A Look at La Vie d’Adèle: Chapitres 1 et 2

La Vie d’Adèle: Chapitres 1 et 2, or “Blue is the Warmest Color,” is your coming of age story with some variations to the formula.  This isn’t some glorified love-fest with two random 20-somethings who discover each other by chance, have a falling out, awkward dinner with the parents, and then, after a series of montages, get the happy ending where the two have their happy moment before beginning the rest of their happy lives.

The film, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, has some of the conventions of a coming of age love story, but trims the fat on some filler.  It also doesn’t politicize or make this grandiose message about this film centering on a relationship between two women….er, girls…young adults.  Yes, that’s better.  This movie is also an adaptation of the 2010 French graphic novel Le bleu est une couleur chaude, by Julie Maroh, a graphic novel that I have never read and, as such, plan to make no comparison to when talking about this film.

This movie has garnered controversy due to the behind the scenes rumblings between the director and lead actresses, as well as the intimate moments between the two lead female actresses.  Scenes that, in my opinion, could make the love scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis in Black Swan look like amateur softcore pornography by comparison.

These intimate moments may explain the reason for the film’s NC-17 rating, but really, the moments didn’t make me turn away or uncomfortable.  They serve a purpose, but they’re also part of a larger story and help show the development of relationships.

With this movie coming just shy of three hours, when it ended, there were aspects that I enjoyed, moments that I liked for how visceral and real they felt, and parts that I did not like.  Is this film really as controversial as some critics have made it out to be?  Was France really that gay during the 1990s?

This is La Vie d’Adèle: Chapitres 1 et 2.

Blue is the Warmest Color cover

The film begins with and focuses on a high school student named Adèle, played by Adèle Exarchopoulos.  Adèle has a passion for reading, but passions for other aspects are not displayed on her face.  Through much of the film’s opening, Adèle sort of looks lost, almost as if she’s just coasting from scene to scene.

Only when with her friends and gossiping about boys do we get any semblance of Adèle showing an emotion.  I’ll give the director credit for having us get up close and in Adèle’s face as she journeys from scene to scene, giving us many close-ups of what feelings she may be conveying, but I just wish there was more to what she felt early on.

Blue is the Warmest Color- Adele in Class

However, as this is a coming of age film, I feel there could and is a purpose to Adèle conveying little emotion compared to later in the film.  Early on, Adèle and her friends talk about the cute guys in school, one in particular named Thomas, played by Jérémie Laheurte.  He’s made passing glances at her for awhile and when the two end up sitting next to each other on the bus the next day, they pry into each other’s lives.

We learn that Thomas is good at math, but not a huge fan of reading.  In fact, the last book he enjoyed was Dangerous Liaisons.  This goes at odds with Adèle, who, along with her class, is currently reading Pierre de Marivaux’s unfinished novel, La vie de Marianne.  No.  Thomas is more into music and wants to be a producer.  He manages to get a laugh out of Adèle when he fools her into thinking he likes hard rock.

Blue is the Warmest Color- First Appearance of Emma

In the middle of all of this, when Adèle is crossing the street one day, she spots a pair of women walking in the opposite direction.  One of them grabs Adèle’s attention: a young woman with short, blue hair.  The two exchange glances for a moment and, though just for a second, share a connection.

When Thomas and Adèle go to the cinema, we see Thomas try to put the moves on Adèle, but not forcefully.  A simple kiss is a simple kiss, but Adèle is just not into it.

What she is into is the woman with blue hair, as demonstrated when she furiously masturbates in her sleep to visions of the woman kissing and touching her.

I wonder if that will play out at all, later in the film.

The next day, Adèle’s friends, whom she dubs the sex cops, ask question after question about whether she and Thomas screwed.  When they ask one question too many, Adèle flees, Thomas soon following her and wondering if he did something wrong.

Soon enough, Thomas and Adèle have sex.  While it appears that Adele may be into it, when it’s all said and done, Adèle just stares lifelessly, as if just going through the motions of it all.  She tells Thomas that the sex was great, but it doesn’t feel authentic at all.

Blue is the Warmest Color- Adele and Thomas

With female friends asking her questions left and right, Adèle confides in one of her male friends, Valentin, played by Sandor Funtek, that things just aren’t going to go well with her and Thomas.  While Thomas’ intentions are honest, Adèle is not reciprocating.  As such, the break-up is unfortunate for Thomas, who wanted nothing more than to get to know Adèle better, not take advantage of her.

