France was the trip I was most looking forward to taking as part of the “Where in the World is 25YL?” journey. My favorite genre in all of cinema, the French New Wave, came from a group of defiant French newcomers who refused to follow the status quo of filmmaking and instead offered new and unprecedented contributions to the world of film. The prevalence of cinematic realism and the depth of emotions I encounter in the French films that I watch are the most consistently rewarding experiences and often rank among my favorites. Selecting which film I would choose for France provided weeks of torment, to painstakingly make a Sophie’s Choice from several of my favorite films of all-time. To bypass that torture, I chose to pick a French film that I hadn’t yet seen, though have wanted to for years, while also selecting a more recent film as a testament to the brilliance that French cinema still has to offer. Often, when a country is so inextricably linked to a movement or a genre like France is with the French New Wave, it becomes easy for the casual cinephile to discount the numerous other contributions that specific country continues to offer.
Blue Is the Warmest Color, the Palme d’Or winner from 2013 directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, is a uniquely French film that encapsulates all that is special about French cinema. Blue Is the Warmest Color is a story about a deeply rich and life-altering connection between two people—a coming-of-age story, an illustration of self-acceptance, a commentary on the class differences and conflict between people, and an age-old tale of what it means to come into adulthood and live for oneself and break away from the influences that raise us.
Blue Is the Warmest Color is about many things, but it tells the most powerful story of the impermanence of the people in our lives, including those that transform us that we can’t imagine living without. Most of us can recall a person in our lives that we can think of who made an incredible impact, yet, only shared our path for a brief time. In Blue Is the Warmest Color, we see one of those transformative relationships with Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux). Adèle comes from a working-class family, who have encouraged her to focus on her studies and commit to a field in which she will be able to support herself financially. Adèle’s world is opened up when she meets free-spirited art student Emma.
Emma refuses to settle for anything less than her dream of being a gallery-featured artist. The class difference between the girls is potent, with Emma coming from an upper-class family concerned less with their daughter finding a career, and more with her following her passions and remaining true to herself. There is no struggle introducing Adèle to Emma’s family; they welcome her while sharing a meal and lots of laughter and warm tenderness. When Adèle introduces Emma to her family, their budding relationship must be hidden. Adèle’s parents are standoffish, curt, and continuously question Emma on her career and future, revealing their diminished view of the arts.
As their relationship deepens and the more time they spend together, Adèle’s life is transformed. Emma introduces her to things Adèle had never come into contact with, all the while teaching her how to accept herself and live her truths. Adèle’s friends are disgusted by her sexuality once it is revealed and even feel as strongly as to physically fight her over their insecurities. Conversely, Emma has long ago accepted herself as we see her discuss sexuality, paint nude models, and attend pride events. None of this was anything Adèle had any previous experience with before she met Emma. Her family didn’t share deep intellectual conversations at mealtime; we don’t see them going to art exhibits or interacting with those different than they are. Their class differences kept them each in different worlds, and no matter how much they tried to bring their worlds together, it was more than their relationship could handle.
One such moment in which their classes were on display in a public nature was the night of a party in Emma’s honor. Her friends and colleagues came to praise her art and speak about philosophy, artists, and opportunities for Emma while Adèle was scurrying around preparing food and taking care of the guests. Emma was the intellectual star, and Adèle was the cook, the servant, and the muse. Adèle is unable to relate to the conversations, but she often isn’t even addressed. Visibly uncomfortable, Adèle is stuck between two worlds—neither in which she can wholly reside yet is called strongly to both of them. Her relationship with Emma, and being allowed into the world in which she firmly inhabits, is eye-opening and emotionally stimulating for Adèle yet she cannot live above her sense of duty in entering the workforce and holding onto her teaching job.
Adèle’s deep love of literature is something Emma attempted to foster and encourage Adèle to do something with beyond her classes. Adèle’s fear of the job market and the need for financial stability prevented her from making such a commitment. Adèle had no support system to fall back on if she were to pursue a career in literary studies that wouldn’t produce gainful employment. For herself, Emma could never accept the way she sees Adèle settling and denying her creativity. She doesn’t look down on Adèle for the choices she makes for herself, but the differences in their decisions and the divide in their class proves insurmountable as their relationship crumbles. Emma can see the passion in Adèle when she is studying and immersing herself in her readings. Often, when she is reading, Adèle lives in her literature, and the romanticism she reads on the pages helps her feel her first meeting with Emma so strongly. There is a force that was present when the two initially laid eyes on each other, something bigger than themselves that brought them together and would leave an indelible mark on their lives. The power of real human connection and the potential for a profound experience with those around us is the best part about being human, and opening ourselves to that force can have a marked impact on our life and worldview.
Blue Is the Warmest Color has been criticized for its depiction of sex, often called voyeuristically or succumbing to the male gaze. Without being able to speak of the filming techniques or what happened off-camera, I think Abdellatif Kechiche handles the sex scenes—as depicted in the film—with a high degree of respect. Despite being a part of our human existence, sex in movies is portrayed in such a false nature utterly devoid of passion. Sexual intimacy is a regular part of their relationship, it’s important to them, and is repeatedly shown throughout the film without exploitation to show the audience the many different levels and depth of the connection they share. Unlike how sex is often illustrated as a separate entity of a relationship, in Blue Is the Warmest Color, sex is shown as a completely connected exchange between two people who genuinely love each other. Keeping that shared connection off the screen would have made their final reunion much less meaningful because seeing Adèle and Emma’s physical relationship only added to the deeply emotional connection we saw them share.
The power of the ending of the film is incredible. The appeal to someone that has started a life with someone else that no longer includes you, and the acceptance of their denial to reconnect is such a rich part of the human experience. Heartbreak and moving on after heartbreak with all the emotions on display through Adèle that come with that feeling is a situation that can touch any audience member who can think of someone in their own life that similarly impacted them. Adèle accepts the heartbreak of not being able to reconvene her life with Emma; she doesn’t push herself to get over those feelings, she allows it as a part of herself. Her time with Emma was transformative, and Adèle is now her person, separate from her parents and less dependent upon their influence. She has built a life for herself, independent and comfortable in her skin, and she has left the life behind in which she stated, “I feel like I’m faking, faking everything.” Despite the impermanence of the agent, Adèle’s life was transformed entirely through another person, and despite the ending, her experience on earth is much richer for that and one that she will cherish throughout her eternity.