Julie Maroh, Ghalia Lacroix, and Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013
#8, 2013 Skandies
I never know how to list movies released with English titles that are not actually translations of the original titles. The French title of this movie translates to The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 & 2, and that of the graphic novel on which is it based translates to Blue Is a Hot Color. But I guess I will stick with the strangely tweaked title on the U.S. posters.
So here we have a movie that, to borrow from Roger Ebert, is interesting not so much because of what it is about, but because of how it is about it. As the French title suggests, it's a slice-of-life movie about a girl named Adèle, with a particular focus on her first serious romance. As a high schooler in Lille, she develops an unexpected fascination toward a blue-haired art student she's seen around town, and awkwardly but successfully engineers a chance meeting that turns into a conversation and before long into a relationship. They find that they have a lot of sexual chemistry, and the relationship lasts for years — long enough for Adèle to graduate both high school and college, and land a job as a kindergarten teacher — but they also have some issues that begin to fester. The former art student, Emma, has now graduated and established an increasingly successful career as a painter, and Adèle feels out of place among Emma's cultured friends; even more troubling is that Emma seems (and has always seemed) to find Adèle's life choices insufficiently ambitious, and keeps pushing her to try writing something for publication. Emma is also frequently busy, sometimes in the company of a fellow artist by whom Adèle feels threatened, and Adèle responds by having an affair — which Emma finds out about in short order, leading her to kick Adèle to the curb. In the (distinctly adolescent) graphic novel, Adèle responds by killing herself with pills; in the movie, she holds it together a lot better, but her life is still crappier by an order of magnitude, and her desperate attempt to reconcile with Emma a few years later is a failure: Emma has forgiven her, and admits that her sex life with her new partner is pretty meh, but on the whole she's happy enough and wants to move forward, not back. The movie concludes with Adèle bleakly accepting that chapter two of her life is definitively over, and while it leaves us with a hint of what chapter three might be, the credits roll before that chapter has a chance to get underway. There's nothing particularly extraordinary about these events, so I assumed that the graphic novel on which the movie was based must be heavily autobiographical — with a protagonist who feels like she could have been picked out of the phone book, I kind of had to figure that the reason the author found this story worth telling was that it was actually in large part her own. That's not a criticism! The fact that Adèle is pretty ordinary and her experience pretty common is a big part of what makes it widely resonant — a testament to which is that a director from a very different demographic segment (male, straight, Tunisian, a generation older) was moved to devote years to adapting it to film.
Which brings me to what I actually wanted to talk about: the narrative technique employed by this movie. As noted, this is a slice-of-life film, but the slices are uncommonly thick. The movie is three hours long! And not because there are so many plot points to cover — there are relatively few — but because when the director shows us Adèle's first conversation with Emma, he actually shows us the whole thing: when Emma finally gets dragged away by her friends, she complains, "I can't talk for five minutes!", but in fact it has been nearly seven unbroken minutes of flirtatious small talk, an eternity in screen time. Or take the bit near the end of the film, when we discover that Adèle is now teaching first grade — we actually watch her cover an entire exercise, calling on kids to recite stanzas from the poem on their handouts until the whole thing is done, giving us time to notice how Adèle is now just slightly more short-tempered with her tiny charges than she was when she was teaching kindergarten, back when she and Emma were still together. On the whole, I give this approach a thumbs-up: while "too slow, gave up" has been a common refrain in these articles, I am also generally not a fan of the telegraphic style that dominates feature films. I wouldn't have wanted to sit in a theater seat for three straight hours to watch this one, but this is the 21st century, and I was happy to watch it in fifteen-minute chunks at home, like binge-watching four episodes of a TV show. (And while three hours may sound like a lot, apparently the director shot something on the order of 750 hours of footage from which to select his favorite three hours from — and behaved like a psychotic tyrant in the process, screaming at the actresses for flubbing the 100th take of a scene after doing 99 perfectly fine ones. That aspect of the approach here I do not give a thumbs-up.)
