Real Moments of Life
Occasionally French cinema gives to the personal the length of the cinematic epic. It remains within the ‘intimiste’ form that examines the intricate specifics of people’s lives, but plays them out with a running time usually reserved for films likes Ben Hur and Lawrence of Arabia. Examples include The Mother and The Whore, Ma vie Sexuelle and Regular Lovers, and now we have Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour.
There are at least two reasons why French cinema offers the ‘intimate epic’: to generate the exhaustive and the implicit. In the first instance there is accumulation of detail that can make us feel we know the characters much better than we would in a film of two hours, and, secondly, by utilising an elliptical approach months can pass without us quite knowing where we are and how much time has gone by. If most films still rely on the frequentative as montage sequence, locating us quickly in the passage of time, one reason why a film like Blue is the Warmest Colour possesses epic length is because it wants to escape from the frequentative as montage and create ambiguity and surprise out of time’s passing.
The frequentative is a commonly enough used literary device where the writer can simply say no more than as the summer days passed the book’s central characters increasingly fell in love. Cinematically this becomes the montage sequence showing, in a series of interlinked brief moments, that the characters are getting emotionally closer. But what happens if you don’t want to shave an hour off your film time by making so clear how time has passed? Do you then need to make the time accumulate not frequentatively but elliptically? Near the end of Kechiche’s film, the two characters who have split up some time in the indefinite past meet again in a bar one afternoon. Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) asks Emma (Lea Seydoux) about her girlfriend’s child (no more than an embryonic bump in the woman’s belly when they were still together) and Emma announces that she is now three. We then realize just how much time has passed as we’ve witnessed Adele struggling to cope with Emma’s absence. It could have been a few months, a little more than a year, but the film delivers a quiet, narratively emotional shock as we’re told how much time has gone by since they last saw each other. It adds a retrospective pang for Adele that a montage sequence might too forcibly have demanded from us, as the passing of the seasons and the years would have made clear how she is still feeling terrible over the loss. The film would have offered the singular emotion, but lost ambiguity and a sense of Adele’s move towards maturity. Where Adele is a late teen still at school when she starts seeing Emma, by the film’s conclusion she is a working woman well into her twenties, and we notice by the end of the film that it hasn’t really been about a relationship between a lesbian couple, but much more about one woman’s emotional growth spurt: her move towards womanhood. The film after all doesn’t concern herself with Emma in Adele’s absence; it is Adele’s story the film focuses upon.
If we’ve invoked the French intimate epic to show Blue is the Warmest Colour’s forebears, we can see it is also a film consistent with other recent films about homosexuality that is neither overly optimistic nor pessimistic; neither triumphally playing up sexual liberation, nor pessimistically allowing Aids to hang over the lives of characters and forcing upon gay cinema a tragic underpinning and dramatic overlaying. In both instances history intrudes too strongly perhaps: with characters saints and martyrs and sometimes both. Gus Van Sant’s deliberately populist Milk plays up the San Francisco gay scene where lives are lost in the war on Aids, and Milk loses his life as he proves too strong a force of liberation for the conservative elements: he is murdered by a right-wing colleague. The film feels both too easy and too old-fashioned; a film to put alongside Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester as a recuperative offering, but this time focusing on sexual politics over class. Next to France’s Before I Forget, and the mysterious Stranger by the Lake, Britain’s Weekend, and the US’s Keep the Lights On, it seems a film of broad strokes rather than pointillist precision. Intimate lives are secondary to political purpose, and the advantage of the recent films, to which we can add Blue is the Warmest Colour, is that neither the achievements nor the problems are presented monumentally. Nobody changes anybody’s political consciousness, and nobody dies of a disease. Homosexuality becomes absorbed into a modern life of hassles and inconveniences, with the gay lifestyle merely often possessing more of them than a heterosexual existence.
This is evident in Blue in the Warmest Colour in several manifestations, with the girls’ class status reflecting the freedom of sexual choice on Emma’s part, and its immense difficulty on Adele’s. They may both be living in the early 21st century, but where for Emma the bohemian middle-class parents and the artistic milieu she moves in makes her sexual option coherent, for Adele coming from what looks like a lower-middle class conventional family and who then trains to become a primary school teacher, the choice is much more dissonant. It gives to Adele’s life an inconvenience that doesn’t at all appear to be part of Emma’s, and thus her development through the film is much more pronounced than her partner’s. It is also partly why the film focuses on Adele to the detriment of Emma, evident in the French title that it shares with the graphic novel upon which it is based, The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 and 2.
