Blue Is The Warmest Color has easily become the most talked about film of the year. With its release in US, the debate is still on. Fatema Kagalwala saw the film, ponders over it, and tries to understand the controversies and criticism surrounding the film. Read on.
I watched BITWC at MAMI and not without fighting a few battles for it. It included doing a town-to-Andheri trip in rush hour traffic, giving up watching ‘The Past’ after much deliberation, and other such sundry mad-hatter-ness over-enthu cuts are usually prone to. I had bought the hype completely and the third, on–request screening at the MAMI film fest was just way too precious to miss.
I watched the 3-hr long film and then began reading about it all. The criticism of the male gaze, the length of the sex scene, the book vs film, (It is based on Julie Maroh’s graphic novel ‘Blue Angel’), Kechiche’s treatment of the girls and so on. I was quite surprised to read the content of the criticism and notice that the intense film hadn’t moved the nay-sayers enough to be more forgiving. At the same time I was very surprised to see I felt much more for the film than I first realised.
At the outset, it seemed to be yet another coming-of-age European film, delving delicately into the inner life of its tremulous 15 yr old. It turned out to be quite so, except that it wasn’t delicate and it wasn’t a ‘yet another’ film. It was one of the most disturbing, hell-fire-raising films, which days later remains haunting, just like the sleepy eyes of its protagonist Adele.
From the time the film starts we know Adele is special. Just like Juno, in that other defining teenage film of the same name. And she is searching. Just like each one of us is at that age. We don’t know yet what exactly is she searching for, but she is expectant and anticipating. Almost holding a breath, waiting for life to surprise her as she pats her unruly hair in place and casually walks up to her school bus.
Adele’s first romantic encounter isn’t bad. In fact she seems to be enjoying the attentions of this nice guy who really seems to be interested in her. But her first heterosexual encounter leaves her cold. And confused. She wakes up in the middle of the night fantasising about this strange girl with blue hair she passed by on the street the other day and since then hasn’t been able to forget.
Suddenly, she is so restless we crave for her to find that blue-haired girl. She is completely unaware of what she feels though, when she kisses another girl in a fleeting moment of irrepressible passion. By then, we have an inkling of Adele’s journey and wonder if it is going to be easy. By now we know she is an intense person and at that delicate threshold of age where experiences can make or break her.
She meets that blue-haired girl soon enough. It is at a gay bar Adele goes to with her best friend and stays back in, exploring it on her own…almost intuitively, the same way she has decided to explore this new side of her. The girl with blue hair is called Emma and she has been drawn by Adele too. There is something to be said about unexplainable chemistry that all of us at some point have encountered, the same that has now drawn Emma and Adele into its net. It isn’t new for the older Emma, and soon Adele gives herself up to this new-found passion. She gives in because she senses this is the truth she has been seeking. It envelopes her completely and she lets it possess her with a consuming intensity.
As we suspected early on, it isn’t easy for her. The first attack comes from her girl gang back at school and we learn of the irrational, demonic homophobia the world is gripped in. Teenagers, before they turn rebellious, generally are the most prejudiced, most intolerant, most judgemental, operating from a world-view sharp in its blacks and whites. Adele also has a conventional, hetero-normative family, equally prone to the same discomfort with homosexuality her classmates share. It is this that makes Adele introduce Emma as her friend to her family. But it does not provoke questions in her mind, she is consumed by the passion she feels for Emma. And Emma, for all her arty ambitions, is deeply involved as well, happy to devour Adele and be possessed by her.
They are famished for each other and satiated by each other. The two unprecedented sex scenes in the film, controversial but landmark, define the passion they feel for each other, a passion governed by an unbreakable bond and undeniable chemistry, stuff that made-for-each-others are made of. There have been several disconcerted noises about a straight film-maker making a lesbian film and the male gaze re-imagining a female sexual encounter to its own benefit. As much as my limited understanding of homosexual relationships, desire, love and togetherness goes, they aren’t any different from heterosexual ones. Desire after all, is an equaliser and passion is not partial; that fire consumes all of us equally. Kechiche captures Adele and Emma as raw and animal as possible. They WANT each other and want each other completely. There is something life-affirming in a passion like that and Kechiche and both the girls do complete justice in bringing it to life.
The carnality of the sex scenes, their raw lust for each other and unbridled nudity puts the question of the gaze in picture. Whose point of view the film is from and whose point of view is Kechiche trying to underscore? This (link) lambasts Kechiche for using lesbian sexuality to satisfy the male voyeurism for girl-on-girl action. This (link) criticises the un-emotionality of the scene and feels the 3rd person pt of view, the staginess and complete lack of the girls’ point of view takes away from their story. For the writer, the male gaze claim is somehow validated by the way the scene is staged. However, I find it difficult to imagine how close-ups would have escaped a similar criticism of exploitation. The staging of the film, one that includes the entwined nude bodies of both locked in lust but views it at a distance, could be seen as a documentary eye as well. Or observant. To my mind, if he had cut close, that would have rang false, and maybe then looked like the male gaze on a trip.
Someone asked me if, being a woman, the un-emotionality of the carnal scenes put me off. But being a woman, the scene wasn’t unemotional to my eyes. The lust was raw but it arose from a deep bond the two felt between themselves. And Kechiche’s portrayal seemed to be capturing that bond from a safe distance, hesitant to step in lest he interfere and become the unnecessary third person. I loved what I saw, the unabashed hunger of a female for another female, somehow affirming the yin and yang of ourselves and how we have enough of both in each one us irrespective of our genders.
