Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

Dir. by Abdellatif Kechiche

I’m interested, primarily, in one aspect of this film. I saw Blue is the Warmest Color projected onto a large screen in a wide ratio (2.35:1). If IMDb is to be trusted, it was shot on a Canon C300, and the resulting image is uncannily detailed in that too-real-to-feel-real style of hi-def video. Because Kechiche frames nearly every shot in a tight closeup (an unusual move, generally, but especially so in this aspect ratio), and because of the film’s 179-minute run time, watching Blue is the Warmest Color in a theater means spending more than two hours looking at faces through a telescope. When my attention drifted from the content of the film, as it did fairly often, I’d distract myself by looking at Léa Seydoux’s teeth and gums or at the warts on the back of Adèle Exarchopoulos’s hand. (This is a cinephile’s prerogative. We are habitual voyeurs, and there are few opportunities in real life for this kind of intimate examination.)

After the screening, I mentioned on Twitter that Blue is the Warmest Color felt like a film that was designed to be viewed on an iPad, and someone countered that it’s not too different in that respect from The Passion of Joan of Arc or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, two other films that rely heavily on closeups. I agree with him to a certain extent, but I think Blue is the Warmest Color is an interesting test case for a directing technique that is categorically different from the work of Dreyer and Leone. I say “technique” rather than “style” or “voice” because I suspect Kechiche’s choices could be reproduced by most competent technicians to similar effects (and likely will in coming years). It could be reduced to something along the lines of: extensive use of hi-def closeups + interesting faces (casting) + duration + realistic performances = the manufacture of feeling. I can’t think of a perfect precedent for this combination.

Obviously, Blue can be distinguished from a film like The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly in many, many ways but I’m most interested in its “realistic performances,” by which I mean the genuine tears, the dripping snot, the flushed skin. Watching 18-year-old Exarchopoulos exhaust herself in scene after scene, I thought of Catherine Breillat’s comment about Isabelle Huppert: “Her gift is to be involved with her character just in the time she is playing it, and without protection. Actors are well paid but it is very dangerous work.” Throughout Blue is the Warmest Color I was too conscious of the likelihood that after Kechiche said “cut,” Exarchopoulos would need an hour to regain her composure.

I was moved by Blue is the Warmest Color, as I’m often moved by coming-of-age stories, but I don’t trust my response because the film’s form is so calculated. (I don’t trust the film because of some narrative cheats, too, but they’re tangential to this discussion.) In a nutshell, I suppose I’m wondering here if it’s possible to project 60-foot, detailed images of Adèle Exarchopoulos’s emotive face for two hours and not move an audience? More to the point, I’m wondering if that technique, in and of itself, can be called directing? Yes, Kechiche made important decisions—the elliptical editing is occasionally interesting, as are some of his storytelling choices—and he was able to elicit those large emotions from Exarchopoulos, which is one of the jobs of a director. But in all of the commotion about Kechiche’s alleged exploitation of his actresses in the filming of the sex scenes, I hear a more vague and general distrust of the film’s voice—a distrust I share because I feel manipulated by a technique devoid of a guiding wit or wisdom.