So far so narrative, but Kechiche’s film also shares with much contemporary French cinema the need to get in and out of the scene, to keep the editing not so much sharp as jagged. To differentiate one can think of both Michel Deville’s intriguing Death in a French Garden and Scorsese’s Casino as very distinct examples of sharp editing, and yet both clearly differ from the jagged approach we are invoking. Deville in a few brief match shots shows the central character meeting his father, with the film using match cutting on the sound and the image: a black object cuts to a black object; the sound of a car door closing matches the sound of an apartment door opening. In Casino, Scorsese lays out the intricate details of the casino money system in voice-over and shows us, like a hyper-paced power point presentation, how everything is interconnected. In the former instance it is as if most of the shots have been removed and yet nothing is lost; in the latter it is as though our mind is playing catch me up with the speed at which the information is delivered. These are both examples, though, of sharp editing.
Jagged editing however often cuts harshly into scenes and across temporal assumption. The great French director Maurice Pialat is perhaps its master, but contemporary filmmakers including Arnaud Desplechin, Francois Ozon and the Dardennes adopt it also. Examples from Blue is the Warmest Colour come when early in the film Adele misses the bus, and then in another similar scene not long afterwards she catches it. In the first sequence Kechiche establishes the space as Adele leaves home and starts walking towards the bus, and then cuts, when it is clear she has missed it, to her sitting in class at school. In the second scene the film cuts from Adele going for the bus to her sitting on it. In each example she goes from A to C with the intermediate shots missing. In other words the conventional logic of the scene would have consisted of establishing the shot and then showing whether she had missed the bus and looking exasperated (in the first instance), or catching the bus and showing relief (in the second). However, this intermediate stage is removed because, while it might be both logical and syntactically clear, the eschewal of such moments can give the film both a tighter dramatic form, and give to the character a more enigmatic dimension. We cannot know how Adele feels about missing the bus, and, while of course a very minor incident, that Kechiche chooses to show it at all, and then chooses to elide aspects of this ostensibly insignificant sequence, leads us to ponder over its presence. Of course in the latter scene she is more stylishly dressed than in the first, and the boy at school who fancies Adele gets on shortly afterwards and sits next to her. But this is a brief affair with a beautiful young man that points up all the more Adele’s interest in the fleeting Emma whom she has seen briefly in the town centre. The moments with the young man prove all but narratively irrelevant, and thus they add to our sense that the film isn’t cutting sharply but jaggedly, as if what is important, and what is not, cannot easily be distinguished.
In the examples we have given of sharp editing, the virtuosity is unequivocal; in the jagged less clearly so. What it can give to film form however is a sense of realism quite distinct from earlier notions of the real in cinema. If classical realism out of Andre Bazin pointed up the importance of the long take, Kechiche’s realism doesn’t contradict it but it does expand the assumptions behind it. The take might still be long, but the scene is so harshly cut into that editing doesn’t become invisible but interruptively visible. Shots here at parties and nightclubs will be long takes foreshortened, with characters going off in one direction but where we never know if they reach their destination; hours apparently passing without us knowing how much time exactly. Transitions are no longer smooth, but disorienting or surprising. This is never more pronounced than at the film’s conclusion. Adele leaves Emma’s opening night exhibition, and a man she’s been engaging with goes looking for her, but the film cuts (and concludes) before we can know not only whether a relationship might develop between them, but even whether he catches up with her at all. The film is interested in extended sequences, but not because it wants clarity; more to illustrate the partiality of perspective.
Again one can think of the frequentative, with filmmakers often interested in the notion of sharp cutting still working within the context of the montage sequence, but insisting they must find a variation on the convention through playing with the norms. Notting Hill shows the seasons passing with a continuous travelling shot of Hugh Grant walking through the titular district, moving from Spring to Summer, Autumn to Winter. It remains an easily absorbed shot that asks of us no questions concerning space and time, however impossible the scene happens to be in relation to physics. Grant defies physical laws as he walks from one season to the next, but the filmic convention given a bit of a twist keeps us firmly placed. It would be absurd to ask how Grant manages to walk through the seasons; we are supposed to do no more than admire the play with convention. It is a sharply cut montage sequence by other means: computer technology aiding and abetting director Roger Michell as the film essentially combines with the montage sequence the old fashioned use of rear projection as CGI ingenuity. If in the past it was common for us to see someone driving in the foreground with stock footage of a city scene in the background, in more recent films the back projection becomes the blue screen. Michell here uses the blue screen as a backdrop as the seasons change, to Grant in the foreground pining for the absent loved one played by Julia Roberts.
