Thursday, March 20, 2014

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) Review

Depending on who you ask, it’s either the best movie of 2013 or the most controversial. But is the much talked about French film as good -- or as shocking -- as some critics would have you believe? 

Let me start off by saying there is a lot of eating going on in “Blue is the Warmest Color.” And no, that’s NOT the brusque euphemism you think it is, I’m being hyper-literal here; virtually every scene in the movie revolves around food, or restaurants or people talking about what foods they like or don’t like. Of all the recurring themes director Abdellatif Kechiche throws around in the movie -- and trust me, there are a metric ton of them -- it is this motif of food and food ritualism that becomes the most pronounced and omnipresent throughout the film. For all the hubbub the film has stirred, at the end of the day, “Blue is the Warmest Color” is really more about food porn that it is lesbian erotica -- at times, it feels less like it was helmed by a horndog alpha male than it was an anorexic, Pinterest-obsessed high schooler.

For those of you that have been living in a cave since last year (or, for those of you that think “media” ends on both coasts of the continental U.S.), “Blue is the Warmest Color” is a European production that took home the prestigious Palm d’or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. After its release, it was condemned by those on the right of the aisle for its allegedly graphic sexual content (it was successfully banned from public viewings in Idaho) and then it took a few punches from the left, whom accused Kechiche of promoting the fabled…I mean, tyrannical…patriarchy by supposedly “taking advantage” of the film’s lead actresses during the shoot. The heavy political forces squeezing the movie on both sides pretty much kept it from getting much of an American theatrical distribution, and despite glowing praise from trendy art house folk the world over, it didn’t even manage to land a Best Foreign Language Film nomination for this year’s Oscars. Alas, now that the film is making the Netflix rounds, it’s finally getting a crack at a widespread U.S. audience, and after catching a showing of the film myself, I have to say that it is a really good -- albeit flawed -- motion picture, that’s probably worth at least one viewing for the more cultured filmgoers out there.

The film is centered around the exploits of high school junior Adele (played, reasonably enough, by an actress named Adele Exarchopoulos), who has a schnoz like Anna Kendrick and a set of bee-stung lips that more or less resemble what Angelina Jolie’s kisser would look like if she stuck her face in a hornet’s nest. She also parades about in the film with this perpetual huge-eyed, deer-in-headlights gaze, and spends more screentime with her mouth hanging open than Kristen Stewart does throughout the entire “Twilightpentalogy. Anyway, all of Adele’s friends are a bunch of brunettes with bangs who wear blue and red nail polish (that’s called “symbolism,” Holmes) who want her to sleep with this short-haired heavy metal singer, so she goes out to dinner with him and talks about “Dangerous Liaisons” for ten full minutes. At around the 20 minute mark of the movie, Adele has a fairly intense fantasy about this random blue-haired girl she saw prancing about town earlier, and I guess this freaks her out, because she has sex with short-haired metal singer guy in the very next scene.

In the next scene, Adele looks disheveled as all hell and asks one of her (gay) boy friends to help her break up with Mr. Heavy Metal Singer, and she does, and then she walks around town chain smoking at midnight and then she cries and rips into her hidden chocolate bar stash underneath her bed. Then she and her fellow students go on a protest march and drink Coronas and get a lecture about Antigone, and then one of Adele’s gal pals tells her she thinks she’s all cute and mysterious and they smooch for a bit and the next day at school, her not-quite-out-of-the-closet amiga tells her that she didn’t really mean it yesterday so she decides to go hang out at a gay bar instead.

So Adele sneaks off into a lesbian dive, but not before a geriatric John Cena lookalike tells her that “love has no gender” and to “take whoever loves you.“ Conveniently enough, the blue-haired girl Adele fantasized about earlier then emerges from the bar’s bathroom. The eel-eyed, denim jacket sporting Emma (played by Lea Seydoux) is a Fine Arts student, who gives Adele some strawberry milk and pretty much knows that she’s under-age, but decides to strike up a conversation with her anyway. The next day, Emma draws a picture of Adele in the park, and they talk about Sartre for a bit, and Adele tells her she likes probable rapist Bob Marley, and they cheek kiss, and the next day at school, Adele gets into a fight with one of her friends who calls her a lesbian.

Next scene, Adele is in class getting a lecture about gravity and water, and then she and Emma sneak off to the museum to stare at statue asses. Adele tells Emma she’s basically bulimic and can’t stand shellfish, and then they start talking about their first lesbian experiences. And at the one hour and 14 minute mark of the motion picture, we get the much talked-about lesbian sex montage bonanza, in which Adele and Emma engage in pretty much every position found in the Kama Sutra, for a full SIX MINUTES. Afterwards, the two go to a gay pride parade and make out on a park bench, and then they go over to Emma’s parents’ place for dinner, and they’re all super-liberal and accepting, but they’ve prepared oysters and Adele’s grossed out and they talk about how much the current job market worries them and then they go upstairs and “scissors” each other, really, really hard.

Then, Adele gets thrown a surprise birthday party, which is so lame that even the black attendees dance like white people. Adele’s parents are a bit less open to the whole “lesbianism” thing, and her mom thanks Emma for helping her daughter out with her “philosophy,” while dad cautiously asks Emma what her “boyfriend” does for a living.

