Friday, December 20, 2013

Jeremiah McNeil on Blue is the Warmest Color (France/Belgium/Spain: Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013: 179 mins)

I waited to post my impressions of BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR until it had finished its run at The Kentucky. I didn't want to color anyone's opinion of the film going in. I posted this in another FB group and in the comments section on The Dissolve and got a variety of interesting responses. Suffice it to say that this film is controversial.

Here are my thoughts on BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR:

Richard Brody's review of Assayas's APRÈS MAI argued that Assayas's style in that film exemplified a new "Tradition of Quality" in French art cinema. I disagree. But rather than explaining that disagreement by examining Assayas's work in that film (which is entirely consistent with his style elsewhere), I want to focus on BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, whose director I feel is the face of the contemporary ToQ.

The contemporary Tradition of Quality is, above all else, "realist." Its fundamental premise is that cinema should present a compelling semblance of "real" life. Films in this style are staged and shot in a manner intended to overcome the viewer's sense of disbelief. They do this by assuming the formal language of documentary cinema - intentionally shaky handheld cameras that refocus to change emphasis within the frame or whip pan to catch a gesture of interest, and an abundance of extreme close-ups that simulate the experience of watching "talking head" interviews on television.

These techniques have been common in Western art cinema since roughly the beginning of the 1960s, when Late Neorealism and the French New Wave simultaneously assimilated the aesthetics of cinema verite into narrative fiction filmmaking. But in the last decade, the style has become exaggerated beyond its capacity to effectively tell a story. Films telling reasonably realistic dramatic stories are filled with close-ups, obliterating the bodies of the performers and making body language irrelevant to the actors' performances. Rather than enhancing the emotive capacity of films these close-ups actually limit their expressive range. Actors cannot perform with their bodies; settings become blurred space along the edges of the frame. The remarkably complex and emotionally resonant blocking of filmmakers like Kenji Mizoguchi, Fritz Lang, Hong Sangosoo and, yes, Olivier Assayas is impossible in this style.

The signature gesture of the contemporary ToQ is the whip-pan. It is used not to refocus attention within the composed frame as a close-up would be within traditional narrative aesthetics but to shift the frame so as to include an object or gesture previously not visible. This gives the impression that something spontaneous is happening that the filmmaker feels must be captured. However, the conscious viewer is aware that the gesture is not spontaneous; it is acted. The complex montage of the ToQ style necessitates numerous set-ups and multiple takes within each set-up. This means that no gesture is unrehearsed and unreplicated. Nothing that happens in the ToQ style is spontaneous. Thus the camera gesture which imitates spontaneity is explicitly artificial. It adds a layer of artifice to the already explicit artifice of the blocking, making the film less, rather than more, realistic.

Kekiche's signature technique within the ToQ style is to bookend a scene with wide shots that show all or most of the characters' bodies, then immediately cut - usually within ten seconds - to the sequence of close-ups that constitute the bulk of a scene. Kekiche's style thus denies to the audience the importance of the body as a means of expression. It is, for all intents and purposes, no more than part of an establishing shot, like the exterior of a building in a multi-camera network sitcom.

Kekiche's tendency to reduce the body to mere scenery is the most likely reason audiences have responded to the long sex scenes in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR with accusations that they are pornography. For ten or so minutes of the film the screen luxuriates in bodies. Nude female flesh consumes the frame. If Kekiche's style has heretofore shown that he considers the body no more than background his sudden emphasis on the contours and ecstasies of the body seems prurient. The film's curiously echoey sound design makes every slap, slurp and squelch of these scenes uncomfortably visceral. Unmotivated lighting gives their bodies the stylized shading of pin-up models. The camera focuses on breasts, labia and frequently buttocks. The film's pseudo-realistic, close-up heavy aesthetic is violated by virtually every aspect of these scenes' construction.

The modern viewer should have become accustomed with graphic, often unsimulated fucking by now. We have seen oral, manual and penetrative sex acts performed by couples of every possible gender arrangement often enough that by now such content should not inspire controversy. But these scenes' digression from Kekiche's formal strategy, their length and their graphic quality combine to suggest that Kekiche is trying to arouse his viewer and is certainly arousing himself. But graphic sex within the heavily aesthetized style of the ToQ will always be pornographic. What seems natural and even beautiful in Reygadas, Akerman or Haigh is rendered outrageous or exotic by the ToQ style. Denying the importance of the body continuously and deliberately only to revel in its sexual throes fetishizes it. This is akin to the heavily aesthetized presentation of bodies in pornography.

There is, however, more to the film than floating heads and pornographic sex. Kekiche may rarely reveal a distinctive point of view through style but he remains a keen observer of human behavior. Adele's constant eating may be a trite metaphor for "lust for life" but it is so well-integrated into her personality that it is less a grasp at profundity than believable psychology. Kekiche's one compelling formal technique is to use the out-of-focus background space that often occupies as much as half the frame to show significant character behavior. The best and most distinctive shot in the film shows Adele chewing loudly in focus in the foreground while her father, out-of-focus, does the same behind her. This image says more about Adele's connection with her family than dialogue can possibly communicate and is one of the few instances in the film of Keliche telling his story through his style.

Adele is a fascinating character. Art cinema all too often depicts art and its creators with dull piety but BLUE shows it through Adele's uncomfortable perspective. She is an uncommon type in cinema: a moderately intelligent member of the working class with modest artistic gifts she has no intention of honing. The film is at its most compelling when it juxtaposes Adele's and Emma's respective milieu. Adele is a bisexual who never comes out of the closet to her family or coworkers, but Kekiche empathizes with her ambivalence. Neither her judgmental family and classmates nor Emma's over-frank parents and fellow artists fully understands her, and we never see Adele truly comfortable. She doesn't come of age so much as she grows to accept that she will never be at peace with her identity.

Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux are, as everyone has said, fantastic. Kekiche is a superb director of actors despite his reputation for cruelty. There is nothing more genuinely realistic in this film than its performances.

The quality of the performances and the complexity of the central character's psyche make BLUE a compelling film despite its stylistic blandness. I found myself unexpectedly quite moved. That the film was able to move me despite my numerous objections to Kekiche's style is no small achievement. Kekiche is a gifted storyteller and director of actors. But his direction exemplifies the generic Tradition of Quality of contemporary European arthouse cinema. If only he would devote more energy to developing a style as powerful as his storytelling he might become a filmmaker worth noting. At present his film is better than his direction.

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