Now of course Blue is the Warmest Colour has exactly the same content late in the film: Adele and Emma have split up and we see that Adele is feeling the absence. But where Michell orientates us with clever use of cinematic short-hand, defying realism and playing up convention, Kechiche instead defies convention and plays up realism. We have no idea how much time has passed until she meets up with Emma again, and that is when we’re informed that three years have gone by. The important thing isn’t to find a form by which the unit of narrative information can be contracted, but instead in adopting the means by which the loss can be expanded. The montage after all is in danger of making light of Grant’s loss by making the sequence itself light. Its contraction is cliché as cinematic wit. Blue is the Warmest Colour however wants to play up not the unit of story information (that Adele and Emma are no longer together), but the singularity of Adele’s response. As we see her occasionally breaking down in tears, taking some of the school kids to the sea during summer vacation, teaching the kids various subjects, so the film foregoes a sharply edited frequentative sequence for the specifics of one young woman’s response to loss. In Notting Hill we might be in the film, but we are not really in Grant’s character’s feelings. The loss is so generally offered, and so cleverly contained, that to feel deeply for his despair would be to misread the film’s cues. Of course we’re expected to care for Grant’s loss, but we do so within the confines of romcom tradition and the film matches it with formal containment. If Nabokov reckoned there was no such thing as sincerity in literature, perhaps we can say that a certain type of editing in film indicates its possibility at least as an audience reaction. Jagged editing often creates the space for this empathic response, because the form refuses to contain our reaction in a narrow, given structure of feeling. The montage sequence often does exactly that: it confines empathic possibility within generic demand.
If in Kechiche’s film the editing thus indicates the jagged, the work gains much of its coherence from rhyming scenes, from sequences earlier in the film that are matched by later ones. There is the earlier scene on Adele’s eighteenth birthday matched by the party in Emma’s garden much later on; the scene where she misses the bus and then shortly afterwards catches it, the scene where she goes to the bar and meets up with Emma, and the one later after she goes out into the night and meets at an outdoor dance the work colleague with whom she will have a brief fling. Most astutely there is the sequence early on when a school friend accuses her of being lesbian, and the scene late in the film as Emma calls her a slut after Adele admits that she has slept with the male colleague from work. Where in the scene in the school playground a friend attacks her for lesbian tendencies; Emma accuses her of possessing heterosexual ones. But in both instances the film captures well the sense of a woman under attack. Emma is cruel and vituperative, and it is as though her face semi-segues into that of the churlish friend from earlier.
We might not immediately make these connections, but then in this particular type of rhyming scene there is no need for one to do so. It differs greatly from the sort of rhyming approach adopted by Hollywood and explored by William C. Martell. Here he notices sequences that recur but with key differences. When for example a character returns to a place where he was previously frightened and is now no longer afraid, we are unequivocally aware that we have a rhyming scene. If someone is scared to go into the forest as a young boy and goes back there as a teenager on his own and without fear, everyone will be aware that he is going back to a place previously familiar to us. But it is perfectly possible one won’t be thinking at all of the earlier party sequence during the later one, the night time adventure early in the film and the night time adventure much later on, and especially the friend attacking Adele in the playground, and Emma attacking Adele in the apartment. In the examples Martell gives we have a fully conscious echo; in Blue is the Warmest Colour it is closer to a sub-conscious one. It can make the later scene all the more effective, and give structural balance to a film that may superficially look like it is lacking it, even if such matching sequences can easily be missed. Someone insisting that the film is messy and unstructured might be doing so because they are used to the sort of categorical rhyming scenes Martell talks up. Kechiche here searches out instead what we could call echoing moments rather than rhyming ones: sequences that share similarities with an earlier scene but that needn’t call attention to the similarity but can leave it as subtextually present.
