How "Blue Is the Warmest Color" Turned a Graphic Novel into a Graphic Novelty

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At this point, five months after the world premiere of “Blue Is the Warmest Color” at the Cannes Film Festival, I would hazard a guess that Julie Maroh and Abdellatif Kechiche do not like each other very much. The former, author of the original graphic novel, has made her criticism of the film adaptation quite clear. Kechiche, meanwhile, has hardly felt the need to defend his directing choices. He shouldn’t, of course. No filmmaker is obligated to replicate the exact character of the work they’re adapting. Daring adaptations are often the best. It would just be nice if he took women in general, and queer women in particular, a little more seriously.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and start with the concrete differences between the graphic novel and its film adaptation. Maroh’s book opens just after the death of Clementine, who in the film is renamed Adèle (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos). The love of her life was Emma (Léa Seydoux), whose name Kechiche keeps. Emma goes to pay her respects to Clementine’s parents, who still have not accepted their daughter’s relationship with a woman. Yet, according to Adèle’s wishes, they have saved her journals for Emma. Emma’s reading of this private record, upstairs in her lost lover’s bedroom, sets off the story proper, all of which is told in flashback.

In Kechiche’s film this framing device is discarded. Adèle is the beginning and end of the film, rather than Emma, and she does not die. The dual narration of the novel, switching between Emma’s memory and Clementine’s journal, has been switched to a linear narrative with a single protagonist. Other than that, however, the plot is mostly the same. Adèle’s journey from the confusion of high school to Emma’s arms is roughly the same, as is the arc of their relationship. Maroh doesn’t name it as inevitably doomed, as Kechiche does, but the break-up does arrive under similar circumstances. Both Maroh and Kechiche use explicit sexual imagery, though the film has an awful lot more of it.

The character of this sexuality is the greatest point of divergence. Emma and Adèle’s relationship in the film is entirely about sex. This makes sense, in the beginning, because Adèle is discovering herself. The sex scenes are long, rich, and very prominently displayed. But as things move forward, none of it becomes more nuanced. Their relationship is, for lack of a better term, a few years of hot action. They have nothing else in common, at least not that we can see. Despite his insistence on Adèle’s intellectual pursuits at school in the first third, Kechiche makes sure that she is uncomfortable and disinterested around Emma’s artistically inclined friends. When they go to a museum together, the camera obsessively chronicles the female nudity in the art on the walls, with a special focus on the shapely posteriors of the classical statues. Pacing alongside these silent voluptuous bodies, Adèle and Emma barely speak.

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And, in spite of the film’s length, very little time is put into expressing how these two grew apart. They fight after a party and then stop having sex. This lack of sex is what drives Adèle to cheat, with a man. Somewhat inexplicably, Kechiche shapes a few scenes in order to blame Emma. She’s distant, absorbed by her work, doesn’t respond to Adèle’s offer of a cup of coffee. The lack of empathy for her artistic struggle is balanced with an obsessive allegiance to Adèle’s sensual response to everything in her environment. Towards the end of the film, when Adèle tries winning Emma back, the only tool she uses is a blunt sexuality, a somewhat unintentionally hilarious display in a blue-lit café. Maroh’s novel is about the identities of two women, and how they grow. Kechiche’s film is about how they grope.

Now, this would be enough to chew on by itself. There’s more, however. The other really interesting change made by Kechiche involves the kind of sexuality that he grafts onto his protagonist. Emma, whose name is interestingly brought over from the book, is mostly the same character. Adèle, on the other hand, is an entirely new person. In the book there are layers of emotion and struggle around her refusal to come out to her parents and her lack of comfort with the lesbian community. In the film this identity struggle peters out, forgotten by the last act.

In its place, Kechiche adds a possible male love interest (who is not the man she cheats with). Adèle befriends this young actor at a party in honor of Emma’s newest exhibition, a man who shares her love of Bolognese and her disinterest in the bourgeois intellectualism of artists. The film’s very last shot is one of anticipation, that he might pursue Adèle down the street and begin a new relationship with her. Kechiche is not only disinterested in questions of gay identity, but tries to take them out of his film altogether.

The remaining question is why he does all of this. I think the claim that he is simply afflicted by a male gaze is retrograde and somewhat disrespectful. Kechiche is smug, and likely a bit of a homophobe, but he isn’t stupid. For explanation I’ll turn to a scene caught by Judith Dry, in a wonderful essay on the film at Indiewire.

At the same party where Adèle means the handsome young actor, there is a minor character whose only contribution to the film is a single opinion. He’s a handsome and presumably powerful member of the art world. He pontificates on for a while, but his argument can be summarized like this: women have much more intense orgasms than men. He knows this because he has seen women orgasm, and has seen them reach a higher plane of existence. This magical sexual eruption is why so many men over the years have depicted the female form. It is also, apparently, something that women artists have never been able to capture. It’s transcendent, it leads to great art, and it is the arena of men. He can be seen, as Dry points out, as a stand-in for Kechiche’s philosophy.

It’s not hard to use this as a key to interpret the rest of the film. Adèle, the character who is Kechiche’s most original invention, is a tool and a vessel for the mystical power of female sexuality. This is why he shows so much sex, without any interest in using it to developing the relationship. This is why he’s so obsessed with the museum full of beautiful marble derrières. This is why Adèle tries to reel Emma back with the brutal force of her sexuality, rather than appeals to another sort of love they may have once shared. Emma is forced to admit that she’s never had better sex, not with anyone else. She stays away because she has retreated into sexless, boring lesbian adulthood. I suspect that Kechiche does not like Emma very much.

All of this is troublesome. All of this basically confirms that while the film is not necessarily as simply perverse as many of the less nuanced “male gaze” accusations allege, it does have an almost inherently misogynistic approach. At the very least, Kechiche does not take lesbian subjectivity seriously. He’s made it clear in at least one press conference that he doesn’t take queer cinema or queer filmmakers seriously, either.

That said, “Blue Is the Warmest” color is often a beautiful film. Kechiche is an excellent technician and artist, and cinema is an inherently collaborative art anyway. Special credit gives to Léa Seydoux’s performance, which is strong enough to withstand much of the odd philosophy around her. It’s almost as if she’s acting against Kechiche, portraying a character that she may have understood better herself. Maroh, though less actively, is also a collaborator. Enough of her story remains to maintain a plural authorship. And, finally, queer audiences have added their own readings to otherwise non-queer films for decades. As with every Tennessee Williams adaptation or Douglas Sirk film out of Hollywood, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” is ripe for feminist and queer re-appropriation.

It’s just a bit of a shame that, in the year 2013, we still have to do that.

"Blue is the Warmest Color" opens in limited release on Friday, October 25th.