shows the contrast between the two experiences, and is crucial in explaining why the protagonist, Adele, eventually becomes so connected with Emma (Léa Seydoux, who had a small role in Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglorious Basterds), her partner in the scene.  I use a similar method of juxtaposition in my novella, thieves, and have encountered critical responses in the same strain as many of the reactions to Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Most people see Adele and Emma’s coming together strictly as a sex scene, failing to appreciate the depth of the experience it reveals for both women.



Julie Maroh, author of "Le Bleu est une couleur chaude".

Julie Maroh, author of “Le Bleu est une couleur chaude”.

This being a film about same-sex relationships, one might assume that the typical ‘homophobic’ attitudes that still pervade society would play a key role.  They do appear, but the film steers away from them, emphasizing other issues. This may be a point of contention for fans of the source material.  The graphic novel, written by Julie Maroh and titled Le bleu est une couleur chaude, (which roughly translates to The Colour Blue is Hot, though the English translation was titled Blue Angel), features homophobic attitudes much more prominently than does the film, and also demonstrates how these attitudes can impact a person’s life.  In the film,  there is a scene illustrating the polarizing and flawed attitudes of those who adopt ‘homophobia’.  One girl accuses Adele of being lesbian, and suggests that Adele has come on to her.  Adele denies this repeatedly. As her collected calm gives way to anger, the others appear to surround and bear down upon her watchfully. They take her denial as an admission, but it feels as though they would take either denial or confirmation as proof, leaving her no choice in her response.  It is not until Adele has already left that a few of her peers speak with reason.  One student points out to the main accuser that she has attacked Adele.   In this scene, there is also a homosexual young man whose choice to be openly gay does not seem to have alienated him from his fellow students.  My hope is that this will quickly become the norm in North America, but I’m inclined to believe that attitudes are more progressive in France than in America (though this assumption may be flawed).


Léa Seydoux (left) and Adèle Exarchopoulos; France's answer to Scarlette Johanson and Julia Styles.

Léa Seydoux (left) and Adèle Exarchopoulos; France’s answer to Scarlett Johansson and Julia Styles.

Several scenes take place in which Adele and Emma engage in extreme public displays of affection. A lingering feeling grows to ominous misgivings that the scene could quickly turn to tragedy, but the film does not go down this path.  The risk is melodrama, though violent hate-crimes are a reality for same-sex couples who engage in public displays of affection.  But this is a film about the lovers, rather than about those who seek to destroy their love.  For that, I have a great respect for this film.  It is tempting to turn such a narrative into a political piece, or a piece that provides social commentary on violent hate crimes.  Instead, the plot takes the power out of the hands of those who discriminate and gives autonomy to the lovers.  Perhaps the film could have explored the wider cultural context of the issues it portrays, but there is something validating in that the two women are allowed to define their relationship.


Adèle Exarchopoulos, who stars as Adèle  in 'Blue Is the Warmest Colour'.

Adèle Exarchopoulos, who stars as Adèle in ‘Blue Is the Warmest Colour’.

One of the things I found most interesting was the treatment of gender issues.  Adele is a teen when the film starts, and she is quite beautiful with a fully developed body.  One might assume that she would become sexualized by the men around her, but we see that it is her friends who sexualize her first.  When Adele goes out on a date with a young man from her school, she is not pressured by him but rather by her friends to have sex with him.  After she breaks up with him, we do not see him invade her space, but we do see how impacted he is emotionally because Adele has ended the relationship. When Adele goes to a bar frequented by lesbians, she is approached immediately by one woman, who politely accepts Adele’s disinterest.  Later, though, when friends of Emma show up, lecherous comments and touches are heaped upon Adele.  We see that in this film, the women are just as capable of objectifying women as are the men.


Léa Seydoux, who stars as Emma in 'Blue Is the Warmest Colour'.

Léa Seydoux, who stars as Emma in ‘Blue Is the Warmest Colour’.

This theme is further developed as Adele’s relationship with Emma progresses.  When the two throw a party for Emma’s friends, it is Adele who takes on the role of servant.  She cooks the meals, and serves them, and when the party ends, Emma rests in bed reading as Adele washes the dishes.  Their ensuing conversation demonstrates their disconnect, as Emma tries to prescribe her idea of happiness to Adele.  She suggests that Adele write creatively for profit as a means to find happiness.  This is the happiness that Emma understands because she wants to share her creative work with the world, much as she is open with her sexuality.  Adele, though, wants her writing to remain private, and keeps it strictly in her diary (a key plot point for the graphic novel that gave rise to the film, only barely touched on in the film itself).  This idea of the public/private approach demonstrates their respective approaches to their sexuality.  Emma is public about her sexuality, whereas Adele wishes to keep hers private.  Adele explains that she is happy simply being with Emma, but we see also that Adele finds fulfillment in teaching children.  Emma cannot understand this version of happiness and seems to think that Adele is deficient in some way.  Later in the film, when Emma discovers that Adele has been unfaithful, she employs language that is overtly possessive and demonstrates her view of Adele as a piece of property.  She also employs misogynistic terms like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ to insult Adele.  It is also interesting to consider that when their romance started, Adele was still a junior in high school, while Emma was a senior in university.  Had Emma been a man, instead of a woman, she would have been viewed as predatory (akin to the character David Goldman in the film An Education, which shares some commonalities with Blue Is the Warmest Colour).  This does not suggest that women are the root of the problem.  Instead, it suggests that perhaps such oppression is more kyriarchal in nature and not strictly based on gender.  Men and women are guilty of perpetuating gender stereotypes and unhealthy relationships.  Guilt in these issues is not dependent on what reproductive organ one has, but rather it is dependent on how one behaves.  This was demonstrated during the Steubenville rape trial where the victim was not only assaulted, but afterwards was re-victimized, by the males and female students alike.  It is a complex web which we all have a role in supporting.


