When a comic book comes to the big screen these days, it’s not exactly a big surprise to experience the deafening roar as legions of fans—or even the comic’s creators—set about to bellyaching about the cinematic translation. In the same way that fans of novels or television programs have an emotional investment in the property, and therefore feel some sort of personal stake in its movie adaptation, comics fans…
On second thought, before I even finish that sentence, let’s make this comparison a little more honest. Comics fans aren’t exactly like fans of regular books or your average TV show. They’re far more… dedicated?…in offering their strongly worded praise or criticism when it comes to rating big-screen versions of their favorite material. Sure, “dedicated,” let’s go with that.
Maybe you weren’t even aware that the lesbian love story Blue Is the Warmest Color was based on a comic book. You couldn’t be blamed for missing that little detail in the sea of ink (print and digital) spilled so far about the controversial film from Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche, because nearly every discussion of the picture’s impressive artistry has been subsumed by talk of sex. And more talk of sex. And, afterwards, how the movie handles sex.
The sex scenes between the female leads, let’s not be absurd, are absolutely memorable and worth talking about; they’re a major component of the film, just as they are an important aspect of the graphic novel. (Yes, I waited until now to use the term “graphic novel,” to provide a relevant emphasis that connects the comic and the movie) As you might expect when it comes to any conversation about sex (be it straight or gay), the back-and-forth can turn from thoughtful to clumsy and silly in a big hurry.
Most readers won’t care very much at all about the public bickering that took place between the lead actresses and the director even as the film made a huge impression by taking the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. (To sum up: Both actresses made remarks about feeling like they were mistreated by Kechiche during production, especially during the sex scenes. The filmmaker took extensive umbrage. Finis.) You might have equally little interest in venturing into the weeds of cultural political correctness, sussing out exactly who is qualified to observe what about the movie’s content, or broader still, who might be qualified to dramatize what in terms of making the film in the first place. Yes, these conversations are going on now, too. They go something like this:
Heterosexual Critic: I think (fill-in-the-blank).
Gay Critic: Well, you’re straight, just like the filmmaker.
GC: So, your opinions are informed by bias and a lack of understanding because of your orientation.
HC: Aren’t yours?
And on it goes. Often these debates get judgmental and nasty. These arguments are a lot like the chatter that went on when Norman Jewison was first slated to direct Malcolm X. Whatever you might think of the movie Spike Lee ultimately made (I happen to love it), there was much philosophical litigation over whether or not a white filmmaker could, or should, be entrusted to make a big-screen biopic of the African-American icon. My own feelings about these kinds of discussions are that they can often be of some, but never all-encompassing, interest and value.
There will always and forever be “context” to anything artistic. One way of evaluating the success or import of a work, certainly, is to pay attention to just how much discussion of that context takes charge of the public’s discourse about it. By that measure alone, Blue Is The Warmest Color can be said to be one of the most important films of the year.
It’s certainly one of the best.
In just under three hours, the film tells a relatively simple coming-of-age story. At 15, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos, rightly discussed now as a Best Actress contender) experiences her sexual awakening—which becomes confusing for her because she finds herself increasingly attracted to other girls, but there remain, still, those nagging expectations of peers and family members about what kind of love is “right” and what kind of love is “wrong.” Her brief affair with a smitten young man, of course, has to end badly. Dreams attempt to tell her what she is not yet willing to acknowledge—that she is gay, and that she fell in “love at first sight” with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue-haired young woman with whom she exchanged a fleeting and tantalizing gaze one day while walking down the street.
As we might expect, they are eventually brought together, fall in love with each other, and, after the passage of some years when their love deepens and matures, experience a painful breakup. It’s a “first love” story; this is what must happen, after all. There is jealousy, mistrust, acts of both minor cruelty and unforgivable betrayal.
Viewers will recognize themselves in both of the characters, though our point of primary identification is clearly meant to be with Adèle. One of them is more dependent on the other. One partner is more comfortable in their own skin. One is more experienced in relationships than the other. One grows suffocated. One cheats. One of them, confronted with the pain of separation, shrieks and wails and fears there is no going forward if the relationship truly ends. One is able to move on. The other isn’t. In relationships, you know which of these you’ve been, and which of them you are.