Emma, now devoid of blue hair dye (and eerily resembling Eric Stoltz, circa 1985), does a nude sketch of Adele, who we learn is a kindergartner teacher or something like that. Then, Adele and Emma go to this art crowd party, and Emma flirts with this pregnant chick, and Adele gets jealous and starts talking with this Arabian guy about action movies while all of the other partygoers eat spaghetti and discuss “the philosophy” of orgasms.

There’s a lengthy pillow talk sequence, and Adele’s paranoia about her partner’s infidelity is clearly rising, so she goes out and makes out with this dude, and then she has a nasty argument with Emma, and they decide to break up. Then Adele goes to the beach and just floats in the water for awhile, and she has a post break-up encounter with Emma, and they talk about how much they miss each other’s touch, and they monkey around for awhile, but Emma cuts her off and says she can’t do it, because she doesn’t love Adele anymore. And then the film concludes with Adele going to an art gallery, and talking to a dude and a chick while some guy in the background gives a really, really heavy-handed lecture about the significance of the colors red and blue. And then Adele simply walks out into the great unknown, and this movie is all over, folks.

I suppose the first question most folks would be asking is if the lesbian scenes are really that intense. I guess they’d give your motor a good whirring if you were a Quaker or something, but to be honest, the scenes go on for so long that they pretty much begin to border on self-parody, like that infamous “puppet sex scene” from “Team America: World Police.” That, and the visuals here are pretty hard to take too seriously: I mean, half the time, the scenes just look like Sonic the Hedgehog is going down on Jennifer Love Hewitt, anyway.

Now, as to the allegations that the film is somehow misogynistic or even homophobic -- and yes, there actually are people out there accusing the filmmakers of being precisely that -- I’d have to roll my eyeballs down to somewhere around my shins. If anything, hardcore leftists that hated the movie probably disliked it so because it actually had the audacity to focus on a main character who has no idea what her sexual identity is, let alone be able to make any efforts to politicize it. Instead of being a militant LGBT film about identity politics, it’s much more a film about self-denial and the troubles one goes through differentiating interpersonal intimacy from sensorial chaos. Mayhap the “problem” of the film, from the standpoint of leftist detractors, is that it’s a movie that has the gall to take the sexuality out of homosexuality, and explore sexual non-conformity as a confounding experience instead of a liberating one. “Blue is the Warmest Color” doesn’t paint its multi-sexual protagonists as heroes, and perhaps more infuriating to the more politically-motivated viewers out there, it also doesn’t really paint them as “victims” of mass social prejudice, either.

As for the film’s biggest positive, it’s absolutely LOADED with subtext. Really, the entire film is pretty much an Easter egg hunt for veiled meaning, in particular, the picture’s intriguing “red vs. blue” color dynamic. OK, so “red” imagery could come to denote heterosexuality and “traditionalism,” while “blue” imagery represents both social and sexual non-conformity; but what of Adele’s aversion to oysters, the (in-text) symbol of upper middle class pseudo-intellectualism? As much as the film is about sexuality, it’s probably an even blunter statement about contemporary gender roles and socioeconomic class differences. It’s definitely refreshing to watch a movie that forces viewers to read between the lines and through the character’s own dialogue to get the most out of the narrative; it’s definitely a film that rewards you for paying attention and playing armchair psychoanalyst, that’s for sure.

The biggest negative of the film, of course, is its length. Really, “Blue is the Warmest Color” is about 66 percent really, really good, but by the second hour, it really starts to drag. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the makers of the film for giving the flick the time that it needs to get rolling, but the film as a whole is at least a half hour longer than it really should have been. It’s a fun sprint for 120 minutes, but those final 60 are sure to take a whole hell of a lot of wind out of your sails.

The direction is sure-handed, and the acting is solid throughout, but the cinematography is the true star of the show here. Everything in the film looks crisp and super clear, and it has some of the most beautiful shots you’ll see in any movie from 2013 -- the sound-stage, CGI crap from “Gravity” can take a hike, as far as I am concerned. The script is generally quite good, and until the final third of the film, it never really hits any snags. The script reminded me a lot of “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,” which was a similar film about a “forbidden romance.“ Of course, “Ali” is a far superior movie, but that’s not to say “Blue” doesn’t have a certain vitality all its own -- if nothing else, it definitely feels a lot livelier and way more realistic than a good 99 percent of the U.S. rom-coms and rom-dramas that came out last year.

Ultimately, I think the “problem” that kept most U.S. distributors from eyeing “Blue” wasn’t its sexual content, but simply the fact that it was too good and too anti-commercial for American audiences. As a film sans jump cuts or explosions of any kind, it’s just too much of a hard sale for today’s ADD-addled masses, and the three hour run-time was pretty much the fork in the proverbial roast beef sandwich. “Blue” is really, really good (but not necessarily great) world cinema, which is pretty much anathema to the Hollywood mode of production -- more sequels, more toy tie-ins, less dialogue, more ka-boom.

Thankfully, the advent of streaming, on-demand video allows movies like “Blue” to sneak their way through the multimedia backdoor, and hopefully into the living rooms of filmgoers who, in addition to porting about adult bodies, also port about adult sensibilities. After all, home video has always been the saving grace for films given the “NC-17” death sentence -- which, as it stands today, is more or less a safety mechanism that keeps children and men-children alike from having their fragile intellects damaged by that much vilified ailment, individual thought.

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