Unabashedly romantic in the grandest, tear-stained way, Blue is the Warmest Color is also a strangely empty epic of the heart. Abdellatif Kechiche’s extravagant film is an indulgently overlong romance of long pauses, watchful glances, and infatuated lovemaking. It features two glowing performances from Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulous as the young women bound up in a relationship whose minefields and fireworks they can barely comprehend, let alone control. This old-fashioned, love-at-first-sight view of romantic attraction is not exactly en vogue these days, so it’s even more frustrating that Kechiche botches it.
Exarchopoulous plays Adele, the object of fascination for Kechiche’s camera throughout most of the film. She’s a quiet high school student in what appears to be a smaller city somewhere near Paris (the film is lacking in specifics at almost all times). Adele has a small group of friends, but doesn’t seem closer to them than she does to her parents. A relationship with a boy in her class proceeds to sex quite rapidly, but probably only because she wants to get it over with. This first long section follows the modern French style, with its naturalistic lighting and looping, quiet rhythms of distant longing.
The only person who turns Adele’s head is Emma, a slightly older woman with blue hair and an impish, crooked grin whom she spots on the street. While Adele comes off as dazed at the best of times, this sighting so dizzies her that going back to normal life seems impossible. So Adele goes looking for Emma in a lesbian bar and finds her. The affair that follows is immediate and hungry, as though Adele has been starving her entire life and just now found nourishment (“so you’re voracious?” Emma asks). The more obnoxious of Adele’s friends quickly sniff out what’s happening and start lobbing homophobic insults. But Adele’s connections to the school or indeed anybody outside Emma appear to be so shallow-rooted that such rejection barely registers past the initial hurt.
Kechiche’s film made waves initially due to the length and explicitness of the sex scenes between Seydoux and Exarchopoulous, who was still a teenager during filming. It actually wouldn’t be hard to make the case that those scenes, lengthy and scrupulously detailed as they are, are verging on pornographic in style. You will try in vain to locate the smallest grain of realism in the late scene when Emma and Adele are passionately entangled in a cafe where nobody seems to pay their exhibition the slightest attention.
But this showy and sometimes fake-seeming physicality isn’t what’s most troubling about the film. It would be one thing if this were simply a romance whose filmmaker didn’t know when to quit. Extremism in the defense of love is no vice, after all. What’s worrisome here is that for all his close-focus attention to these women, Exarchopoulous most particularly, Kechiche fails to create a film that elucidates or understands either of them. His camera is microscopic in detailing Exarchopoulous’s body, particularly her face. Emma drifts in and out of the film, whereas Adele is the subject of Kechiche’s long, searching takes.
For all that time, though, very little is revealed about her. Early on, we learn that Adele likes to journal and read. She argues the points of philosophy from time to time, but even that level of engagement fades away once she meets Emma. Her character goes from seeming just shy to practically incapable of human interaction. There’s a painfully extended dinner party scene where Adele stands intimidated and quiet amidst all of Emma’s talky artist friends. All Adele seems to understand is food and the preschool children she teaches after graduation; whenever she’s around adults or even slightly older children, she freezes up. In the film’s borderline insulting view, she’s nearly pre-verbal in her engagement with the outside world.
In so freely adapting Julie Maroh’s graphic novel, Kechiche has not just abandoned its tragic view of this clamorous love affair and replaced it with long-winded silences, but also failed to create fully fleshed-out people for his talented actresses to inhabit.