The length of the scenes also applies to the sex scenes, so the first time Adèle and Emma fuck, it's well over six minutes of carnal gymnastics with no cutting away to anything else. And then there's another longish sex scene less than ten minutes later. I gather that this was mildly controversial, but so far as I could tell, these scenes function the same way as the scenes of Adèle teaching her classes: we're supposed to be noting how Adèle has changed by carefully observing the differences in her behavior. Pattern 26 says that movies shouldn't be coy, and if you want to convey that the protagonist is tentative about trying out FF sex acts for the first time and then grows more confident, we should probably see her being tentative as she tries out FF sex acts for the first time and then growing more confident. If your story hinges on establishing that sexual chemistry is the main thing this relationship has going for it, we should probably see that sexual chemistry in action — with bonus points if it is immediately juxtaposed with scenes that show how each of the two main characters is a bit out of place interacting with her partner's family. I've read David Mamet's argument that sex in movies should merely be suggested — that directors should cut from the kiss to the postcoital cuddling, or to breakfast the next morning — because sex scenes throw viewers out of the world of the story, as they think, "Whoa, those actors are actually having sex!" or "Nah, those actors aren't actually having sex"… i.e., thinking of the people onscreen as actors rather than as characters. But by that logic, wouldn't showing a kiss make viewers think, "Whoa, those actors are actually kissing!"? Wouldn't showing breakfast make viewers think, "Nah, those actors aren't actually eating — look, you never see her swallow the omelette"? Maybe sex was in a different category when Mamet said that, but again, this is the 21st century and we have the Internet now. Porn is free, and images of people having sex are part of the texture of day-to-day life. Like, even if you never deliberately surf for porn, how do you click around on Tumblr for more than a couple of minutes without running into something sexually explicit? Not to mention the fact that, even in Mamet's day, if you weren't a virgin, then your memory was full of scenes more explicit than anything Blue Is the Warmest Color offers up. So what's to be shocked by? I guess there's a reasonable argument to be made that the problem is not shock but arousal — that what throws you out of a movie is not astonishment at what you are seeing, but the sheer physiological distraction of seeing something you find really hot (if you do). But there are all kinds of somatic cinema. The same sorts of charges could be leveled at horror movies, or action movies — it seems like the adrenaline spike of fear or excitement should be just as distracting as that of getting turned on, no? And provoke the same sorts of responses: "The monster didn't really kill that actor!" "Did they actually blow that up or was it CGI?" I guess the last thing I will say on this topic is this. I sort of get the sense that, when all is said and done, this movie is supposed to feel like a compendium of Adèle's memories when she looks back on her relationship with Emma. It's three hours long, and doing a rough count, I see that somewhere between twelve and twenty minutes are sexually explicit — it depends on whether you count cuddling or not. Call it ten percent. Now, when I look back on my past relationships, do ten percent of the memories that spring to mind involve sex? Sure! That might even be lowballing it. So the sexual content of this movie did not seem excessive to me, either qualitatively or quantitatively.
P.S.: I was gobsmacked when Adèle walked by a poster of the French handwriting system and I saw how the French write a cursive capital X. Look at this thing!:
P.P.S.: There is a kid in Adèle's class named Adam, and Adèle pronounces the "m" at the end! My French teachers back in the day always pronounced my name like "a donkey" without the "nkey" part, which I took to be the standard pronunciation because they also said that the only consonants that were ever pronounced at the ends of French words were "c", "r", "f", and "l". But apparently the rule doesn't apply to "Adam" because "-am" endings aren't native to French — I did a search for every vocabulary item with an "-am" ending in the French language, and it was full of results like "webcam" and "Dar es Salaam" — so they get pronounced the same way as in the languages from which the words were originally drawn.
P.P.P.S.: There is also a kid in Adèle's class named "Prune". Poor Prune.