If it seems odd to make such a point of stressing that audiences would recognize themselves through the characters in a movie telling a story about first love, well, I’ll just cop to caving in to the recognition that this is still the society in which we live—where some heterosexual viewers yet need to be reassured that the fact that a movie deals primarily with a homosexual relationship is fashioned in such a way as to be “accessible” to them, too.
That accessibility continues to be talked about as a surprise, even among critics you’d think might approach the film with more sophistication. “It didn’t even matter to me that they were gay,” I overheard one writer say to another during a screening of the Josh Brolin-Kate Winslet movie Labor Day (about which I might have more to say in the future). That’s what you hear now. That sort of “praise” was spoken years ago with the release of Brokeback Mountain. In the more distant past, the same type of sentiment was expressed this way:
“It didn’t even matter to me that they were black.”
Well-intentioned, but kind of condescending all the same.
The faithfulness question, as it relates to movie vs. comic, is a complex one; I read Julie Maroh’s 2010 book, originally titled Blue Angel, after having seen the film, and was a little shocked to see how much the basic narrative concept of the comic had been completely upended. And perhaps equally surprised to then see how much I understood why the filmmakers would make the change they did. Without directly spoiling anything for would-be readers of the novel or viewers of the film, the manner in which the basic conceit of the story is altered saved the film, in my opinion, from being slapped with the label of being a “gay Love Story.” I think I’ve now said enough on that score.
But, complementing that major departure are shots and sequences galore that do extraordinary justice to the comic. And here, I suppose, it might finally be time to address the sex scenes, which are as explicit as an NC-17 rating would lead you to expect, while falling just short of being classifiable as hardcore pornography. Adèle’s initiation into the world of real lovemaking (her tryst with a guy really doesn’t count, other than in the most clinical of ways) is presented in the film with a sequence that, for all its attention-getting length and intensity, feels curiously detached from the rest of the proceedings. In fact, subsequent scenes between Adèle and Emma in bed feel as if they could be neatly cut from the print, and you’d not lose much of substance, almost as if they were set up to be easily chopped out in some kind of crafty sop to the CleanFlicks crowd.
I’m not saying the scenes aren’t well done, or effective, or relevant; they are all three. The material is as rightfully included in the film as it is in the book. And, from the biased, and temporarily base, perspective of this straight male writer, there are certainly worse ways to spend one’s time in the theater than observing two such attractive actresses in the altogether. This puts me, I suppose, in the camp of viewers some lesbian critics/viewers claim to be the “real” intended audience for these scenes: straight guys aroused by hot, naked babes. Here, we get into Malcolm X territory, with audiences who share a specific identity with the subject matter arguing “their” lives have been unsuccessfully interpreted by outsiders.
Here’s one critique I read, from a lesbian viewer judging the authenticity of the onscreen sex:
“I thought it was hot at the beginning, and then it got ridiculous when they kept switching sex positions every ten seconds. It started to feel like an infomercial for a kitchen product, where they try and showcase all the things it can do.” (See the rest of the transcript, and the interesting video that went with it, here)
The problem with then attaching this “ridiculous” aspect of the scene to any indictment of a straight filmmaker for not “getting” lesbian sex is this: it’s in the editing. The scene doesn’t happen in “real time.” The actors aren’t “switching sex positions every ten seconds”; the montage is doing that. And montage has no sexual orientation, which is to say that—nearly every sex scene in the movies is equally as guilty of being overathletic and unrealistic.
A treasure of great movies is when we feel connected umbilically to the reality of the story and the characters, so it’s fair, I guess, to concede that for some viewers the film was meant to touch deeply (meaning: everyone), Blue Is the Warmest Color didn’t measure up in that regard. Even Julie Maroh, the author of the source material, has expressed some disappointment with the film. As is her absolute prerogative. Stephen King hated what Stanley Kubrick did with The Shining. That must be a tough go (especially since he still occasionally fumes about it), but as for me, I think Kubrick’s vision is a work of intimidating genius. Similarly, I felt the epic running time of Blue Is the Warmest Color fly by, so taken was I with the sumptuous cinematography, humor, and furious humanity on display.
This movie gets it right when it comes to a specific experience of love. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux deliver richly imagined performances, and if the film on hand comes across as a bit less melancholy than the book, both seem to end on notes of some resolved and wistful hope. To invoke a popular meme here, I will picture more romantically seasoned viewers wanting to add their own voiceover to the closing shot of Adèle in the film, just to whisper some words of comfort in her ear:
It gets better.