Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: "Blue is the Warmest Color" is an Ambitious Yet Familiar Love Story

Left to right: Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux
It is a film that shook the world. After director Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and became embraced by Steven Spielberg, it has remained in discussion for its depiction of lesbian relationships. The three hour story that follows Emma (Lea Seydoux) and Adele (Adele Exarchopolous) is one that seems very much progressive and is one of the most talked about gay-themed films since Brokeback Mountain. Even if it doesn't stand to gross even half of that, its existence is complicated and one that reflects the discovery of love in almost too accurate of detail from its embarrassing beginnings to its somber end. The only issue is that it also features all of the bumps in between, which aren't always that flattering.

The film is a love story. It is about discovering your inner desires and finding the person who will provide them, even if they aren't socially considered typical choices. There's plenty of prejudice from students, families, and bystanders. In fact, the struggle presents itself in the first hour of the film quite effectively as Adele struggles to find out who she is and whether her emotions are right. It is a tepid exploration into romance that only gets more fascinating the more that Emma and Adele spend time together laughing over their dreams of a better future.

If the film did one thing right over the adaptation of Julie Maroh's graphic novel, it is providing more context and purpose behind the scenes. Where the panels tended to run through conversation quickly, the film revels in them and it is in these nuances that we get the romance. It isn't a philosophical debate on love, but just about life's many issues. In the execution, it is the chemistry that drives the film and through discovering interest, it serves almost as the audience dating the characters, finding out enough to establish them as more personal than caricatures.

The romance glides through the film and Adele's evolution as a character is fascinating. Her trajectory involves her essentially growing up with Emma to the point that their hardships are heartbreaking. It is impossible to imagine these two characters apart. Even as they lay together naked in bed, making jokes, there is something that connects these two that is inexplicable. They are soul mates and only in each other are they happy. As the story progresses over time and places, there is a sense that even as they see other people, they will always long for each other's company. It is a romance that came from unlikely places, yet transcends stereotypes of typical homosexual behavior and goes straight for the moments of intimacy.

The only issue with this story and its three hour length is that at points it does strip the intimacy away in order to focus on a grander scale. Unlike Maroh's story, this isn't just about a gay couple. This is about their lives as people. Adele becomes a teacher and Emma an artist. Soon their lives become more complex and they are no longer seeing each other as lovers, but housemates. This isn't so much an issue in execution, but seems to derive too much from what made the source material so captivating. Separately, their lives aren't that fascinating and it drags much of the last hour down, only allowing a few noteworthy scenes to elevate emotion. By stripping the intimacy, it may explore the temptations while in love, but they don't feel essential to the bigger narrative.

Blue is the Warmest Color succeeds as a narrative despite having very familiar beats. Even if some edits to Maroh's story fleshed out the characters, a good chunk of it feels inessential and voyeuristic at points. The performances are solid and while the authenticity over their gay sex is a topic of much discussion, it only seems to be because of how personal this film gets. Yes, the sex may have been gratuitous and not often used to forward story, but it did give a sense of realism that was attempted, which is at very least admirable. Even if Adele's emotional complexity worked better on the page, Exarchopolous does a fine job leading the film with vulnerability.

It isn't a revolutionary film in that it succeeds at making lesbians into a captivating, personal tale accessible to mainstream audiences. In many respects, it tries to do that, but the three hour time length and additions to Maroh's story only make it less about the feeling of discovering romance and more the familiar experience of maturity. In sacrificing this point, the film loses some sense of enjoyment. Even if it maintains a tragic, emotional ending, the ride there is almost too clinical at points to feel earned. With some pacing issues, the story feels like it could have used some more editing, as the last hour adds very little of value to the Emma and Adele romance that captivated the first two hours.

It is a tough call to separate my opinions of Blue is the Warmest Color from the graphic novel, notably because of how concrete and precise it was in depicting the emotional struggles of romance in interesting ways. By comparison, the film fails to capture similar energy and often goes against narrative beats. It focuses on the small conversations that add more weight to the romance, but also doesn't have nearly as much emotionally in the stakes. Even if Maroh's source may seen too typical to work as a full narrative onscreen, it is still at points far more fascinating because it like an honest look into Adele's emotional struggle with social norms, which was very much lacking here.

With that said, there isn't much to argue with it besides length. The film is solid yet a little overrated. Had it not been for Cannes, this probably wouldn't be as immediate in conversation and probably would have faded to irrelevancy quicker. The disapproval I share of this film has nothing to do with disgust towards the subject. It has more to do with it just not being that thrilling of a narrative. Maybe had I not read and admired Maroh's graphic novel beforehand, maybe the changes would have been more captivating. However, just on a narrative level, there are moments that don't work and it is arguably not the best foreign film of the year.

With that said, it is hard to do a proper analysis on its placement in the Best Foreign Film race specifically because statistics website Gold Derby has no information on the candidates at this time. I also cannot claim to be an expert on the Best Foreign Film category in previous years. All I am aware of is that Amour won last year and it also won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Even if Blue is the Warmest Color looks poised to be nominated by its sheer credibility in the discussion, I cannot guarantee it to be a front runner. At most, I feel it may be able to slide on its progressive views of relationships, even if in general that hasn't been noticeable in too many other more prominent categories consistently.

Getting into the other categories, things become more interesting. In a strange turn of events, Exarchopolous currently ranks at #6 in the Best Actress race with odds of 50:1. Of all the performances, that is probably the strongest and most deserving. Meanwhile, Seydoux is in the Best Supporting Actress race at #11 with odds of 100:1, which seems even more unlikely. If Exarchopolous stands any chance of getting nominated, she would have to beat out Meryl Streep (August: Osage County), and guaranteed nominees Sandra Bullock (Gravity) and Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine). It is a tough field with Amy Adams (American Hustle) also looking to be a potential upset. Of all outside chances, Exarchopolous seems to be a big one and it depends largely on how the film will play long term.

Much like Seydoux, the Best Adapted Screenplay category is looking troublesome as well. It currently ranks at #10 with odds of 100:1. More-so than the Best Supporting Actress race, the category has broader competitions and with 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Before Midnight and The Wolf of Wall Street already having strong presences, it looks like the film will not continue in Amour's footsteps with multiple nominations for a foreign film. It may very well just be lucky to be widely recognized, a feat that is not easy for general audiences and world cinema. In some regards, it probably already won simply by being widely talked about.

Even if I feel that Blue is the Warmest Color is slightly overrated, it isn't from lack of effort. It may be from too much effort. The accuracy and tenderness of the performances ranges throughout the film, but it is overall a solid story with plenty of heart to offer. It probably won't play big at the Oscars outside of the Best Foreign Film category, and that isn't anything to be ashamed about. What we got was an attempt to show a gay couple as nothing more than romance, and they succeeded by looking beyond the taboo and at the people who have to deal with it. Maybe not always successful, but it is definitely more of a success than a failure.

Will Blue is the Warmest Color win Best Foreign Film? Is Adele Exarchopolous capable of beating out the likes of Meryl Streep and Amy Adams for a nomination? Is the film's progressiveness going to be helpful in winning?

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