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Blue is the Warmest Colour: An intimate look at lesbian love

Some have accused Abdellatif Kechiche's film of inauthentic depictions of lesbian sex - but Ryan Gilbey argues that the film as a whole breaks new ground in visualising human sexuality.

Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos.
Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle and Emma in Blue is the Warmest Colour.

Blue is the Warmest Colour (18)
dir: Abdellatif Kechiche

In the 1970s it was common to use “dancing at the other end of the ballroom” as a euphemism for male homosexuality. Even as a boy this struck me as misplaced. Surely dancing in the ballroom – in any ballroom, at either end – while the non-dancing men were all outside revving their chainsaws, was a bit gay?

Blue is the Warmest Colour, a cool-headed love story shot in close-up for much of its three hours, finds a dramatic new visual euphemism for expressing sexual identity. Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a smartcookie student, no more inchoate than any other 17-year-old, who is crossing a busy road in Lille when she makes eye-contact with a stranger strolling in the opposite direction. That’s Emma (Léa Seydoux), whose languid tactility with her female companion is only the second most striking thing about her. The first is her mop of ashen-blue hair.

The women exchange a lingering look. Emma seems amused. Adèle is gobsmacked by this blue-headed bolt from the blue. As Emma walks on, Adèle stops dead in the middle of the road, engines roaring around her. She is about to decide which side of the street she is on. It’s a spellbinding piece of acting. Exarchopoulos is not so much an open book as an uncorrected proof, every idle desire and surging daydream splashed across her face, waiting to be edited and inhibited by experience.

Though the film is leisurely in reaching her head-turning, traffic-stopping epiphany, its pre-emptive use of the colour blue makes it appear that Emma was in Adèle’s life long before she got under her skin, in her hair, between her sheets. Blue bedding, blue flares on a protest march, a blue bench on which to break up with a boy under a proscenium arch of pink blossom.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s film, which he adapted from the graphic novel by Julie Maroh, is about the journey through different frontiers that occurs in any love affair. Adèle enters Emma’s blue world, the gay world, but despite the initial elation of their relationship, there are other borders to clear. There’s the art world: Emma is a painter who adopts Adèle as her muse. (In one witty shot, the camera moves up her naked body to find the sexiest part of her: that cocky face, a cigarette dangling insouciantly from her lips in a studied bad-girl pose.) Class comes into play too, mainly through food. Emma’s family tutor Adèle in the eating of oysters but at Adèle’s house everyone chows down on hearty spag bol. The mucky smudge around her mouth suggests orange is the tastiest colour.

Kechiche keeps his camera tight and close, so that we are almost as intimate with the characters as they are with one another. A brace of extended and explicit sex scenes has been responsible for the film’s advance publicity. Some lesbian viewers have cast aspersions on the authenticity of these scenes, arguing that they smack of straightness. Not being a lesbian myself – though, you know, never say never and all that – I am ill-placed to judge. I can say, though, that stiltedness is not a part of this movie. I did wonder why the characters bothered lighting candles if they were going to leave every available light on during sex: was that directorial prurience or a shocking disregard for the electricity bill? But not once did I spot a look on either woman’s face that suggested they were getting through the scene by thinking of Channing Tatum.

The picture premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where it won the Palme d’Or just as riot police in Paris were subduing anti-gay marriage protestors in Paris. Some of that Cannes triumph has been soured by complaints from the lead performers who claim they were bullied and intimidated by their director. (Kechiche has done his part for diplomacy by lambasting the women for talking about pain “when doing one of the best jobs in the world”.) This doesn’t affect what’s on screen; the movie generates its own frenzied emotional vortex and it would take an act of will to resist or supplant that. Maybe it’s worth recalling the words of the director Michael Caton-Jones, who once reminded his actors while shooting an arduous scene: “Pain is temporary. Film is forever.” Not all films, perhaps. This one for sure.