In an unprecedented award, the French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche and actresses Léa Sedoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos all shared the Palme d’or in Cannes May 26 for “La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitre 1 & 2” (Blue is the Warmest Color, France 2013). Kechiche has proven himself a master of capturing the joy of youth on film and it is to Sedoux and Exarchopolous’s credit that they helped to realize the ambition of this epic masterpiece. Based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, “La Vie d’Adèle”, stood out among the other entries at Cannes primarily because of the creative use of the camera and editing and outstanding visceral acting performances. The majority of the shots are closeups and the montage of these spectacular in your face shots and scenes are aligned magnificently. Actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos command the screen with their raw, emotional performances and are co-creators in this intelligent and moving film on two young women in love, contextualized in an ocean of classrooms, after school socializing, demonstrations, art, politics, gender issues and homophobia.
The story opens on the life of fifteen-year-old high school student Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a student at a multiethnic high school. A brief but meaningless fling with a classmate ends after a one-night stand, which leaves the boy in tears.
Adèle realizes she is missing something. By chance she finds herself attracted to the beautiful Emma (Léa Seydoux), a striking woman in her mid 20’s with dyed blue tinted hair. After a brief encounter on the street where Emma is walking with her girlfriend, Adèle dreams about her. Her literature class is reading about the anticipation of desire from the 18th century novel “The Life of Marianne” by Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, a favorite author of the director. Kechiche is excellent in putting this essence on screen. He captures many of the emotions of youth, which to the audience should be painfully familiar.
Adèle marches in political rallies for worker rights, education reform and gay pride. But her classmates’ comments are cruel when she is seen with Emma, the “tomboy”. Adèle goes to a gay bar with a friend from school, which is the subject of gossip, and not long after to a lesbian bar on her own where she meets Emma, who immediately claims her to ward off other admirers.
An hour into the film Emma and Adèle spend the night. The sex scenes are explicit, passionate and joyful. The close-ups are so microscopic that you can see the tiny hairs on the skin of the women.
As the late French actress Maria Schneider said, “Film is the memory of our time” and to this one can add, the memory of our youth and our loves. Nowhere is that more evident than in this film thanks to the actresses and Kechiche.
Adèle aspires to be a primary school teacher, and Emma is a student at the School of Fine Art (École des Beaux-Arts). Adèle becomes an art model for Emma who calls Adèle her muse.The differences between the two women become notable when it is time to meet their parents and Emma’s friends. Emma’s parents are acceptant of Adèle and Emma, but Adèle’s parents are unaware of their daughter’s relationship. The internalized homophobia that both women feel comes across at the dinner table. Adèle cannot introduce Emma to her friends after the bullying she received in school, but Emma has “cultured” art friends who nonetheless ask stupid questions at intellectual gatherings, such as “is this your first time with a woman”?
Emma spends quite a bit of intimate time at a party with a pregnant woman, Lise, discussing Gustav Klimt, all too apparent to Adèle. Soon, Emma tells Adèle to get an interest in life other than her. This is bizarre since Adèle has a life as a teacher with colleagues at work, one of which is interested in her too.There are many classroom scenes throughout the film showing Adèle’s education and her own teaching.
Emma’s world is high art culture, which differs from Adèle’s interests in primary school pedagogics and popular cinema. She spends evenings away discussing Egon Shiele with Lise. The women’s differences, which were the source of attraction, begin to polarize them.
The ellipses in the film are frequent during the decline of the relationship. Three years after Emma and Adèle have a falling out over cheating, they meet in a café. The sexual attraction is still there but Emma claims she has a family now with Lise and her two kids. She reveals she is no longer in love with Adèle but will always be fond of her. When Emma has her first art show, she invites Adèle. Lise reminds her how her presence is still there in Emma’s paintings. The newer canvases in charcoal have a new touch of commercialism. One of Emma’s friends claims that she is absent in her gaze in her latest work, perhaps now that Adèle is gone.
The Cannes critics, particularly the French, were in love with “Emma” and “Adèle” and the way they are represented on film. It is the kind of cinema that is appealing to a French audience with frequent literary and cinema references, discussions on philosophy, art, and political issues, good meals and parties, and a focus on French education, which is a demanding curriculum from pre-school. Twelve out of fifteen critics cited in Le Film Français give it a Palme d’or rating symbol. These issues of the film should have widespread appeal, particularly among the young and the young hearted.
“La Vie d’Adèle” is a narrative that compels the spectator to know more. At the press conference on May 23, Kechiche revealed there is enough material for two more films and is willing to put this into more chapters. In fact, he shot a total of 700 hours and cut it to three. Both Léa and Adèle said they are willing to go on with the story, and were surprised at the final cut since there were so many scenes that weren’t used.
Kechiche underlines that the film is about two people who are attracted to each other , like any other love story, and does not emphasize the sexual politics. “It’s not good to delve or say anything about homosexuality”, said Kechiche at the press conference. Not only the director but also Sedoux and Exarchopoulos, who are both heterosexual, had little to say on the subject other than the film is a love story, but perhaps this will change. The fact that gay marriage was hotly debated in France at the time the film was made was something Kechiche wanted to avoid in La Vie d’Adele, even with violent protests in the streets in Paris in April.
Kechiche has proclaimed that a revolution must contain a sexual revolution, so his film nevertheless goes a long way. Gay marriage should be regarded as a legitimization of same sex relationships as part of this revolution. These are two lesbians living in a heterosexual world, a question the first official press conference at Cannes addressed, and as the film opens itself up to wide screen distribution, it’s time for Kechiche to take note.
Another possibility to consider for not wanting to discuss the sexual politics of the film is the fear that this might limit its accessibility in theaters. However, judging by the overwhelming support in Grand Théâtre Lumière after the award was announced and among the critics, it might be more accurate to count on support for the film. After all, the jury headed by Steven Spielberg awarded the film the highest honor and its creators. Distributor Wild Bunch informs that the film has already been sold to Sundance Selects in the US (MPAA ratings will later be assessed) and other countries and won’t cut anything from the 2 hour 59 minute film. It will be released in France on October 9, 2013.
Moira Sullivan is an accredited journalist at the Cannes Film Festival and served on the Queer Palm Jury for 2012.
Live from Cannes, May 23, 2013.
Reprinted from Film International