Such sequences are consistent with the film’s interest in the implicit over the explicit, and if the film is in the tradition of the great Maurice (The Mouth Agape, Loulou, To Our Loves) Pialat it lies in the play on both of those words. Few directors were more explicitly implicit than Pialat as he would often allow for strong actions but within vague motivations: the father slapping his daughter in To Our Loves, the knifing in Loulou, the killing of the cat in L’enfance nue. The deed is unequivocal but the motives equivocal. If Kechiche’s film seems finally weak next to Pialat’s work it lies in the explicit action and the implicit motivation less brilliantly attenuated. In an example of a rhyming rather than echoing scene there is a moment where Emma comes round for dinner at Adele’s parents place, and then a little later in the film Adele goes round to Emma’s. There is both the conscious rhyme and the all too clear socio-economic delineation. Where Emma eats spaghetti with Adele’s family, Adele eats oysters at Emma’s. Where Adele has to pretend that Emma is a tutor helping her with philosophy, Emma has no problem introducing Adele as her girlfriend to her mother and stepfather. The problem is not that Adele and Emma are from different social backgrounds (Loulou is one of the great French films on class division), it is more that the film falls too easily into representative conventions. They are both meet the parents scenes, set-pieces of social awkwardness moving in different directions but never quite escaping the ease of the image.
When Isabelle Huppert’s character in Loulou visits her titular lover’s family, the sequence is spatially, characterisationally and emotionally very complex. The film offers subtle family dynamics reflecting Nelly’s awareness that the gap between Loulou’s upbringing and her own is insurmountable. The film doesn’t offer this through events being viewed from Nelly’s point of view, but it is implicit within the situation, and evident at the end of the film as Nelly and Loulou might part. Pialat could have strengthened the scene by adopting Nelly’s perspective, but also reduced the complexity to that point of view. The dinner scenes in Kechiche’s film, both in terms of the telegraphing of the emotion through the editing, and the emphasis on how Adele is feeling in each instance, turn into just further examples of awkwardly meeting the parents. In Loulou as in other Pialat films the scenes can never be reduced to their component function: often we are wondering who people are, what they are doing there, and what their relationship is with other characters present. At the end of The Mouth Agape when the mother dies, the funeral and its aftermath remain messy and scattered, refusing recuperation and renewal. We muse over who certain characters happen to be, and watch as the father bursts into tears at the bar in a moment that is lachrymose for the character but need not at all be tearful for us. There is nothing in Pialat’s technique that bullies us into co-feeling, but there aren’t ready conventions keeping us aloof either, as we proposed in The Notting Hill scene.
Kechiche is an ambivalent filmmaker on this point. He is not so obvious that he wants to push emotional buttons, but neither is he so assertively oblivious to audience expectation, nor so fascinated by the chaos of a person’s needs, to give us Pialat’s complex mise-en-scene. Kechiche likes to make films that can access strong emotion, and in his earlier work, Blame it on Voltaire, L’esquive and Couscous, he hasn’t been afraid to generate tension out of suspense devices. In L’esquive it is the pressure of putting on a play by Marivaux (the writer discussed at some length in the classroom here), and in Couscous the pressures involved in opening a restaurant and the desperate need for it to be a success. As with the break-up in Blue is the Warmest Colour, Kechiche expects a strong emotional investment on the audience’s part, and even if he refuses the happy ending in the new film, or in Couscous, he still generates situations where the happy ending is a possibility. The film might deny it, but the narrative structure doesn’t completely obliterate it as a wish. In Pialat’s work, whether Nelly and Loulou get back together again or not, or whether the son and the father at the funeral have a proper sense of conciliation in The Mouth Agape is of no consequence because Pialat hasn’t set it up as consequential. If in Loulou he had shown the eponymous character as the idiot Nelly temporarily goes off with while her wonderful boyfriend Andre pines in her absence, as the film focuses far more on Andre than it does, then the film could have played up the possibility that she would leave Loulou and return to Andre. The film needn’t have concluded on this certainty, but if it had ended on its possibility the film could have been shaped around this will they or won’t they moment, just as Couscous leaves us at a certain instance wondering whether the restaurant will succeed or fail, and whether Emma will go back with Adele.
Kechiche, then, is a filmmaker given to convention but refusing ready audience pleasure. Indeed one could argue that there is a certain displeasure generated out of narrative conventions established but the pleasurable possibility that comes out of them eschewed. The displeasure generated by a film that denies narrative norms leads often to the difficult, the demanding, even, for many, the tedious, but the films are not quite frustrating or disappointing. Many of the great modern filmmakers do not expect us to possess this third act frustration because the rest of the film hasn’t led us to demand it, even if there are others, like Antonioni with Blow-Up, Haneke with Hidden and Funny Games, von Trier with Dancer in the Dark, Wong Kar-wai with In the Mood for Love, who create this possibility in the material but, because they are working against the generic grain, by the conclusion what matters is a question asked rather than the happy ending avoided. They arrive not at the sort of realistically downbeat, or non-happy ending films like Couscous and Blue is the Warmest Colour conclude on, but wonder what it is that entraps a middle-class family in their own homes or their own bad faith (Funny Games), one’s own purposeful, spiritual self-annihilation (Dancer in the Dark) or the nuances of feeling that insist a relationship is not consummated by lust but developed through the subtlest of markers (In the Mood for Love).
