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Emma Myers: The Way of the Flesh

October 25, 2013

On class, intimacy, and the uses of the body in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color.

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Image courtesy of Sundance Selects

By Emma Myers

“Orgasm precedes essence,” the 18-year-old Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) contentedly jokes to her lover following one of three already-infamous sex scenes in Abdellatif Kechiche’s controversial Palm d’Or winner, Blue is the Warmest Color. While her mother naively believes her to be receiving platonic philosophy lessons from her significantly older, Sartre-reading friend, Emma (Léa Seydoux), she has in fact been mastering the fine art of cunnilingus. More than just a clever post-coital quip, Adèle’s sensualist spin on the existential argument encapsulates the film’s thematic essence. A literal and figurative coming of age tale, Blue is the Warmest Color expresses the frequently abstracted concept of love—and loss—as it’s actually experienced: by way of the flesh.

Adèle—as both a character and an actress—doesn’t think so much as she intuits, and her erratic grades reflect the “all-or-nothing” nature of her emotions: She can only perform when inspired. When we first observe her in the context of her high-school literature class (appropriately studying Marivaux’s La vie de Marianne) she is as astutely observant as she is completely unsure of herself, gaping at ideas that exceed her own experience. Though slightly on the nose (“I am a woman, and I am telling you my story,” one student reads aloud) the classroom discussion surrounding love at first sight and pre-destination aptly foreshadows the fleeting encounter she has soon after with a blue-haired girl crossing the street. The brief moment of intense eye contact is enough to leave Adèle reeling and breathless in the middle of oncoming traffic, but it’s not until the vision in blue pays her a visit as a masturbatory apparition one night that she begins to fully understand why.

Oblivious to her own physical beauty, it’s Adéle’s gaggle of more sexually experienced girlfriends that draw her attention to the fact that one of the senior class studs has been eyeing her for days. Indulging his flirtations, she eventually allows him into her bed but the sexual encounter leaves her overwrought with a sense of emptiness. In search of distraction—or, perhaps fulfillment—Adèle wanders into the city’s lesbian watering hole. Uncertain and underage, her eyes dart around with nervous curiosity before finally landing upon Emma once again.

Though the attraction is immediate, Kechiche takes his time with narrative foreplay. As the two spend languorous afternoons together picnicking in the park and wandering museums, the director hones in on his actresses’ faces—so much so that the world completely recedes into the background. The visual intimacy effectively communicates what it feels like to be in love—like there is no world outside of these two characters, only the here and now. Their faces inches apart, the tension that builds is both beautiful and unbearable, their first kiss tender and timorous.

In the end, it is what it is: Just sex, and the actresses’ bodies are not fetishized so much as they are fully utilized.

When they finally do have sex, no angle is spared: Hungry mouths explore every crevice and devour every protuberance. Hands and fingers grab, pull, and smack every available piece of flesh as limbs scissor and flail and backs arch in ecstasy. Unadorned with music, everything that is seen is also heard—each gasp, sigh, and muffled scream; the deluge of fluids and the friction of skin against skin. The urgent spasms of desire suggest complete abandon and, importantly for Adèle, a step toward self-possession: The birth of her embodied ego. Whether heralded as groundbreaking or criticized as exploitative, the scene has been dissected to death. In the end, it is what it is: Just sex, and the actresses’ bodies are not fetishized so much as they are fully utilized.

A story about all-consuming ravenous desire, it seems fitting that Adèle’s perpetually parted mouth is a visual focal point throughout. Though her full pout is a thing of great beauty, the way she uses it isn’t always pretty. We see her—in close-up—masticating saucy forkfuls of spaghetti, shoving chocolate bars down her throat while choking back snotty tears, and drooling in her sleep. “As a kid I even ate my scabs,” she unashamedly admits to Emma in between bites of cold cuts. Adèle is insatiable, her hunger is plural. Emma, by contrast, is more experienced and controlled—and more cultured.

The differing ways in which they consume their food reveals much about their respective backgrounds. Adèle comes from a conservative, working class family that values practicality and stability above all else, while Emma’s liberal, upper-class upbringing has afforded her the luxury to nurture her artistic interests. Though slightly less glaring than the oil and water split screen in Annie Hall, Kechiche foils the two families against each other in parallel scenes in which social status is comically conveyed through culinary tastes. Adèle’s family divvies up sloppy bowls of simple yet delicious spaghetti bolognese, while Emma’s serves fresh oysters carefully paired with a fine white wine. The oyster scene is one of the film’s most crass visual metaphors: Initially disgusted by their texture, Emma must coach her young lover as to how to properly eat the still live and squirming creatures, juices spilling onto her chin as she slurps them up with determination.

No matter where you fall on the homo-hetero spectrum, this film insists that you inhabit it.

Leaping forward with elliptical subtlety, the film sails past honeymoon phase of the relationship into the future, where Emma and Adèle have comfortably settled into their roles as painter and breadwinner, respectively. With Adèle as her main subject, Emma has gained notoriety on the art scene and Adèle is contentedly working as a kindergarten teacher. But Adèle doesn’t quite fit into Emma’s world of bohemian pseudo-intellectuals, who quietly look down on her noble vocation while debating artists she’s never heard of (Kechiche’s choices of Egon Schiele and Klimt here feel textbook rather than natural). By encouraging her muse to do something more “fulfilling” (read: more artistic, less practical) with her life, Emma in fact pushes her away—eventually towards betrayal. It’s when the relationship falls apart that the film is at its best—the visceral appeal of the girls’ physical break-up, and Adèle’s crying fits in particular, are more affecting than all the sex scenes combined.

In Une Femme est Une Femme, Godard declares that “nothing’s more beautiful than a woman in tears.” But Adele’s lachrymose outpourings are a far cry from the controlled, isolated tears that stream from Anna Karina’s immaculately made-up eyes. The former are messy, snotty, completely overwrought with full body shudders, and filmed in relentless close-up. It’s not the kind of symbolic, even sacrificial beauty to which women are often relegated onscreen, but rather a rawness of emotion so vulnerable in its authenticity that it physically hurts to watch.

Kechiche’s visual style combined with the actresses’ truly astounding performances make this film impossible to view from a safe distance. No matter where you fall on the homo-hetero spectrum, this film insists that you inhabit it. The experience is akin to pouring salt into an open wound, whether fresh or all but forgotten; but as anyone who has waded into the ocean with a scrape on their knee well knows, the stinging sensation means the healing process has begun.

Blue is the Warmest Color opens in limited release in the U.S. today.

Emma Myers is a freelance film critic based in Brooklyn, New York. She has an MA in Film Studies from Columbia University and has been a regular contributor to Film Comment magazine since 2011. Twitter: @myers_e

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One comment for Emma Myers: The Way of the Flesh

  1. Comment by Theo on October 25, 2013 at 10:47 am

    Klimt*, Godard*

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