Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Blue Is the Warmest Color reads like an elegy. In it, the author tells the story of 15-year-old Clementine and Emma, her art-school lover and eventual long-term partner, through death-struck flashback, stirred by the reading of a trusty diary. Their story has the timbre of tragedy, which couldn’t be farther from the vision of Abdellatif Kechiche’s engrossing adaptation. Here, Clementine is renamed Adele (Adèle Exarchopolous), but remains a sociable and clearly bright high school student in suburban France. The film’s alternate title, The Life of Adele – Chapters 1 & 2, underlines both the novelistic tone of the story, and the film’s separation from its source material. Adele’s tentative flirtations with Emma (Léa Seydoux) lead to a ragingly passionate relationship that spans years, much like Clementine and Emma’s, but the survival that Kechiche depicts is of a bigger, more contemplative manner. What the writer-director wisely tempers is the victimization, alienation, and dread of Maroh’s anguished romance, which focused on an outer world of hate, hurt, and misunderstanding.
Abandoning the familiar sentimental bow of Maroh’s work, Kechiche makes a birdsong of erotic discovery out of a tender requiem. The ebb and flow of physical attraction and emotional compatibility in long-term relationships is depicted with a striking, non-judgmental clarity. The key alteration comes with the adults: Both Adele and Emma’s parents are minor though memorable and warm characters in Kechiche’s film, as opposed to the shameful, angry bigots that Clementine lives under. Adele must deal with a few schoolyard bullies, some of whom she once counted as friends, when she dumps a hunky, kind schoolmate to pursue Emma, but the writer-director sees his protagonist’s fear and tentativeness as primarily self-imposed. We’re rarely asked to pity Adele, which makes her struggles all the more genuine and empathetic.
Kechiche’s dialogue is, per usual, involving in its rhythmic naturalism, whether it be the swarm of highbrow opinions Adele wades through during a party with Emma’s friends or the barely hushed gossip she indulges in during lunch period. But Kechiche’s film is written largely in body language, which has caused more than a few accusations of sexism and perversity to be lobbed at the Tunisian-French helmer. The fact that his camera is often centered or directly fixed on Exarchopolous’s hips and posterior certainly raises a red flag, but then much of Kechiche’s film focuses on simple physical activities, such as devouring a few helpings of spaghetti bolognese or dancing down the street at a rally.
Indeed, the now-famous sex scene between Seydoux and Exarchopolous isn’t so much erotic as it is thrillingly active, unfolding without pretense or much sound other than the ruffling of sheets or gasps of exertion and pleasure. The much-discussed discomfort felt by the two actresses in filming that scene isn’t surprising, but both of these performances help Kechiche capture what sadly eluded him in his last work, Black Venus, a period piece about the slave Saartjie Baartman’s time in France. In that film, sexuality was presented as a natural curiosity that Kechiche teased out to the point that the entire film felt like a knowing put-on. Blue Is the Warmest Color is less calculated and substantially more emotionally frank in comparison, and the volatile split that dominates the second chapter of the film leads to an impassioned yet sober consideration of a first love that didn’t turn out to be a last love.
What Emma and Adele share is major but not everlasting, the type of intensely physical and intimate relationship that’s entirely common and yet rarely is portrayed convincingly in the movies without some moralistic hook. (It’s no surprise that Adele’s anxiousness with her relationship with Emma spurs from a night of erotic dancing with a colleague, a break from the quiet but battle-tested routine she’s settled into.) Kechiche’s intuitive shooting allows for the most quotidian acts, which can be as minor as a timed glance or as violent as swinging arms, to become visually percussive in each scene. Amassed to nearly three hours, these everyday actions suggest the lithe spirit beneath Adele, and Kechiche’s limber yet exact aesthetic mirrors her ravenous and entirely human curiosity.
Though it’s not one of their more revelatory transfers, Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Blue Is the Warmest Color nevertheless reaffirms the level of attentiveness the storied label gives to all of its titles, new or old. Clarity and texture are peerless throughout, from the cramped busyness of the bar where Emma and Adele meet to the vast, leisurely environs of the park where they fall for each other. Colors are perfectly maintained, crisp and never overly bold. Black levels are excellent and there’s no sign of digital manipulation or touch-ups. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio is just as impressive, with dialogue clear and clean out front. Music and wild noise sound good and well balanced in the back end.
In addition to a trailer and TV spot, the accompanying booklet contains a well-written and thoughtful appreciation of the film by B. Ruby Rich, but sadly, that’s all there is. A full special edition from Criterion, presumably with more supplements, is planned for release in the future.
The body speaks louder than words in the film, and Criterion brings startling clarity to every telling movement and gesticulation, even if the package is light on contextual supplements.