I'd much rather have Emma teaching me about Jean-Paul Sartre than Sartre himself!

I’d much rather have Emma teaching me about Jean-Paul Sartre than Sartre himself!

This relationship that is the focal point of the film serves as a feminized version of the Socratic dialoguePlatonic love, as it was originally written, was actually the love between and mentor and a student in which the elder would offer his wisdom, and the younger would offer his youth and beauty; and they were quite specifically both males in this scenario.  The mentor, Socrates in Plato’s work, would educate the youth on philosophical teachings, and then enjoy the young man physically.  That said, a feminist interpretation my call instead for the relationship to be referred to as a Sopphotic relationship or Sopphotic love.  This is exactly what happens in Blue Is the Warmest Colour.  The elder teaches the younger about philosophy (specifically Jean-Paul Sartre), and the younger offers her beauty and youth.  The feminization of this relationship demonstrates how women can be uplifted to the position which men once held, and still hold, and can be seen as equals, but this also demonstrates the problematic nature of such relationships as there is still a degree of exploitation happening.


Roland Barthes is not mentioned by name, but he is certainly alluded to in 'Blue Is the Warmest Colour'.

Roland Barthes is not mentioned by name, but he is certainly alluded to in ‘Blue Is the Warmest Colour’.

The philosophical dialogues add depth to the film.  When Adele speaks to her first love interest, she speaks to Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ and bemoans that when teachers try and force the author’s life and intent onto the reading of a books, she finds that it closes the reading.  Instead she wishes to create her own meaning in the work and co-author the writing in a way, much in line with the literary theory written on the subject.  Emma rejects such co-authorship in her work.  She refuses to change what she is doing and seeks absolute authority over her work.  She does not accept how others see her work and instead wants them to view it how she intends it to be viewed.  She also introduces Adele to Sartre and speaks to existentialist theory, ironic since she seems to want to keep Adele as a static figure.  Emma is free to reinvent herself, but when she sees Adele do the same, shaping a new identity, she becomes infuriated.  Adele, though, struggles to truly embrace a new identity as her past haunts her and has a hold over her, preventing her from redefining herself after her relationship with Emma comes to an end.



Adèle Exarchopoulos in a still from 'Blue Is the Warmest Colour'.

Adèle Exarchopoulos in a still from ‘Blue Is the Warmest Colour’.

Performance is also a huge part of the film.  Adele is overtly a performer, whilst Emma clings to the idea that she embraces her own authenticity.  Adele denies her attraction to women at school when confronted, and likewise does not tell her parents about her relationship.  When she enters the working world, she avoids any mention of Emma to her coworkers.  Emma, on the other hand, refuses to alter herself.  She boasts of Adele to her friends, and makes Adele the subject of her paintings (a way of pimping out Adele, it could be argued).  Emma projects an image of a person who embraces the authentic self, but she dyes her hair. When Emma firsts meets Adele’s parents, she discovers that Adele has not told them that they are romantically involved.  When asked about her boyfriend, Emma feigns that she is in a relationship. To appease their values, she assures Adele’s parents that he studies business.  We see then that Emma does indulge in performance on some levels, even if she is not aware of this.


Abdellatif Kechiche, screenwriter and director of 'Blue Is the Warmest Colour'.

Abdellatif Kechiche, screenwriter and director of ‘Blue Is the Warmest Colour’.

The film is an ambitious work.  The running time is somewhere around three hours, and though some editing may have been able to cut thirty minutes out of the film without losing much of the spirit of the work, the length was not an issue for me.  The performances were amazing.  Everybody seemed authentic; in fact, some scenes could have passed as documentary material.  I can’t think of one character that seemed out of place or forced, though as I am not a speaker of the French language, I am perhaps not the best person to speak to this.  The subtitles did seem a little odd at points; perhaps something was lost in translation?  Overall, the film did a beautiful job of telling a nuanced story filled with great depth.  It is important to note, I think, that Maroh did not like the direction of the film.  The screenwriter and director, Abdellatif Kechiche, departed drastically from the source material on some points.  In the source work,  and there is more of a focus on the social resistance endured by people in the LGBT community.  For instance, Adele’s parents disown her. The lead actresses, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, both claim to have been mistreated by Kechiche during filming and have announced that they will not work with him again.  There were also a number of issues regarding the crew and their mistreatment (none of which I knew about before going into the film).  For me, these things do detract from the film, and it adds a bit of irony in that the Emma character feels that her perspective is not understood by male art dealers while Maroh, the author of the source text, likewise has her perspective usurped by a male director.  The film does allow the protagonist to survive the narrative, which does not happen in the novel, but her happiness is not secured.  It is not a comic ending, but rather an ending with unexplored potential.  This ending, though certainly not melodramatic, fails to demonstrate the lack of recognition given to same-sex couples.  We do not see how the hospital fails to recognize the relationship between Emma and Adele (named Clementine in the novel), nor do we see Adele’s parents refuse to acknowledge Emma, though both events take place in the source text.  The film, for better or worse, is more optimistic than the source material, but regardless of whatever deficiencies it has, is still a film with great merit.


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Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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