Blue is the new gold. Almost literally out of the blue, from the shimmerings of speculation on France’s Côte d’Azur, a three-hour film about lesbian love by a Tunis-born Frenchman won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or. “I told you so” (as this reporter did a few days before prizes night) is a dodgy boast for a film critic. Readers can then remember how often that critic predicted runners who fell at the first fence, ran off the course, or got shot by other critics in mercy killings.
But La vie d’Adèle, whose English title, Blue Is the Warmest Colour, adapts that of the graphic novel on which the film is based (Julie Maroh’s Le bleu est une couleur chaude), became almost every critic’s favourite at Cannes. Never before in the festival’s history has the movies chart in the festival trade daily Le Film Français recorded 12 out of 15 gold mini-fronds, for a favoured film, from its polled reviewers. A gold mini-frond denotes loving a film “à la folie”.
Why the madness? Why the passion? Because this film does passion and madness (that of love) better than almost any work in cinema. It isn’t just the sex scenes, though they are long and explicit. Before these it is the minutely delineated process of “falling in love”: its vertigos and sweet surrenders, its tears, sighs, graspings at hope. After the sex scenes we get the martyrdom of break-up: that cross made either better or worse by the fact that no one, except in this case a film audience, can see the victim carrying it around.
First, those sex scenes. For many they were the only component endangering the film’s chance at a Palme d’Or. Jury president Steven ET Spielberg: could we expect him to honour a film featuring naked, graphic, ecstatic carnal comminglings? Don’t these scenes (some would say, and have said) blur the boundary between art and pornography? “It depends what you mean by ‘pornography’,” answers 52-year-old director Abdellatif Kechiche, palely tanned, grey-haired, retaining a touch of the film-star looks that got him a brief early acting career (André Téchiné’s The Innocents, 1987). “There are paintings, sculptures that were called pornographic. There is a Pabst film [the German silent classic Pandora’s Box] that was called pornographic because Louise Brooks showed her breasts. My definition of pornography is vulgarity: vulgarity because something you’re showing is fake and does not include beauty.
“Of course there are no simple definitions of beauty, they too are subjective. But for me beauty becomes artistic, or cultural, when we see the beauty of movements the body can make, or a beautiful mouth which is seen in close-up, whatever that mouth is doing, eating, talking, arguing.” There are a lot of mouth close-ups in Kechiche’s film, mostly of Adèle (who is played by Adèle Exarchopoulos). And, yes, they are very beautiful.
“Then there is the issue” – I have raised the spectre of censorship – “of what one can show of bodies and sexual intercourse, and that is based on the traditions and cultures of particular countries. So it has different nuances. I’m a film-maker who wants his film to be seen by as many different people as possible in different countries. Unconsciously I make my films for a French or European audience, but I’d like them to be seen in countries with different traditions and cultures. I’m not willing to say I’d compromise, but let’s say I’d be open to what can be taken into account as being perceived to be offensive to the traditions of a country. What I do not admit is censorship for reasons that you do not accept love between two women. At that point it’s too close to intolerance and then no discussion is possible.”
The performance of 19-year-old newcomer Exarchopoulos would be called dumbfounding were it not that everyone on the Cannes Croisette talked about it for days. Only the festival’s fair-shares-for-all prizes policy can have prevented a Best Actress gong being added to the film’s Palme d’Or. How did Kechiche direct her through – never mind the love scenes – the nearly hour’s worth of nonstop grief, tears and heart-wreck in the final act?
“We did a long preparation before the shoot. We rehearsed a lot. We shot some scenes that weren’t in the final film. I was trying to train her to find and to liberate her feelings. I was also very careful not to upset or trouble her, because it was delicate work. I started shooting the film only when I felt she was ready.”
The actors collaborated with the director in shaping the scenes, giving the film – like its forerunner, Kechiche’s Venice prizewinning Couscous (2007) – an uncanny density of realism and spontaneity of feeling. “I include in my script different possibilities, so the actors can choose any way to play a scene or even say a sentence. On Blue Is the Warmest Colour we kept on adding or taking out material while shooting. I’d think of a scene the evening before, we’d shoot it the next day, then I’d realise it didn’t fit and we’d drop it. It’s quite a dangerous exercise, but it allows me to make the kind of films I want. I can’t write novels, but if I did it I would use the same method. In film it’s an expensive thing, of course, it’s not like tearing out a written page. But it’s the only way to reach that ‘realism’ that you talk of.”
Kechiche, though, doesn’t just dole out the diurnal. His last film Venus Noire (2010), recreating the story of an early 19th-century black African woman toured and exploited in Britain as a virtual freak show, rejoiced in, and for some critics suffered from, weighty embellishments of history and theatre. Britain itself didn’t even see the film; UK distributors never picked it up. Was it an aberration in the Kechiche oeuvre?
“I don’t see it as different from my other films,” says the director. “Yes, it’s more declamatory, a little more theatrical. But there is theatre in all my films, including Couscous and L'Esquive.”
L'Esquive (Games of Love and Chance, 2004) is a wonderful, Rohmer-like fresco of French teenage lives and loves, set in and around a housing estate where teenagers are rehearsing a Marivaux play. Marivaux crops up too in early scenes of Blue Is the Warmest Colour, his name bandied with other canonic French romantic authors (Laclos, Madame de La Fayette) by the literature-studying heroine and her schoolmates.
“It’s not just French plays and novels of the literature of the 17th and 18th centuries,” Kechiche says. “The subject of love, especially love at first sight or lost love, is echoed in all literary forms in all countries. So I decided to introduce the theme through these magnificent texts. Marivaux [whose novel La vie de Marianne is quoted extensively in the film] is an author I love. He has delved better than any other into women’s love. He had the ability to describe female psychology and the feelings of love. I wanted Adèle, like Marianne, to say: ‘I am a woman and I am going to tell you my story.’ Not in a pompous or didactic way but lightly, like an invocation.”
Authors of the classical age, in France and elsewhere, propelled their heroes and heroines through long, sometimes serial adventures. The complete title of Kechiche’s film is La vie d’Adèle chapitre 1 et 2. Does that mean “chapter 1 and 2” will be followed by “chapter 3 and 4” (or more)? “I don’t know. Maybe. Wait and see!” he says.
Faites vos jeux. Kechiche cannot say more. He is called away, under a tribute sky of warmest blue, to a photo session beside a Cannes pool.