Night at the Movies: “Blue is the Warmest Color,” by Abellatif Kechiche

categories: Cocktail Hour / Movies


Adele Exarchopoulos


Up and to the movies!  At Railroad Square the other afternoon, I stumbled into Blue is the Warmest Color, a film by French auteur Abellatif Kechiche.  I’d heard of the French cartoon novel La vie d’Adele by Julie Maroh, and I knew that the movie had won at Cannes (and would that they would have just called it The Life of Adele for American release).  But it’s one of those happy moments in life when you see a great film without having heard a word about it in advance, none of the controversy, none of praise, none of the nonsense.  You approach it pure, just you and the movie, and only your own reactions to go on.

And baby, I was blown away, scene by scene and act by act, mesmerized, and increasingly in awe.  At first I thought this Adele Exarchopoulos was a lucky find, a natural, like, 15-year-old actor, but in fact she’s twenty, and very much the real thing, a fulsome artist, so much so that I believed she was 15 and I later that she was 25 in a movie that was filmed in only months.  Her intelligence is dazzling, also her access to emotion.  Her character is sensual in every way; she stuffs her face with food, kisses with hunger, too, broods over dark wine, cracks a smile like sunshine in the midst of blackest storm clouds, fires up cigarettes and sucks them down, goes naked and then some with complete insouciance, and I mean naked emotionally as well as in the flesh.  She’s no starved and posing supermodel, either, but as natural as she is great.  And by great I mean great.

File:La Vie d'Adèle (movie poster).jpgThe direction is great, too, takes its time, every scene allowed to play out, very little inter-cutting, the cinematography lush and warm and gorgeous, too.  There are minutes-long shots that just examine a face, or follow Adele (also the character’s name) through the halls of her school, or show us the Parisian neighborhoods she inhabits.  We meet her when she’s a high school kid at sea in her sexuality–boys are boring, especially the boys at her school, even more so in bed.  Girls are more fascinating, and one kiss from a friend confirms something she can barely give a name to.  Though the mean girls do give it a name, of course.  Out and about in the town Adele meets Emma (and of course with that name we think of Jane Austen), a beauty herself in blue hair and boyish manner, an art student as the movie opens, a true hoyden, muscular and square and cocky.  Emma is played by Lea Sedoux, whom you know from Midnight in Paris, but will hardly recognize here.

Their affair is dazzling, it’s deep, it’s confusing, it’s fraught, it’s hot.  The sex on screen seems to be just that, sex between two actors and right in front of us, and it is.  And it isn’t.  I mean, if I was doing what they were doing, I would certainly call it sex (and probably a miracle).  But what these young women are doing, under their director’s eye and instruction and in the face of the camera, is revealing character down to essence, and the film lets us watch, doesn’t stand in our way, doesn’t cut the second it gets hot, doesn’t get embarrassed for us, doesn’t care care what we think.  Because like the characters, the movie is in love, and powerfully, and makes that love available to us, love unto obsession.  It’s like seeing a couple petting on a park bench: you love to look, you have to look away, you have to look again.  The woman in front of me in the theater put her head down so as not to watch the wild scenes of mutual masturbation, of mutual cunnilingus, etc., shot jealous glances at her boyfriend.  But there’s no violence to be seen, and no one pays in doom for illicit love.  That may confuse American audiences, sadly.  Because these characters pay in the same coin we all do: broken hearts, obsession, insomnia.  But when they arrive at ecstasy, they’ve earned it.  Here’s a movie that gets there first, and doesn’t much care about you.  In a good way.

Bill Roorbach is a writer who doesn’t live in France, and can’t wait to mock anyone who calls “Blue is the Warmest Color” pornography: violence is pornography.


  1. M. Graham writes:

    Well, I must say that I had an entirely different reaction (and not because I’m American). I do agree that the actresses were superb, and the cinematography brilliant. But this film felt like exploitation from beginning to end. Of course, it’s every straight man’s dream (no offense to straight men): lots and lots of derriere shots (even on the statues in the museum, which made the gay friend I went with laugh: “you’ve got to be kidding”), which got to be almost funny, and lots of lesbian sex. i found it’s racial politics to be deeply questionable, as well. When I learned that the actresses themselves felt abused during the making of the film, and not for any “artistic” reasons (I hear the director is thinking of suing Ledoux, who said that working for him was “horrible”), it was hardly surprising. But then, I hardly ever go to the movies, so. . . .

    • Bill writes:

      I admit to being a straight man, with all of the sexuality baggage that implies, though I don’t think these women were cast nor did they play to appeal solely to me. I didn’t find the sex very sexy, by the way–more like awkward, effortful, emotional, touching–I did find it, though, to be hugely revealing of character (credit to our lead actors). I thought the museum bottoms were funny, too, and I’m pretty sure the movie did, as well (it needed comic relief, the gods know). And I’ll bet Ledoux is in the right (Exarchopolous apparently complained to reporters, as well, alongside Ledoux at a Cannes photo shoot). I didn’t bring any knowledge of their complaints to the movie, though, knowing nothing in advance about the movie or its filming at all. Every movie is an exploitation movie, so that didn’t worry me much, though I grant it’s true enough here, in a movie that I think consciously luxuriates in exploitation, that of the making, and that of the characters working on one another psychologically. I mean, this isn’t a romantic comedy. It felt like life. The main race issue in France remains immigrants–France is not known for being kind to their newest citizen groups, and great tension remains around the North Africans that French Colonialism brought home. That would be director Abdellatif Kechiche’s family, moving to Nice from Tunis when he was 6. So I guess it’s natural the racial politics would be fraught here. But back to the point we agree on–these actors are great, great. And all the greater for performing under miserable circumstances.

      • M. Graham writes:

        A visceral response to any film is a deeply personal one. I do love your comment that every movie is an exploitation movie, which is probably why I almost never go to the movies. Remember that scene in the Kubrick film (A Clockwork Orange, I think) where Malcolm McDowell’s eyes are forced to stay open while the experts attempt to rehabilitate him (I think I’m remembering this correctly)? I always remember that scene because that’s how I feel in a movie theater: those doors close behind you, the lights go down, and there you are–stuck, in a great big dark room with god-knows-who, forced to watch larger-than-life god-knows-what. The reason I went to this film is because a student of mine, from France, insisted–even emailing me to remind me–that this film would change my life. I’ve sat through three-hour French films and was loathe to see this one, and had a pretty good idea how it would play out, but felt–for some crazy reason–that I needed to see it as a way of honoring my student’s transformative experience with it (he saw it twice). Now, I’m trying to figure out what to say when we return from the Thanksgiving holidays and he will surely want to know what I think about it. I can’t say I liked it. Maybe, “It was interesting”? “I can see why you found it to be so transformative”? But he’s smarter than that. I have to be careful, because he thinks too highly of me, and I don’t want my response to ruin his experience. What to do. What to do.

  2. George de Gramont writes:

    Vive la France and Vive Bill! NYTimes really liked this flic too!Jorge.