BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (2013, Abdellatif Kechiche)
Early on in 2013’s Cannes winner for Palm d’Or (and what a roll the Jury’s been on, after TREE OF LIFE and AMOUR and now this), a student in a literature class is talking about regret. The teacher asks, “So regret is something missing in your heart?” and the student replies, “No, regret is not being able to fill what’s missing in your heart.” It’s a powerful distinction — the notion that it’s a fact of life that we are going to feel this void; the question is whether or not we can do anything about it. For the next three hours, Kechiche and his phenomenal cast use every trick in the book to explore this search, and ultimately fulfill what another teacher later in the movie will say about tragedy — “it concerns what can’t be stopped, what must happen. It’s the essence of being human.”
We learn quickly and directly the kind of girl Adele is. When we’re first introduced to her she’s missing the bus. Her standard of handsomeness is Brad Pitt. She has a photo of pre-9/11 New York City on her wall, along with photos of Muhammed Ali. She likes American films and learns English so she can watch them without subtitles. Adele isn’t where she belongs; she isn’t when she belongs, and she desperately wants to change that — a hope that we will slowly learn is merely a dream. For she’s destined to be an outsider: alone, sad, and yearning.
It’s no coincidence then that one of her first conversations with the love of her life, Emma, is about Sartre — where Emma recommends “Existentialism Is a Humanism” to her. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, discussions like this would feel didactic. But here, the dialogues about philosophy, art, and literature are organic to how these women think and act, so the conversations feel lived in and necessary. Kechiche’s camera never flinches in close-up: it bores into Adele’s face ceaselessly, and finds a never-ending series of expressions and emotions, thanks to an unbelievably rich performance by Adele Exarchopoulos. The film’s theme of art and its representation (Adele poses for Emma’s paintings; a struggling actor complains that film directors are assholes; each family dinner is a performance) is never more beautifully realized than the moment when Adele is dancing at a party which has a movie projected on the wall behind them and the camera quickly racks focus to the starlet on screen and back to Adele with the grace of a ballet. And whoever mixed the sound is a master — the audio track blends every breath, whisper, gulp, and sniffle as if the mics were even closer than the lens.
When things get heated, so does the direction — check out how jagged the editing becomes during the film’s major domestic blow-up; 180-lines are crossed and rhythms are disrupted. Rarely does a scene go on too long or end too soon; the snippets we get of The Life of Adele (the movie’s original title) are enough to tell the story with unparalleled respect for the character — a character with as voracious an appetite for food as for sex (two things often united metaphorically on screen but never directly). The way Adele slurps pasta, devours a gyro, gulps wine, or licks cigarette smoke is matched by the hunger with which she kisses the fingers and bites the knuckles of a lover she fears losing forever. This is a movie built on delicate touches and a mountain of passion, and — amazingly — never once threatens to crumble.