Klimt and Schiele
In the party scene, there's a brief, insubstantial discussion of the difference between Klimt and Schiele. Adele, perhaps surprisingly, claims not to know who they are, something that annoys Emma. However, one might say that in this day and age, when the two Austrian artists have been co-opted and cannibalised by a graphic design world, why should you want to know much about them? Fifty years ago, their art might still have retained a transgressive air. Now, it has been absorbed by the mainstream. Which is not to say that someone couldn't come along and liberate them, but Kechiche is not your man for this. Rather, they are located within Emma's banal, bourgeois art world: both the gallery scene she hangs out with and the art itself. It's always a risk portraying "fictional" art in a work of fiction. Because the values of the art represented reflect something or other. In this case the art tells us that Emma is a minor talent making work for what would appear to be a bourgeois market. There's nothing radical about her work and the struggle to define herself she tells Adele about on the park bench (cf Sartre) doesn't appear to have affected her evolution as an artist. One of the clunkiest exchanges happens when Adele is asked her opinion of Emma's art. She mutters some platitudes. It seems as though living with Emma has neither generated any enthusiasm for art nor any discernible capacity to evolve her own opinions.
The first half of the film has a clear journey and conveys this journey with charm and humour. Adele, still at school, begins to realise she's gay. We follow her journey as she comes to terms with this and begins her affair with the seemingly dangerous, blue-haired Emma. At one point, Emma starts talking to Adele about Sartre. There's a trope throughout the film that Adele doesn't know all that much about anything intellectual. She's Dionysius to Emma's more considered Apollo. (Although her interest in literature at the film's opening seems like a genuine engagement, so much so that the shoe is on the other foot as her would-be lover reads up on Marivaux). Emma tells Adele how reading Sartre helped her to understand who she was as a person, implicitly suggesting that his work assisted her in the process of coming to terms with her sexuality. The exchange is in keeping with much of the film's dialogue: airy conversations which are given space to breathe. There's more than Sartre at play here, but all the same the script succeeds in paying homage to the king of the existentialists whilst developing its narrative at the same time. Later, in the same park, Adele will kiss Emma, initiating the relationship. Adele makes contact with her existentialist soul. For a while she's a kind of stepsister to Sandrine Bonnaire's character in Varda's Vagabonde. Prepared to put everything at stake for the development of that soul. A true Romantic, which is also to say a true conservative, because this is exactly the message young people are repeatedly encouraged to confront now: you have a duty to "find" yourself, to "become" yourself. Do it whilst you are young, before you settle down. Adele accepts the challenge and her life stands on the brink of vast, inspirational change.
Only it doesn't change. Time passes. The two women are living together. They don't know each other's friends or anything much about each other's lives. Adele is Emma's "muse". She cooks and cleans for Emma in Emma's spacious flat. In some ways she's become little more than a drudge. But she doesn't mind. Although Emma does. Unsurprisingly she wants Adele to want more from her life. In short, this is a terrible, flawed relationship, only Adele is young and naive and has no way of knowing. The romantic dream has turned into a mundane bourgeois marking of the days. The jump forward in time takes us almost immediately to the point where the two women break up. We don't see the slow calcification of their relationship. We don't discover how this has affected their sex life. The nitty gritty of the story is not something which interests the filmmaker. Which, given the fact that Blue has made its reputation on the basis of Exarchopoulos's snot and Seydoux's tears might seem like a ridiculous thing to say. But at the end of the day this is the showtime part of the break-up. The fireworks. Which is well enough told, if somewhat deceitful. Because the real pain is elsewhere, hidden, unrevealed. And the real damage caused to Adele is not through the fact she and Emma split up, something they clearly need to do, but through the fact that rather than expanding Adele's horizons, the relationship appears to have curtailed them.
The film opens with a long sequence which discusses Pierre de Marivaux's La Vie de Marianne. Adele's boyfriend also talks about Les Liaisons Dangereuses. As with the discussion of art, there's something almost cheeky about Kechiche's conceit. We know we're in for a three hour movie, which is about as long as cinema can get away with. However, we also know that even the longest movie doesn't offer its creator(s) the space or scope which a novel offers its author to expound on themes and generate a sense of development over time. Kechiche almost seems to be saying: I'm aware of this, but let's give it a bash anyway. Blue is the Warmest Colour could be said to have a lot in common with Madame Bovray, for example. A woman follows her instincts in the face of society's unease, embarking on a journey which ends in tears. The result is constantly fascinating as well as being inevitably flawed. Kechiche's ambition in his storytelling repeatedly comes up against the limitations the medium imposes on the type of story he wants to tell.
Apollo & Dionysius
In spite of encountering a certain resistance to Kechiche's film, I wouldn't disagree with anyone who suggested it's a terrific piece of filmmaking. You could argue that it's deceitful in its suggestion of being transgressive, when in fact, like Emma's art, it's safe and stoutly bourgeois in its outlook. You could further argue that its use of lesbianism could well be said to be exploitative, not so much for the sex scenes (which reminded me of Andrew Haigh's Weekend) but because the characters' sexuality is presented as being transgressive or dangerous when in fact this is a tale about relatively conservative youth and/or bohemia. The scene in front of the school when Adele is confronted by her schoolmates implies an outsider status for the characters, which the narrative then backs away from. It's a great scene, typical of the way in which Kechiche skilfully inveighs his film with a trenchant naturalism. But having set itself up as an investigation of how an Apollonian world appropriates and subsumes our Dionysian instincts, Blue seems to shy away from the complexity of this set-up, veering towards something more banal, more soapy.
Bar Room Brawl
No matter the caveats, the chutzpah and flair of Blue, its capacity to capture the fiddly details of life and conversation and turn them into something compelling, is sometimes breathtaking. Kechiche's willingness to let his camera linger, as though it too is part of this relationship, waiting with a lover's anticipation for a secret sign that everything is going to be alright, (either when it will be or when it palpably will not), makes for some of the most vibrant, unconstructed scenes you could come across. His film offers a polished sheen to the guerrilla ethic, appropriating the strengths of low-budget filmmaking (basic set-ups, no stunts, no extravagant camerawork, insistent naturalism) in order to create a film that follows in the footsteps of Zola or Flaubert.