In such works, everything becomes of equal significance because the filmmaker is not pushing the story forward in the direction of optimism or pessimism, but broadening the question, and this requires perhaps a greater control of mise-en-scene than Kechiche practices here. We might notice this in the film’s concluding scene at the gallery, where Adele turns up to Emma’s first big exhibition. They are no longer together, of course, and Emma is now in a long term relationship with the friend who was pregnant when Adele and Emma split up. What are we to make of these paintings? They seem bad, vulgar, needlessly autobiographical and possibly exploitative of those Emma knows, including Adele and Emma’s present lover. But that is no more than one’s own response to the material, and the film doesn’t cue us to regard them as anything in particular. A young man (the man who will follow her out of the gallery at the end of the film), whom Emma met at a party several years earlier, says they aren’t his thing, but his isn’t a judgement even he would be likely to take seriously. Yet should we take what he says seriously, as if, like Adele, he comes from perhaps a lower class background than most of the guests at the gallery and can see through the pretensions of this bobo (bourgeois bohemian) world?
One feels Kechiche needed to avoid showing the paintings altogether or to give us stronger cues in how we are supposed to respond to them. This is not to ask Kechiche to make everything obvious, just to insist that the paintings cannot serve a neutral function. If he thinks they are terrible, then what are we to make of Emma as a character? One supposes that Kechiche wants to show the art as mediocre but fashionable: that Emma may or may not have talent, but that she has succumbed to the demands of the artistic market place. Earlier in the film not long before Emma and Adele break-up, Adele hears Emma on the phone talking about her refusal to compromise, and at the end it looks like that is exactly what she has done. Yet some of the works are of Adele, and would have been painted before this compromise had taken place. Or are we to assume that Emma was always someone for whom artistic capitulation was evident? If we see the paintings as neither good nor bad but conforming to aesthetic fashion, we might look back on Emma’s character and wonder if there was ever a moment where she was producing the work she wanted to produce.
If we accept that Kechiche is a fine but limited filmmaker partly because of the way he offers narrative form that leaves us with a will they or won’t they question, this is matched by a mise-en-scene in a key sequence that seems un-thought through, a mise-en-scene that doesn’t leave us wondering enough about the questions of aesthetics that is up to a point the very film itself. To contain art works within a film that is itself an art work, creates questions that one feels Kechiche would prefer that we ignore as he demands we stay within the confines of Adele’s psychology. This would have been fine if Kechiche had kept the paintings out of the frame, and given the generally close-up aesthetic Kechiche adopts this wouldn’t have been difficult. But the presence of the paintings leaves us asking questions that are too narrow. We are forced to ask simple questions about the work; and perhaps too simple questions about Emma also.
Blue is the Warmest Colour is a fine film when it stays close to its character, and works with questions that remain off-screen. We notice for example that some of the friends who harass her that day in the playground about her sexuality are absent from her eighteenth birthday party. The boy she starts seeing and promptly drops also drops out of the film, as does the fellow schoolteacher whom she has a fling with and that causes the break-up with Emma. They presumably remain work colleagues, but he is not again shown on screen. The film feels under no obligation in such instances to justify itself, and is all the better for ambiguity as absence. The problem resides when there is ambiguity of onscreen space, or obviousness of situation. The two dinner sequences with the families, and most especially the scene in the gallery, show Kechiche as a filmmaker who falls into heaviness or confusion. The palme d’Or the film won at Cannes was not entirely undeserved, but we cannot quite put Kechiche’s film alongside the other intimate epics like The Mother and the Whore and Regular Lovers. That it can be mentioned, though, in the same breath, and draws comparison with Pialat, however invidiously, indicates that it isn’t simply a meretricious movie. “I don’t want [cinema] to resemble life” Kechiche says. “I want it to be life. I want there to be real moments of life in my films.” (Sight and Sound) The question is whether there are enough of them, or are there still too many conventions adopted?