Later on at school, Adèle smokes a cigarette before being joined by another classmate, Beatrice, played by Alma Jodorowsky.  Beatrice notes that another girl passing by, Alice, has a nice ass.  When Adèle doesn’t play along, Beatrice compliments Adèle’s mysterious side.  After the two share a brief kiss, Adèle blushes, indicating that she is feeling something possibly stronger than what she failed to feel with Thomas.

Adèle capitalizes on this emotion the next day when she finds Beatrice in the bathroom.  With complete confidence, she goes for the plunge and plants a kiss square on Beatrice’s lips.  However, Beatrice is surprised.  She tells Adèle that yesterday’s kiss was a spur of the moment move.  She didn’t expect Adèle to get hooked and make anything of the kiss.  Devastated at the loss of what felt like a stronger connection than previously experienced, Adèle leaves in tears.

To get Adèle’s mind off of things, Valentin and a group of his friends take her to a gay bar and it’s here we’re introduced to French night life in the 1990s: bright, flashy and lots of love going around.  As Adèle watches gay men kiss and dance, her eyes wander toward some women who are leaving the club.

Feeling adventurous, and maybe still a little scared, Adèle decides to tag along and go further into France’s night life.  Soon enough, she winds up at their destination which happens to be filled with nothing but women.  Young women, older women, women with short haircuts, women with long hair, and women with tattoos, there are many different flavors and varieties.  They also enjoy tasting each other’s flavors.

Adèle soon realizes she has wandered into a lesbian bar.  And whether it’s from how young she looks or that she’s alone and as vulnerable as she would be in a tiger’s den, Adèle is outside of her element.  Some of the woman show apparent interest in the fresh fish and put the moves on her.  Looking down from an alcove above is the woman with blue hair.

Adèle orders a drink and a nearby woman hits on her.  Before the woman can get far, the blue haired woman appears and, after convincing the other woman that Adèle is her cousin, manages to get Adèle to herself.

Blue Is the Warmest Color- Emma and Adele in Lesbian Bar

We finally learn the name of the blue haired woman, Emma, played by Léa Seydoux.  She correctly points out that Adèle is in unfamiliar territory based on her ordering a Bulldog, which Emma calls a bull dyke beer.  She then also notes that Adèle is underage just based on appearance, and such types don’t come to this bar that often.  That mysteriousness about Adèle that Beatrice noted earlier intrigues Emma.

As the two talk, we learn more about Emma, who is in her fourth year of studying Fine Arts.  Adèle talks about her passion to teach and love of American movies and directors like Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick, but the two also talk up their love of philosophy, a running theme in the film.  Emma’s desire is to learn English, so maybe Adèle could teach her a thing or two.  Before Adèle leaves, she gives Emma the name of her high school.

The high school that Emma shows up at the very next day.  Adèle whisks to her side, completely blowing off her friends to join Emma for a drink.  At a park, Emma decides to sketch Adèle, who is a bit embarrassed since it’s not every day a random woman you meet decides to sketch you.  The sketch ultimately needs more work, but Emma has to go meet her girlfriend, Sabine.  She does give Adèle her phone number and promises to squeeze her in for a phone call later.  The two share a long stare and when it looks like they’re about to kiss, Emma kisses Adèle on the cheek and leaves.

When Adèle gets home, her mother, played by Catherine Salée, lets her know that Emma is on the phone.  Like a horny schoolgirl with a crush, Adèle hurries to talk to her.

Blue is the Warmest Color- Adele confrontation at school with classmates

At school the next day, Adèle is grilled by her friends who want to know about the mysterious girl with blue hair that caught Adèle’s attention.  Where did she come from?  Is she Adèle’s girlfriend?  They ask about whether she did go to a gay club with Valentin, which she denies, but Valentin, who is only a few feet away, confirms it when asked.

Whoops.

Beatrice, of all people, lays it on thick, saying that she and Adèle once slept in the same bed and wants to know if Adèle wanted her, too.  Because, you know, all gay people must love anyone of the same gender, right?  Soon enough, Beatrice asks if Adèle likes the blue pussy, which sets her off and leads into a minor scuffle until Valentin pulls Adèle away.

The girls continue to scream at Adèle, but they soon turn their attention to Beatrice, noting that they only wanted to politely question Adèle, not interrogate her.

This has an effect on Adèle, who soon cannot focus on her studies.

