In the months since Abdellatif Kechiche’s intimate, epically scaled romantic film won the coveted Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival, it has been steeped in more controversy than any film in recent memory. Though as a personal principle I always refrain from reading reviews of films I have not yet seen, the discussions on twitter and the war of words between the film’s director and one of its stars has been inescapable. Having now seen the film and enjoyed it for the most part, I can’t help but sympathize with sentiments against Kechiche’s approach to portraying the sexual interactions between the film’s lesbian couple and worse yet, the female anatomy in general. So, let’s get all that bad stuff out of the way first.
Stepping out of the theatre after my screening, I was left with an uneasy feeling that can, if I’m being really kind, be described as needing a shower. It isn’t just that Blue‘s already infamous sex scene runs at least a couple of minutes too long for the liking of anyone who’s watching the film as a purely cinematic experience and not a pornographic one. What can at least be argued for that scene – and all preceding and subsequent displays of sexual intercourse – is that they serve a purpose in the narrative. It is beyond the limits of my knowledge, responsibility and ethical behavior as a critic to speculate about whether Mr. Kechiche would paint such a painstakingly graphic portrayal of homosexual intercourse if the partners in question were male, but we could have given him the benefit of doubt if the several instances of casual female objectification didn’t pepper the film from start to finish.
One struggles to think of any justification for the generous number of shots we see of Adele asleep on her stomach at night, framed from the bottom of her legs to emphasize her behind. With the exception of one instance – her first kiss with Emma in the park – how can one explain countless extreme close-ups of Adele’s lips – again mostly in her sleep – except to wonder if the man behind the camera was just far too happy emphasizing excessively on Adele’s body parts. These sexualized framings happen over and over again but the most outrageous example of them is a shot of Adele showering near the end of the film, wherein the camera inexplicably tracks her body from toe to head as she stands in an inconceivably uncomfortable position with open legs and “washes” herself. It’s quite disturbing, too, that these exploitative displays of the female form happen far more regularly in the first half of the film, where the emphasis of the narrative is on Adele’s naivete and immaturity. It left a bad taste in my mouth.
Ethical problems with Kechiche’s depiction of female sexuality aren’t Blue‘s only shortcoming. Despite its three hour duration, the film still manages to skip some important aspects of Adele’s growth despite showing early signs of their involvement in the story. We see Emma’s first meeting with Adele’s parents, where she’s introduced as her tutor, but the film never comes back to revisit Adele’s relationship with them. How that particular relationship plays into her sense of loneliness after breakup, something the film focuses on vigorously, is never explored. Neither are the intervening years between the beginning of her relationship as a passionate affair and its final dissolution. Though as my friend Calum Marsh pointedly remarked on twitter a while back – in a different context – “artists have no responsibility to tell every dimension of a story.” Whether such expositions would help the audience identify with Adele’s character better is an entirely different proposition. One might prefer the juxtaposition between the first and final stages of a relationship without the connecting dots – as do I, in this instance – but criticisms of the film’s indulgent running time aren’t entirely invalid.
Yet, despite everything mentioned in the above paragraphs and Kechiche’s frequent efforts to undermine the heart of his story by diverting our attention with a textbook version of the gaze, Blue ends up a very powerful film. The picture it paints of the rise and fall of a romantic arc for a teenager rings incredibly true – and it is necessary to remind ourselves that, while it’s easy to box LGBT-themed films in a tight niche, the strongest ones are often those that don’t forget how similar the emotional trajectories are in all relationships. The added dimension of self-identification as a lesbian is obviously a pivotal aspect of Adele’s transition into adulthood, but her story is more than just that. It’s a vivid portrayal of love through stages that most of us have experience in our younger years.
That level of urgency and personal immediacy is ultimately down to the work of one person: Adele Exarchopoulos, the monstrously talented young actress who plays the central character here in her debut performance.It is the type of work that, without actorly or showboating, elevates the material with mercurial energy. The character’s particularities are written in curiously broad strokes – she’s Voracious with a capital V, to mention one example – but Exarchopoulos refines her, humanizes her, and perfects her.
This is a performance for the ages. It isn’t merely superb; it is otherworldly. The character is more than a namesake with the performer in real life; she seems a slice of her life. It is a performance bursting with such youthful vitality, her power feels as though it is unending. It’s a hyper-realist performance as good as there has ever been. When the curtain closes, you get the sense that if she suddenly appeared in your life, she’d feel like an old friend. You know her sense of humor, you know the impression on her face under any specific emotion. Her falling in love at first sight is reminiscent of our own experience of doing so, her heartbreak breaks our hearts. It’s ferocious stuff, but incredibly tender all at once. Words don’t do it justice.
I mentioned to friends immediately after watching the film that I find her work to be my favorite performance given by anyone since Adrien Brody’s searing work in The Pianist. In truth, she does even more for the success of her film that he did, in the process entirely justifying the fact that she shares the Cannes award with the film’s director. It’s not just that she’s in every scene of the film and carries it on her young shoulders, but I’d argue that the veracity and intimacy of her work gives her genuine claims to the authorship of the film as a whole. In that sense, the original French title of the film, La vie d’Adele, seems more aptly representative that its more poetic English counterpart. This is truly Adele’s life, and I dare not ask if that’s Adele the character or the actress.