Tuesday, October 22, 2013
A sexless review of Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) New York Film Festival 2013
It was the talk of Cannes winning all sorts of awards and it was the talk of the New York Film Festival as many in the press were looking to see if the film was going to live up to the hype. I had intended to see the film in some form at the NYFF but despite having tickets I missed both public screening and the press screening. I ended up seeing the film at the final New York Press screening last Thursday night and my reaction was very different than I expected.
The first thing that kind of shocked me was that I couldn’t understand why anyone wasn’t really talking about the film as a film There is all this whole hype concerning the film and what happens in a tiny portion of the film with the result that any discussion of what happens in the film is lost. Everything in every other review is filtered through a few moments that could, ultimately be removed or if not removed greatly reduced from the mere ten minutes of screen time. Reducing the film down to ten minutes is wrong since there is so much more going on- actually there is three hours more going on that never gets a fair shake or the criticism that it deserves.
Nominally based on Julie Maroh's autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, Blue is in fact more director Abdellatif Kechiche‘s own ideas for a film. What he did was to take the graphic novel, appropriate the title, some bits and then toss a large portion of it (including the lyricism), out the window. The film is also allegedly a set up for more films with the lead character, Adele and her life.
The story begins with 15 year old Adele going to school. We watch as she goes to class, talks with friends and takes an interest in boys. We also see as she passes a young woman with blue hair walking arm and arm with another girl. Her head literally turns as she passes. This is Emma whole will become Adele’s great love.
When her experience with her boyfriend goes bust and a kiss from a female classmate rattles her cage she becomes a bit confused as to which way is up. Through circumstance she ends up in lesbian bar where she at last meets Emma, an older art student, and the course of her life for the next ten plus years is set.
Long rambling film while far from bad, is a complete head scratcher as far as I’m concerned. What is the point of all of this and where is the drama? The film feels like the overstuffed first part of a longer work (something suggested by the French subtitle-Adele: Chapters 1 & 2).
Dramatically the film suffers from weak writing. First are the scenes in the Adele’s high school lit class where they are talking about the themes and the ideas that will come into play during the rest of the film. The opening scene with the discussion of first love and how love brings you something was the sort of obvious foreshadowing that one would expect from a first time unaccomplished writer/director. Is this really the work of a man who made the confrontational Black Venus three years earlier? One would think not, especially after we get several other lit class scenes that spell out what the current section of the film is about. How is that he can trust his audience so little as to spell out what its all about. I don’t know.
The other problem is the film is very close to dramatically inert. I know I’m going to take flack for this but hear me out.
What I mean by inert is that if we look at the film in three acts we find that the first act where Adele goes through life until she meets Emma is kind of a foregone conclusion. We know that the pair will meet and hook up, that’s the story. If they don’t then the remaining two hours will have nothing happen in them. Nothing much happens that is unexpected or interesting, we are simply waiting, as Adele is waiting for Emma to show up. All the tension in this part of the film is reduced to when will they get together, there is never a question of if. It’s all spelled out. Even the question of does Adele like girls or boys is muted since there is no drama or cost to the choice because there is no choice. Within the frame work of the film , other than a fight where her friends want to know if Emma is Adele’s girlfriend, there is no conflict or stigma or anything about being gay. Within this world it just something you are (which is how it should be in the real world). The disagreement is more the sort of thing of kids teasing that so and so likes so and so.
The second act where Adele and Emma are together is skittles and beer and all is right with the world. Nothing is wrong, everything is right and everything is happy. It’s so undramatic, that you end up watching it wondering when the conflict is, it’s just two people in love. And it goes on and on and on. It’s not bad, it’s just nothing much happens.
The third act, covering ten to fifteen years into the relationship is for me a poser. Conflict arises. Why I’m not sure. There is a party for Emma where Adele cooks. At the party Adele suddenly is an outsider and all of the camera work makes that clear though I'm not sure why. What confuses me is that she is an outsider even though she clearly knows most of the people there. I know it’s a question of Emma’s star being on the rise and Adele being happy as a teacher/hausfrau, but at the same time the turn of events seems sudden. There has to be more going on, but we don’t see the roots of it. It also weirdly reveals Adele to be rather a dull little person, devoid of her heart’s desire she does nothing but pine. It’s as if director Kechiche had to manufacture a split to justify going on for another hour (plus set up additional films.)
This raises the elephant in the room, why is this film three hours? I have no idea. Is it because being three hours gives the film the illusion of weight? Or perhaps it's because he shot so much footage he had to justify it in some way. Personally I think you could trim an hour out of it and not lose anything.
I know part of my problem with the film is how it’s shot. A good 90 to 95% of the film is close ups of medium shots where we see Adele from the waist up. She fills the screen, she is the world of the film and there is nothing outside of the film except her. While this no doubt is meant to make this truly a character study, sometime it’s too much of a good thing. Little is explained. We frequently don’t have a sense of where we are or who we are with- watch how some of the two shots are framed people are not looking at each other- in particular watch the scenes with Emma and Adele on the bench by the canal.. Everything seems in a way to be slightly off.
Actually much of the camera work seems to be off. There is a sameness to the shots. It’s the same way to the bus, the same way walking down the streets, the bedroom scenes all look as if they were shot at the same time by a director of photography with zero imagination. There are no establishing shots or very few. We have no sense of place, we just have the characters who could be anywhere in time and space. There is also a problem in that when we do get something like an establishing shot, say in the protest scenes, the close up character shots don’t match up with the larger shot- a huge tightly packed crowd in one shot thins out in the next. That’s the most glaring example but it happens again and again and again in party scenes, dinner scenes and even the late in the game café scene where I was forced into biting my tongue as the two women almost jump each other (it’s a silly over done scene where no one reacts to the nonsense of Adele and Emma).
I would really like to question the sound mix in the film but I’m not sure if it’s the mix or if it was the projection which was so over miced or amped up that had the much talked about sex scenes sounding like a Benny Hill routine.
While not a bad film, it’s a film that kind of left me pondering what earlier audiences and critics have seen in the film. Divorce the film from the sensation and the film lays there like a piece of raw meat. Even the performances by Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos seem not to be all that remarkable when you realize that Adele simply stares or cries and Emma is self-absorbed. The awards seem to be for daring to get naked and wriggle around with each other rather than actually creating fully formed characters.
Again, it’s not bad, rather, it’s just sort of…there.
One of the most over rated and over hyped films of the year.
It opens in theaters in the US Friday