What is important about the entire male gaze question is the question of protagonist. In a heterosexual sex scene, the action is almost always filmed from the male point of view, with the female framed as the object of vicarious desire for the film-maker and audience. But with both people involved being women and the camera being distant, I was left asking – who was the desired and who was the one lusting, and how was the audience meant to relate to it all? It was an interesting equation Kechiche threw up and I think he did away with the male gaze with his framing. The 3rd person point of view lens helped me watch and engage with a very intimate film without obstruction, without external baggage. It may not have been the intention, but it was liberating. It is worthy of note that in most other emotional scenes Kechiche goes and stays really close, so close it almost seems like he is desperate to peek into Adele and Emma’s souls…And it is important because that involves us intimately, without us really realising it.
Adele’s growing up from a student to teacher is glossed by. Suddenly, she is playing the dutiful, loving ‘wife’ to Emma and her party of arty friends whom we still don’t know if we can take seriously. I am indifferent to the jump in years because what matters most is the change in their relationship. They have settled into a regular live-in relationship and life has begun to fray the passion. Emma doesn’t seem to be as devoted as before and is it only the stress of a career going nowhere? Why the need to connect with Adele intellectually? Why the need for Adele to have a passion especially in the arts? Why isn’t Adele’s love for teaching, something she does intuitively very well, not enough? These questions are at the edge, because the film meanders aimlessly and stops at a lot of places it needn’t have. But after touching on all those uncomfortable questions lightly, it stops at a random encounter of Adele with a man. And Adele’s downward spiral begins. She is lonely and searching again. This time it hurts to watch.
Which was the most disturbing scene – the break-up or the sex scene? Which more agonising? Interviews (link) of the stars have mentioned the trauma they underwent while filming both. Adele speaks of being very raw from being being hit hard and of Kechiche screaming at Emma to hit her even harder. The scene was filmed for hours and hours on end, that and only that scene repeatedly. That I closed my eyes during the scene is probably evidence enough that Kechiche got what he wanted, a soul-searing portrait of heartbreak complete with tears, snot and blood.
When Adele was out on the streets, helpless and howling like a pup in pain, it was then that actually I began to feel for her character. I wanted Emma to take her back and say all was fine. I wanted their passion to be restored to its previous glory and I wanted Adele to be safe. Because after that we never see the Adele we had been watching till then. And as with all those heart-broken, Adele’s lowest point comes in the restaurant when she desperately begs Emma to take her back. We see Emma settled into a boring, conventional life without any of the spark she shared with Adele and it is not explained to us why chose that. Maybe it is age, maybe wisdom, maybe disillusionment. Heartbreaks can leave unrecognisable scars and change us unfathomably. Although she responds with long-repressed passion to Adele’s sexual overtures she chooses to walk away, finding the comfort of a homely twosome more reassuring than the wildfire of one with Adele.
Intentionally or not, the film pushes us to take sides. It is Adele who strays but it is Adele’s hurt we relate to the most. Infidelity in any relationship is traumatic, but in one as intense as this, can be much more; powerful enough to break spines. Irrespective of who strays, both bear the brunt and Emma must have too but we don’t have an opportunity to know her side. She arrives at ‘infinite tenderness’ for Adele by the end of the film and it is a stirring moment. Because after great passions have worn themselves off and great rages have tired, it is actually only infinite tenderness that remains. We do not see Emma’s reconciliation with the loss, nor her transition from anger to forgiveness. But in the fabric of the film, her journey is not important, only Adele’s is and the film seems to be mute about it from this point on. It hangs like Adele does, between the last vestiges of Emma’s memories and a present that refuses to bear a better tomorrow. Anyways, when does life move until healing liberates us? Stranded, life stagnates or goes round and round in circles, desperate to find that point where it all began and where it all ended. It is called moving on for that reason. Adele is stuck too but one day she will move on.
Kechiche’s universe is not dystopian but it isn’t dreamy either. He just leaves enough space for us to imagine and hope if we are optimistic. For Adele though, it’s an end, final. She has no choice but to move on and there is no more of that we can be a part of either. The film ends with her walking away from Emma’s fashionable, successful art show. Adele has grown up or maybe she hasn’t but knowing what we know of her, she will. Perhaps that is why the French title – “La Vie d’Adèle—Chapitres 1 et 2’ makes more sense.
There is so much sensuality in the film and not all of it is tactile. The camera caressing the forms of nude statues, the indulgent focus on food, the splash of blue everywhere, Emma’s nude paintings of Adele and so on. It makes for a voluptuous fabric, the lust seeping out of the seams and spreading across the entire canvas with a hedonistic glee. This focus on the nudes in art points at an attempt to subtly explore the relationship of sexuality and art, foregrounding Emma’s artistic pursuits heightened by Adele’s presence (she calls Adele ‘my muse, my inspiration’.) Adele isn’t gratified by this; modelling for Emma is just an extension of giving herself to Emma. But for Emma, this space isn’t seamless, there are brackets. If there weren’t, her flagging artistic ambitions wouldn’t be straining their relationship. There is a reason why she is an artist and Adele a teacher in the film.
To hear the story of the original novel the film birthed from, after having watched it, it seemed like a K serial re-envisioned by Ray. I am glad the film did not have any of the sentimentality of revisiting memories through diaries, having to deal with the angst of long-suffering bitter parents of your lover and so on. It dealt with the ‘now’ of Adele, with an honesty and temerity few can muster. Kechiche must be an extremely dark and intensely emotional person to have delved into the soul of love, desire and betrayal as he has. Blue, indeed was the warmest colour at Mumbai Film Festival.