This year’s Cannes Film Festival included quite a number of excellent films, including the Coen brother’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “The Past,” from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, “Like Father, Like Son,” from Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, Francois Ozon’s “Young and Beautiful,” “Nebraska,” from Alexander Payne and many others.
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But the moment “Blue is the Warmest Color,” a film from Tunisian-born, French director Abdellatif Kechiche, was revealed, it was clear this was the movie that the team of judges at the festival could not ignore. Not because of its length, 175 minutes, and not because of its many sex scenes, but because it was the most daring movie in the competition in terms of its cinematic goals and its ability to fulfill them.
The only question that the journalists covering the festival had about the movie, whose French title “La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2” translates into English as “The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 & 2,” was whether, in a year in which Steven Spielberg was leading the team of judges for the competition, such a film - which in many ways was so much the opposite of the American cinematic mainstream in which Spielberg operates - could win the honors it deserved.
In the end, not only did “Blue is the Warmest Color” win the Palme d’Or, the highest prize at Cannes, awarded to the director of the best feature film of the official competition, but the two stars of the film, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, were also joint recipients, alongside Kechiche.
I met with Kchiche two days after the first screening of the film for journalists, along with a group of journalists from various nations. None of the reporters was aware at the time of the controversies the film would arouse in the coming months: We didn’t know, for example, that the two stars of the movie, despite the awards and the fame, would openly attack their director - who, they claimed, exploited them. Working with him, they said, was a nightmare.
Another attack came from the direction of Julie Maroh, the author of the the graphic novel “Le Bleu est une couleur chaude,” from which the movie was adapted by Kechiche. She objected to his changing of the name and maintained that the movie was an exploitative, male version of her book, which focused on a lesbian love story. In addition, Kechiche aroused opposition in his homeland, expressed in part in an attack published in Le Monde, which focused not on his talent but on his personality. He was portrayed as a dictator, who abused not only his actors but also his film crew.
Kechiche, 52, is an impressive figure: He is tall; his face, hidden behind sunglasses, is expressive; and he always wears black. He radiates a feeling of self importance, which is a bit of a deterrent, but in his case it is justified. Kechiche is an extremely talented film director and “Blue is the Warmest Color,” his fifth film, is not just his best movie so far, it is also one of the most impressive films of its period.
The plot of the movie, which is divided into two chapters, describes a decade in the life of Adele (played by Exarchopoulos.) When the film begins, she is a high school student and when it ends she is a teacher in an elementary school. The main section of the movie, which takes place in the French city of Lille, focuses on the relationship between her - while still a high school student - and Emma (played by Seydoux), an older woman with blue hair who differs from Adele in education and social status.
The first question Kechiche is asked by the journalists focuses, as expected, on the sources of the movie and his decision to change the name of the book on which it is based. Kechiche tells how, since his second movie, “Games of Love and Chance” (“L’Esquive in French”) in 2003 - which took place almost entirely in a school in a suburb of Paris - he had hoped to create another film dealing with the process of teaching, which he views as a true act of art.
That wish was fulfilled when he read Maroh’s book and discovered a great love story, one that deals with various forms of teaching. He decided to change the name, since the name “Life of Adele” seemed much more appropriate for the movie he was making, which focused on the transformation of Adele from a girl into a woman. “I wanted to know about the next chapters in her life,” he adds, a small smile playing over his lips.
To what extent was the fact that the love story is between two women a factor in your decision to make the movie?
“Not really,” answers Kechiche. “It was first and foremost a love story between two characters, who like all people involved in a romantic relationship are forced to deal with what separates them; what sometimes attracts them and sometimes divides them. There are scenes in the movie, near the beginning, in which Adele’s fellow students bother her because she is having a relationship with a woman, but I didn’t intend to make a movie that deals with the attitude of French society to lesbians or the other at all. It is not a film that carries a social message; it deals with the growing up of a woman and the way in which the story of her first great love contributes to her maturation and even speeds it up,” said Kechiche.
All the strands of emotion
Abdellatif Kechiche was born in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, in 1960. His parents emigrated to France when he was six and settled in Nice. He was attracted to the theater from a young age, acted in a few plays in various locations around the French Riviera and, in 1985, got his first acting role in a movie named “Mint Tea,” directed by AbdelKrim Bahloul.
He subsequently acted in a number of other movies, including “ Techine Les Innocents” in 1987. In 2000 Kechiche decided to direct his own films, the first of which, “Poetical Refugee” (“La Faute a Voltaire”,) about an illegal immigrant from Tunis in France, won him the best first film award at the Venice Film Festival. After “L’Esquive,” which was the surprise winner of four Cesar awards, given that he was still a relatively unknown director, he directed “The Secret of the Grain” (“La graine et le mulet”) in 2006. It was highly successful, including in Israel. Three years after his previous movie, he once again won four Cesar awards, including the three most important prizes for Best Movie, Best Director and Best Screenplay.
In 2010, Kechiche directed a period piece for the first time. “Black Venus” (“Venus Noire”), presented the true story of Sarah Baartman, who came to Europe from Africa early in the 19th century and was exploited by a fraudulent promoter who exhibited her as the “Hottentot Venus” because of her large physical dimensions.
What is the reason you place a number of your movies in the broad cultural context of France?
“French society today is split,” answers Kechiche. “It is composed of various ethnicities, different races; the gap between classes is growing and the clashes between the various social elements that make up the situation today are increasing. In my films, I want to describe these differences in French society, but also to unify them, and I believe in the importance of the French language and of French culture in this creation. It is one of the reasons that the teaching profession seems to me to be so important.
“The Life of Adele may focus on a private story, but this story does not take place in a vacuum but in a social background, in which origin, class and education have significant roles. As the different and the unifying mold the relations between Adele and Emma, inspire it and even burden it; so the different and the unifying mold today the social reality in France, inspiring it but also burdening it,” explains Kechiche.
The beauty of Blue is the Warmest Color first of all stems from its being a portrait designed down to the finest detail, which touch all most delicate the strands of emotion. It is a portrait of curiosity and romantic passion, of sexual ecstasy, of broken hearts and of dealing with it. It is one of the most beautiful portraits of female maturation that we have ever seen on the cinema screen, and the two stars of the film have done exemplary work in which the emotional precision leaves you speechless.