“I wanted to strangle her,” I overheard a woman say following a screening of Blue is the Warmest Color (or La vie d’Adele). She was referring to entitled artist Emma (Lea Seydoux), the object of first love for young Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos). “It was so unbalanced. I just wish someone would smack her in the face.” Indeed, Emma has, to use the Seinfeld terminology, “Hand.” She comes from a privileged background and has the means to pursue an artistic career while living in spacious flats, her charm and good looks naturally drawing people to her, and she’s at ease in their company. Adele has become her muse, but it’s the lover painted on the canvas who is filled with longing and uncertainty, caring too much about this romance, and clumsily awkward with other people. For three hours, we’re completely absorbed in Adele’s psychology, which is–however unconsciously–emulating the Marivaux heroine (of La vie de Marianne) she voraciously studies as a 17-year-old middle class high school student when first we see her. Like Marivaux’s Marianne, her story, similarly told in two parts, goes unfinished, and the rest of the world, namely Emma, moves steadily forward while she struggles to catch up. It’s not to spoil anything to say this love story ends unhappily. When one of Emma’s friends asks Adele if this is her “first love,” she seems to recognize the omen in the phrase. “First love” means this one will be over. But does the lover with the upper hand deserve a smack in the face? Especially considering how it’s Adele’s transgression that leads to the inevitable break-up?
While Adele fixates at Marivaux and the romantic possibilities of “love at first sight,” Emma glows about Sartre and Existentialism as a Humanism, the philosophy of “Existence precedes Essence,” which is to say we are free to define who we are by our actions, and then live according to principles. Responsibility is cleanly cut and linear. Blue is the Warmest Color lays out its somewhat episodic and desultory structure in a way that necessitates sympathy for Adele, because the way she reacts psychologically to things–from school subjects to food to sex and love–feels predestined. The chicken-and-egg problem of Existence and Essence is cloudy, though the responsibility falls squarely on top of her. We don’t really know anyone else in this film. Not even Emma, who is laid out before us with bare intimacy in the film’s three carnal sex scenes, one of which lasts for ten minutes. Adele’s relationship with a new boyfriend, around which the film’s first 30 minutes revolve, is tearfully ended, and never heard about again. Adele’s parents are an afterthought, with little influence or attention. Her school friends fade quickly from view after they brutally tease her for her newly unveiled sexuality, and when Adele and Emma become a couple, they disappear completely. She’s hot and cold with no lukewarm. Her grades are either stellar or dreadful, all depending on how inspired she is to learn about something. When she first sees Emma’s blue hair wordlessly pass her by, Adele is ruined. She immediately has sexual dreams about this girl, and the world around her likewise adopts shades of the color. During sex with the boyfriend, her mind is elsewhere. Even a birthday party for her is a distraction from what’s her bliss. She clings and can’t let go. Is it fate or intuition that take her to a lesbian bar, and she spots that hair again. The two of them are introduced and it’s over.