Blue is the Warmest Color- Emma and Adele at Art Gallery

Later, she and Emma visit an art gallery and admire the artwork.  Again, I really like the direction in scenes like this: little noise or dialogue, just letting the emotions be read through the actresses’ facial expressions.  The two continue with a picnic in the park, where they discuss art, their lives and vices.  We learn that Adèle isn’t a fan of oysters due to their texture, but Emma considers them a delicacy.

Then Adèle asks when Emma first kissed a girl: when Emma was 14, she attended a party and brought a guy friend, but soon caught the attention of a girl named Louise.  They left together and ended up kissing after that.  Emma’s tried both, but she just prefers women.

The two share another long gaze before they kiss.  Not a peck on the cheek, but a full blown kiss.

Then probably the film’s most infamous scene takes place as Emma and Adèle have sex in a long, single sequence that is close to, but does not reach, ten minutes long.

An undisclosed amount of time passes and the two grow closer.  Where do their lives take them?  Well, find out for yourself by seeing the film.

La Vie d’Adèle works on many levels.  For a film that’s a little under three hours long, the pacing held my interest and never felt too rushed just to get to another scene.  We follow Adèle from an inexperienced high school to a full blown woman when she pursues her teaching interest and has her own class.  The direction has been called voyeuristic by some, but I disagree.  The direction really allows the viewer to see every single emotion on Adèle’s face as she moves from scene to scene.  We see her confusion, anguish and admiration, all at different moments.

For a film where the primary focus is on the relationship between two women, I’m glad that, in this day and age, the movie never dwells on that fact.  Aside from a pride parade at one point in the movie, the film avoids any attempts to pander or push any sort of political message.  There’s no big, dramatic coming-out scene, Adèle and Emma don’t talk about a day when the whole world accepts the possibility of two women falling in love and we aren’t hit over the head with messages about peace, love and equality.  No.  La Vie d’Adèle avoids becoming preachy or spouting off some political narrative, and for that I applaud it.  The focus here is on the discovery and relationship, not the real world ramifications of it.

That said, it’s sort of a double standard that Adèle’s friends take issue with the possibility of her being a lesbian and going to gay bars, but they all seem to accept Valentin being gay without question.

Speaking of that scene, it’s a little too convenient that the one bar Adèle happens to visit is the one where Emma would be that night.  Though, Adèle never even expected to end up in a lesbian bar to begin with.  As the direction stays close on Adèle, we see her venture into unchartered territory.  The gay clubs she visits are bright and flashy, a far cry from the quietness of her home.  Up until Adèle meets Emma, she’s practically sleepwalking through the film with a look of uncertainty pretty much plastered on her face.  For much of the earlier part of the film, it’s as if Adèle is wearing a mask just to get through the day.  I got the impression that Adèle can be sociable, but not as outgoing as her classmates.

I’ll focus more on Adèle later, but I do want to commend Sofian El Fani’s great cinematography that, when it comes to characters, puts a lot of focus on facial expressions and little details.  Almost every single contortion or muscle moved on a character’s face, we witness it.  It can get a little out of hand at times.  For example, when Adèle eats dinner, we really don’t need to get up close and in her face as she chomps every single morsel of spaghetti, but the filming provides an intimate look at the characters.

The same goes for the shots of France itself.  As mentioned, the night clubs are vibrant and filled with life.  We watch Adèle and other characters lose themselves in another world.  When Adèle and Emma admire each other in the park, everything is quiet and still, allowing the characters to dictate their own emotions, rather than unnecessary music doing it for them.

Emma and Adèle’s relationship is filled with passion, but also strained at times, and it’s shown not just through their actions and dialogue, but through how scenes are directed.  The first time they have sex, we as the viewer see almost every single motion, every grab, every time the bodies move, and each time they change positions.  We become spectators through the close filming and it puts you front and center as Adèle experiences actual love for the first time.

Blue is the Warmest Color- In Bed

But the sex isn’t there as eye candy, nor is it all shot in super tight close-ups.  At one point, Emma and Adèle have sex in Adèle’s bed, having tricked Adèle’s parents that Emma is there to help with philosophy.  Here, the direction focuses on their faces, instead of their bodies, as they try to keep quiet.  We don’t get to fully see and experience their lovemaking because they can’t fully experience it.

Blue is the Warmest Color- Adele and her family

Speaking of Adèle’s parents, the relationship between the three of them seems very normal, given how we don’t learn much about them.  I got the impression that both her mother and father, played by Aurélien Recoing, are old fashioned and traditional.  When Emma talks about working on graphic arts for a living, Adèle’s father mentions that while art is a great skill to have, it’s not the job that will bring in the most money for sustaining yourself.  Therefore, it makes sense how relieved he is when Emma mentions that her ‘boyfriend’ has a profession in business.

