Blue Is the Warmest Colour should, by all rights, be a bit of a struggle. It’s a French romance-drama weighing in at almost three hours and featuring more dialogue than you could shake a stick at. Despite such severe handicaps to the average human attention span, Abdellatif Kechiche and his young cast have managed to cobble together a subtle, yet strangely endearing film that sits with you long after its reels have finished their umpteenth rotation.
The film follows Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) across the best part of a decade stretching from her teenage years through to her first steps into the adult world. At the heart of Adèle’s story is her ongoing romance with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue-haired art student with a pleasantly un-quirky and down-to-earth disposition.
It’s a whirlwind of comings and goings filmed with a slow and steady hand, yet the film never loses its firm grasp on reality. Its characters are a joy whilst keeping their self-awareness and true humanity intact. Its crowning achievement is the way that it manages to transcend gender boundaries and traditional orientations. This film could have so easily become “That French lesbian film that won the Palme D’or,” but it steps away from such basic profiling. It’s not a story about lesbians, it’s a story about self-acceptance, growing up and trying to be happy.
The film takes its time, as those of its ilk are often wont to do, utilizing long scenes populated with streams of dialogue to create a fully rounded set of characters devoid of the usual broad-stroked stereotypes that populate so much of the genre. What you have here is that infrequently spotted beast: the cinematic human being.
I’m talking about that point where the character transcends being a mere convolution of ideas on a screen and becomes a completely believable person. Adèle and Emma are two such individuals. Credit must of course go to Seydoux and Exarchopoulos, who both provide perfectly nuanced turns defined by their subtleties as much as their outbursts.
Much has been made of the film’s extremely intimate sex scenes, but the dramatic exchanges that they punctuate both serve to justify and enhance them. The writing is equally impressive as despite its daunting length, Blue Is the Warmest Colour never feels like it runs out of ideas. Even when the impressively hyper-realistic dialogue steps across the bounds of pretentiousness, you’re left believing that it’s the innate pretensions of the character that’s at fault rather than the writer who penned the words. It feels like you are witnessing the creation of a small, but truly believable world.
However, it’s the subtlety of the writing that also leads to the film’s primary pitfall: a lack of true emotional resonance. Whilst it’s undoubtedly beautifully observed, I left the cinema still waiting for that final emotional kick to push me over the edge – like a guy with a cough caught in his throat. It served to remind me of a previous Palme D’or winner, Entre Les Murs, which was equally well-pitched and chose a similarly low-key pace.
While there was no fundamental cause for criticism, the end credits left me without the hammer-blow that would’ve taken the film to another level. Blue Is the Warmest Colour is undoubtedly profound, but it just felt a little sapped of the power that comes with the territory of headaches and heartbreaks. It’s a minor complaint, but it unfortunately draws the fine line between a very good movie and a truly great one.
That is not to say that it isn’t worth your viewing pleasure. From pretty much whatever angle you look at it, Blue Is the Warmest Colour is an admirable endeavour – a film that is simultaneously familiar and pleasantly different. It could have easily become an exercise in navel-gazing, so it’s nice to see such an un-pompous and tender outcome to a film that on paper seems to promise something a good deal more tedious. The cinematography also manages to be subtly impressive, with a set of quietly striking images and a progressively defined colour palette reflecting Adèle’s emotional journey without feeling the need to shove it in your face.
Above all else, Blue Is the Warmest Colour is defined by its adherence to cinematic subtlety. Its combination of gorgeously detailed characterization and a bittersweet love story sat in almost complete opposition to the Hollywood standard makes it as endearing as it is admirable. It has a certain something – it’s hard to pin down just quite what- that elevates it above your usual Euro-drama fare. Whilst three hours may seem a tad long for a story of such a self-limited scope, it’s an impressively brief period of time to create such a perfectly expressed pair of characters. Luckily, the rest of the film follows suit, slowly easing you into a truly human story.
Slow, low-key and often beautifully observed, Blue Is the Warmest Colour won't blow your mind, but it will charm your socks off.