Midway through his book The Broken Estate, literary critic James Wood quotes a quip of Chekhov’s: “Ibsen is no playwright… [He] just doesn’t know life. In life it simply isn’t like that.” What, Wood asks, did Chekhov mean by “life”? His suggestion is that Chekhov’s characters seem alive to us insofar as they have the freedom to resist the stories Chekhov gives them; to ramble on to themselves as if they’ve “mislaid their scripts.” “In Chekhov’s world,” Wood concludes, “our inner lives run at their own speed. They are laxly calendared. They live in their own gentle almanac, and in his stories the inner life bumps up against the outer life like two different time systems.”
Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film Blue is the Warmest Color draws a parallel division between the inner life and the outer life. More concretely, it’s about how the lives of two young women—Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue-haired fourth-year art student, and Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a high school junior with vague ideals, an achingly repressed libido and a perpetual, transfixing deer-in-the-headlights stare—progress and fail to progress in the decade surrounding their two-year spell as lovers and mutual muses. The film’s original French title translates to “The Life of Adèle, Parts 1 and 2.” What, then, does Kechiche mean by “life”?
First, there is life as a series of brief, intense ecstasies, emotional meltdowns, moments of clarity and gusts of feeling. As filmed by Kechiche, Adèle lives with her heart in her throat; it’s as if she’s always perched on the edge of a life-changing resolution or an outpouring of tears. (“You’re always blubbering,” Emma tells her.) Even during daily routines and stretches of leisure, she’s most often found staring intensely into space, open-mouthed, spark-eyed, bathed in magic-hour light. Her downtime is its own kind of epiphanic, capital-E Experience, over-saturated with feeling. After a while, you want Kechiche to give the poor girl a break.
Then there is life as a catalogue of bodily functions: spaghetti-slurping, gyro-chewing, finger-licking, lip-biting, snot-wiping, hair-brushing (and –tearing), tender caresses, smudged makeup and sweaty, acrobatic sex. Kechiche is excellent at capturing moments of abandon in which all consciousness is whittled down to a single action: dances, first kisses, post-coital caresses, sunbathing gazes up at the sky. But he’s less good at moments in which his characters are expected to do something other than embrace, make love, or glance at one another significantly: talk, for instance, or think. (Granted, thinking is a much harder thing to visualize than feeling, and yes, it’s an important part of the two women’s dynamic that Adèle is less intellectually curious than Emma—but still, is there any reason their conversations have to be so shallow? Why must Adèle come off so often as a light-sensitive surface to which feelings stick indiscriminately, or Emma an avatar of mystery, creativity and world-weary wisdom?)
Finally, there is life as a constant state of sensing, absorbing and registering. But registering what? Kechiche is so single-mindedly invested in the way his heroines—Adèle in particular—soak in sensation that he refuses to cut away from them for as much as a second, so that the film’s interchangeable streets, classrooms, parties, bedrooms and parks register only as faint interference to its regularly scheduled programming: Exarchopoulos and Seydoux’s beautiful, opaquely expressive faces. The movie is exhaustingly unmoored. It has no sense of space—or, more accurately, its heroines’ faces and bodies are the only space it’s able to comfortably inhabit. A late-film reunion between the onetime lovers feels partly neutralized by Kechiche’s refusal to set the limits and dimensions of their surroundings: we know they’re in a restaurant, but is that a wall beside them? Where’s the entrance in relation to their booth? How big is the place? These might seem like petty questions, but they’re precisely the sorts of things that ground us in the world outside our own heads. Life might be a series of emotional valleys and crests, but it’s also, on a more practical level, a jumble of angles and positions and spatial relations. There is no Being without being in the world, just as there’s no seeing without an object and no sensation without a cause. For Kechiche, it hardly matters what is being seen—the important thing, he keeps insisting, is to catch a pair of eyes in the act of seeing; a face in the act of feeling; a body in the act of responding to stimuli.
Kechiche’s willingness to let whole scenes play out in tight, constraining close-ups and ambiguous reaction shots does, I admit, make Adèle’s loneliness and self-consciousness wonderfully palpable. If her early encounters with Emma transcend walk-in-the-park hokum, it’s because their formal structure suggests a lost young person tentatively letting someone else into her inner world. She’s still bouncing around in a vacuum, but at least she has company. (The film’s first, prolonged sex scene, in which the lovers’ bodies eventually merge into a single tangle of limbs, both confirms this impression and complicates it: one gets the sense that, in this film, to occupy the same shot is, at least temporarily, to share an identity.) At the same time, there’s a limit to how much emotional weight anything can have in a contextual vacuum, and how much depth a relationship can have when the two parties seem so cut off from the rest of the world—if not by their personalities (Emma is a social butterfly; Adèle shyer, less secure), then by their imprisonment inside Kechiche’s obsessive, lingering close-ups.
A comparison could be made here to Mia Hansen-Løve’s third feature Goodbye, First Love, with which Kechiche’s film shares a subject, a rough narrative arc, a tone of wistful disappointment and a fondness for sun-dappled young people. At one point, both films send their lovesick heroine floating out into a wide body of water, staring up at the sky with a mixture of resignation and hard-won contentment. But where Hansen-Løve shows us Camille (Lola Créton) as she conceives of herself in the moment—dwarfed by the surrounding landscape, a speck in a great expanse of water and land—Kechiche cuts to an expected close-up of Adèle’s light-streaked face, which tells us a great deal about Exarchopoulos’ bone structure and next to nothing about her character’s mental state.
Which brings us back to Wood’s distinction between the inner life and the outer life, and the problem of synchronizing the two. Kechiche, to his credit, takes this problem very seriously: if we’re all stuck on our own different perceptual time systems, how can we ever fully connect with anybody? And by that same token, how can we in the audience ever gain access to the emotional and sensory mechanisms whirring behind an onscreen face? Again to his credit, he seems to believe that we can learn a good deal, if not quite enough, about what life is like for others by watching their faces respond to the world. He’s also blessed with two extraordinary actresses, both capable of working on the lightest and finest of expressive scales—a slight movement of the lips, a brightening of the eyes, a darkening of the face—even when it comes to channeling heavy, imprecise waves of desperation, jealousy, confusion, disappointment and joy. Even so, they’re hemmed in by Kechiche’s refusal to do anything but watch them respond to the world. He wields his camera like a consciousness-probe designed to dig into their faces until it breaks into the psychological space behind. Take that as an admirably gung-ho statement of faith in the camera’s abilities, or a violent intrusion into two actors’ personal space—either way, it’s not enough.