While I wish we got to know Adèle’s parents more, I never got the vibe that they would treat her any different if they knew she was in a relationship with Emma.  But this could say more about Adèle wanting to keep this newfound life of hers a secret.  I don’t understand Adèle’s need to keep the relationship a secret, but part of that is because we never learn enough about the parents to know how they’d react.  It could be embarrassment or a variety of reasons, but as is, I don’t understand her motivation.
Blue is the Warmest Color- Adele with Emma's Family

By comparison, Emma’s stepparents feel more liberated and open.  Emma’s mother, Catherine, played by Anne Loiret, trades barbs with Emma’s stepfather, Vincent, played by Benoît Pilot and joke around when Adèle tries oysters for the first time.  Both families feel functional and familial, but they’re background characters and never integral to the plot.

Blue is the Warmest Color- Emma

As far as the leads themselves go, I’ll start with Emma, who Léa Seydoux plays with complete confidence.  Emma has great poise in many of her scenes, whether she’s sketching a nude Adèle or defending her art and lifestyle from critics who want to display her work.  We’re told that Emma isn’t into fads or justifying her life decisions, she just does her art for the love of it.  It’s what drives her passion and it’s that same drive that she tries to bring out in Adèle.  When Emma suggests that Adèle write, it’s because she knows that Adèle has untapped potential that’s being squandered as a teacher.  She’s not being demanding, but she knows that Adèle is capable of doing more and tries to ease her in that direction, as any supportive friend or lover would.

But more than that, Emma is a free spirit, unrestrained by any need to hide her sexuality, the way Adèle does.  During a party scene later in the film, Emma fits in comfortably amongst her friends not just because of the conversations they have about philosophy and art, but because they have nothing to hide.  Emma isn’t wearing a mask or trying to hide who she is.  At the same time, she doesn’t try and push Adèle into ‘coming out’ or embracing lesbianism.  In fact, it’d be difficult for me to even identify Adèle as a lesbian.  We know Emma sampled both pools and settled on women, but Adèle is a bit more uncertain.  Again, this is why I’m glad the film doesn’t make a point of there being some sort of big ‘come out’ moment.  It’d be very easy for Emma to tell Adèle to be who she really is, but when Adèle herself isn’t even sure, for Emma to try and push her would be forcing her to be someone that, at heart, she isn’t.

Blue is the Warmest Color- Rage

A lot of details about Emma’s past are left in mystery and that’s fine because she wouldn’t be as intriguing if we knew every single minute detail about her.  We know about what drove her to love women, her first time and what fuels her passion.  We learn a little about her past and current relationships and friendships with women, including a woman named Lise, played by Mona Walravens, but just enough that her entire life isn’t shrouded in fog.  The relationship between her and her parents is very cordial and friendly, almost as if the three were siblings.  There’s a lot I’d like to say about Léa Seydoux’s performance and how passionate she is at times, including a very raw and visceral scene late in the film, but I don’t want to spoil it.  It’s the type of scene better seen than read.

What I do appreciate is the film giving Emma motivation for her artwork: she loves to sketch.  She looks entranced by the artwork she and Adèle view in the art museum and she gets into long debates with her friends over art and philosophers.  While Adèle’s friends may have written off Emma as a ‘dyke,’ it’s clear that she’s a very intelligent woman with clear motive for her career path and where she wants her life to go.

Less so with Adèle.  As mentioned, Adèle spends a lot of the film drifting, uncertain about her identity.  She breaks up with Thomas because she has to, nothing long-lasting would come from their short fling and she knows it.  It’s written all over her face after they have sex that there’s no passion.  The first move she made that seemed to have any passion in it was the second kiss with Beatrice, but as mentioned, Beatrice didn’t expect her to make much of their first kiss.  However, the kiss with Beatrice is a big point for Adèle’s character, as it opens her to the possibility of liking women.  Once Adèle goes down that path, it would be hard for her to go back, which makes the lesbian bar scene more telling because she’s literally wandering into unknown territory.  However, given how she wandered here on her own volition, it’s another step made that steers her further down the path of fostering a romantic interest in women.

