Image Courtesy of IFC Films

With the domestic release of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival-winning Blue is the Warmest Color, I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking about my relationship to film and what exactly it is that I find so compelling about the medium.  This thought process has been particularly motivated by my realization of how many of my favorite films of years past feature troubled female protagonists.  From Martha Marcy May Marlene‘s Martha to Margaret‘s Lisa Cohen, I continually find myself fascinated and mesmerized by the women in these stories.

Film inherently exploits our empathy in a way that is unique from every other creative medium.  It asks us to piece images together to form a narrative and in doing so allows us to become a part of the process.  Novels, no matter the perspective, ask for more creativity from their audiences and have a more difficult time escaping from some sort of ownership or first-person perspective.  Film, by its very nature, manages to keep viewers at a distance.  Outside of the production team, audiences are not creating the images themselves and must always view the film from the gaze of another.  I know that I crave the slightly removed intimacy of film but I wonder if my own gaze, especially as a straight male viewer, influences my relationship with the women in these films.

Blue is the Warmest Color, a film about a young adult’s sexual awakening as a lesbian, was directed by the acclaimed Abdellatif Kechiche, a straight male like myself, and had me questioning the perspective the film takes towards the often explicit sexual imagery and character portraiture.  While I can never be sure of the authenticity of the experiences being depicted, I found myself hopelessly lost in and emotionally bombarded by Kechiche’s film.

The film follows Adèle (Adèle Exarchopolous), a French high school junior, as she experiments with her burgeoning sexuality.  She’s an unconventional beauty, constantly tugging at her messy hair, who catches the attention of a male classmate.  Adèle is emotionally distraught after a sexual experience with the young man leaves her cold and unfulfilled.  It is not until she experiences a chance encounter with the blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux) that she finds any resemblance of sexual fulfillment, even if it is in a fantasy.  As if guided by fate, Adèle finds herself in a lesbian bar seeking out the mysterious and confident Emma.  Before long, the two are engaging in soul-searching conversations via park bench and sensual ecstasy via mattress.

The film does not just follow Adèle; it obsesses in her.  Kechiche frames the film in unrelenting close-ups of her face.   He allows us to experience the world through her expressions and reactions.  As Adèle explores the lesbian bar, we aren’t treated to viewing the crowd she scans. It is a good thing then that she has such an interesting and expressive face; one that could carry this film far past its lengthy 3-hour runtime.  Exarchopolous’s Adèle is on the cusp of womanhood but her round cheeks and prominent front teeth constantly reveal her lingering childhood.  Kechiche admires Adèle as she sleeps, mouth slightly agape and unaware of the camera’s gaze, as one might admire the nocturnal slumbers of an infant.

The performances by and chemistry between Exarchopolous and Seydoux prove just how gifted these two young actresses are.  Exarchopolous dares you to look away from her often frantic and severe performance as the emotionally vast Adèle.  She’s a physical force to be reckoned with; every action she performs is in the moment and full of pent-up energy and frustration.  Her mouth seems poised to jump into action, as it is constantly hanging slightly agape, whether it be to satisfy her ravenous hunger, thirst, need to wax poetic, or to engage in passionate kissing.  Seydoux’s Emma is as cool and mysterious as her blue hair.  She holds a knowledge behind her feline-like eyes that stands in stark contrast to Adèle’s naiveté.

Kechiche’s camera films their lovemaking in explicit detail and yet gives the proceedings a clinical detachment.  The long sex scenes allow the camera to move out of close-ups as the couple quickly makes their way through a checklist of sexual positions.  The camera lingers on their milky skin and idealistic bodies, projecting an almost fantasy-like ideal of what young love must look and feel like.  Are these scenes a realistic depiction of what lesbian sex is like?  I will certainly never know, but I found them important, even in their expanded length, in depicting a time in Adèle’s life where her only focus was sexual gratification and her romantic, if paperback-novely, love affair.

There are a few shots in the film, particularly one that depicts Adèle’s naked body in the shower, where Kechiche feels like he oversteps his bounds and allows his camera to operate as the male gaze.  Shots like these were jarring and he tries to acknowledge it in the film by featuring a scene where Emma and Adèle wander through an art gallery observing the buttocks of several female statues.  It is a playful moment and commentary that is repeated later in the film when a shot opens on Adèle’s exposed crotch, again venturing into the territory of the male gaze, only to reveal that Emma is painting Adèle for her art show.  It is a smart visual wink from Kechiche that helps to acknowledge that he’s aware of how his eye towards the young women might be viewed.

Blue is the Warmest Color continues down a well-worn path for a romantic drama as the two begin to drift apart and tensions arise.  The blue colors that not only dominate Emma’s hair color but the visual palette of the film begin to fade and make way for a fiery red.  Emma encourages Adèle to find other passions to fill her life with, but Adèle is content just having Emma as her sole passion in life.  Adèle has to learn to become a woman by defining herself outside of her sexual desires and in the process learn to love herself.  While the sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color are sure to garner the most attention and conversation, the film spends far more of its runtime exploring Adèle’s growth as a teacher and maturation into a self-confident woman.

As a viewer I longed to see Adèle attain happiness, knowing full well that it might never happen.  It is the rare drama that is so precise, so intimate, that every word and look carries with it incredible consequences.  Blue is the Warmest Color could have easily continued for another 7 hours and I’d still be in that theater, nervously clutching the arm of my chair.  When so many films opt for consequence-free actions in the face of a universe-ending threat, Blue is the Warmest Color proves that intimacy is almost always more exciting and challenging.  Of all the gazes that Blue is the Warmest Color dabbles in, my own turned out to be one of total awe.

Blue is the Warmest Color is currently playing at the Charles Theater.