Blue is the Warmest Color- Adele Stares at Emma

Adèle Exarchopoulos delivers a very good performance of a young woman uncertain about her future: what she’ll do and with whom she’ll spend it.  Adèle seems to be looking for a place where she fits in.  She doesn’t mesh well with her friends who talk endlessly about boys and sex, but when she begins her relationship with Emma, it’s even harder for her to fit in amongst Emma’s friends.  During a dinner scene later on, Adèle spends a great amount of time preparing and serving food, but never conversing unless someone makes the first move.  I don’t have an issue with Adèle being socially awkward, as it helps illustrate how she and Emma exist in two very different worlds.  Adèle seems to be very sheltered and quiet, while Emma is more outgoing and sociable.

Blue is the Warmest Color- Pride Parade

It could be argued that Emma helped bring out a more light-hearted side of Adèle throughout the course of their relationship.  She wears a beaming smile rather than a face filled with indecision, she giggles like a schoolgirl when she’s fooled her parents into thinking Emma is there to tutor her, and the long stares into Emma’s eyes show that Adèle is making decisions with actual clarity rather than on a hunch.

But even that clarity is questioned when we see Adèle as a teacher.  Sure, it’s established that she wanted to teach, but from how passionately we see Adèle talk of philosophy and literature, it’s clear that what Emma said about her untapped potential rings true: she can do so much more than she allows herself.  I can’t help but agree.  Adèle seems to enjoy teaching, but I also felt that it could have been a stepping stone for something else down the road.

Blue is the Warmest Color- Adele and Emma

Adèle’s relationship with Emma is the best thing that’s happened to her in a long time.  At one point, she even tells Emma that she feels fulfilled being with her.  While it’s nice to see Adèle happy, she doesn’t seem to have a long term plan beyond the relationship.  For her, if she’s with Emma, she would like it to be between the sheets.  That’s not out of character.  This is a discovery for her and she wants to explore the depths of her feelings for Emma.  If the dream masturbation scene early on is an indication, it’s that when it comes to Emma, she’s thinking very clear as opposed to wavering indecisively.

But it’s evident that Adèle has so much that she wants to do in her lifetime.  During a dinner party, Adèle speaks with one of Emma’s friends, Samir, played by Salim Kechiouche, who is an actor.  During his work, he had the chance to visit New York City, a place Adèle has always wanted to visit, but never had the chance to.  Samir tells her that such a visit would change her life, and I agree.  Again, Adèle feels like someone with a lot of unrealized potential that she just needs to recognize.  Nothing wrong with being a teacher, but from her conversations, it’s clear that she has the know-how for more.  But then, I’d be rewriting the film and my writing is already crap, so let’s not go and ruin a good movie.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s direction really puts you in Adèle’s head as we watch her every move.  When she gets lost in the moment at a party, we see the slow relief on her face as she unwinds and becomes comfortable with those around her.  During one low moment for Adèle, the camera remains tight on her face and the audience watches the tears and snot just stream down her face, almost as if the director is begging us to reach up and hand her a tissue.  I never found the close-ups intrusive since this is ultimately Adèle’s story.  And it’s a story that I enjoyed.  I though the protest scene over privatization and demanding more money for education were a bit out of place since it’s not brought up again.  In fact, I thought I was watching Sarafina, but hey, it gave Adèle something to do to take her mind off of her problems.

There’s a lot that can be said about this film in regards to its commentary on portrayals of women in art, philosophy and the progression of Adèle and Emma’s relationship, but this film is better seen than discussed, in my opinion.  I get that some people aren’t into foreign films and having to read subtitles, even more so when the movie clocks in just shy of three hours.  I get that those two factors would turn people away from the movie, but it never bothered me and I enjoyed watching these two women grow closer.

La Vie d’Adèle: Chapitres 1 et 2 is not about the sex.  It’s not about politicizing or making a huge deal out of two women falling in love.  It’s about the ups and downs of a genuine, sometimes fun and sometimes raw relationship that experiences its share of ups, downs and all-arounds.  It’s about facing who you are, who you might be and whether you choose to accept that.  It’s about finding your niche and knowing when to quit when you realize what you thought was love wasn’t real.  The decisions Emma and Adèle make are relatable to ones we make: do we settle for complacency and become the tortured artist, or strive for something better?  Is that something better really what you wanted, or just temporary satisfaction?  Do we step out of our comfort zone and take a risk or settle for what we have?

In my opinion, the work of Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux and director Abdellatif Kechiche merited them the Palme d’Or they earned at the Cannes Film Festival.  A shame all the behind the scenes rumblings and controversy over the sex scenes may have hampered opinions, but for me, this is a well made movie. If you have the opportunity, do so and you should have a lengthy, but entertaining time.

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