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Blue is the Warmest Color: The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // NC-17 // February 25, 2014
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted March 4, 2014 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

The first and last shots of Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color (aka La Vie d'Adele - Chapitres 1 & 2) feature its focal character, Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), walking alone toward the next stage in her life, mirroring one another as they frame this breathtaking drama about relationships and identity with a poignantly familiar image. These scenes feature two versions of the young woman who are quite different from one another, shaped by the experiences from her passionate bond with a blue-haired artist, Emma (Lea Seydoux, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), spanning several years throughout her youth. Categorizing the film as being purely about same-sex romance would do the story's purpose a disservice, though: this brave portrayal of attraction, sexuality, and conflicting philosophy revolves around Adele's draw towards individuals above how it sorts out her overarching preferences. Kechiche embraces the subject matter and shapes it into a powerful, self-conscious depiction of molding to the challenges of a new lifestyle -- and life itself -- for the sake of uncontrollable love and unyielding desire.

Based on Julie Maroh's graphic novel of the same name, Blue is the Warmest Color takes its time while fleshing out two stages in Adele's life -- before and after high-school -- across nearly three hours of deliberate, expressive filmmaking, capturing the intimacy and intensity of her burgeoning sexuality. Some will find the length indulgent, while others will savor the closeness it achieves: detail-aware camera movement and tight close-ups make the audience feel almost like voyeurs peering into Adele's life, unafraid to let the film's gaze linger on her everyday activities at school and around her fairly traditional home. The film encourages those watching to read her closeted emotions as the story organically touches on love at first sight, predestination, and regret from not capitalizing on opportunities, becoming especially poignant as she handles the havoc of high-school friends and dating boys. Kechiche and cinematographer Sofian El Fani find ways of making these early mundane things in Adele's life appealing and pertinent to observe, recurring throughout her life as reflections of the parts of her that never change.

The material becomes challenging once Adele passes by Emma on the streets for the first time, conjuring a spark that she's forced to manage on her own at first, driven only by a fleeting glance at the object of her affection. Director Kechiche skillfully balances the pains and satisfactions of discovering her same-sex cravings, where scenes involving clashes with her classmates and during her private reflections on the girl with blue hair reveal an incredible amount of rawness and sincerity. There's a lot to admire in how Blue is the Warmest Color hinges on Adele's turmoil in how she handles those emerging sensations -- a vague conversation she has with her gay male friend about "faking it" offers an invitation to really get inside her head -- while the film credibly explores how she clumsily navigates her social life while coping with how to explore those lesbian inclinations. Adele's personality takes shape through those moments of teary-eyed confusion and eventual vivacity, allowing the themes behind her tough experiences to speak for themselves.

Adele's coming-of-age moves in tandem with the courtship that blossoms between she and Emma, driven by exceptional performances from the two women that relish the complex and delicate areas of their long-term relationship, given nuance by Kechiche's reportedly demanding direction. Lea Seydoux projects a mysterious and confident aura that's commanded by Emma's years of experience at first, while Adele Exarchopoulos' disarmingly courageous performance becomes a sublime counterbalance through her character's emotional enthusiasm and social reservation. Blue is the Warmest Color doesn't keep them the same ages, though, moving ahead several years and revealing how the two women have changed with time. The transition is organic: as the idiosyncrasies observed in their younger years manifest into different, less savory shades of the same traits later on, the film never loses its grasp on authenticity, the complexities of their tempestuous relationship escalating with domestic life and professional ambition.

Abdellatif Kechiche's filmmaking perspective only really stumbles during the highly-publicized sex scenes, which certainly earn the film its NC-17 rating and deserve the scrutiny they've received. Especially during Adele and Emma's first encounter, the candor of the intimacy displayed in Blue is the Warmest Color takes strides to convey how absorbed they become by their lust, orchestrated in matter-of-fact, steady-handed sequences. However, much like the way Kechiche allows the camera to casually linger on Adele's dining and sleeping habits , these sequences simply go on longer than needed to achieve their desired effect. Whether they cross the line of tastefulness will depend on who's watching: the lighting, framing, and cinematography remain sophisticated amid their frankness, yet roughly ten minutes of the film are only a few tilted camera angles away from point-blank erotica. These almost-intrusive glimpses at their sex life are vindicated by their purposes and the actresses' stalwart performances, but they eventually start to ring false.

Getting under Adele's skin during her first, powerful love is a crucial part of Blue is the Warmest Color, covering the gradient of her emotion -- curiosity, frustration, jealousy, loneliness, and heartbreak -- within a melancholy depiction of how her persona evolves and guides her into adulthood. By the end, during that vision of her once again walking into another chapter in her life on the sound of a steel drum in the wind, Kechiche and his actresses make the audience feel as if they've endured the exhilaration of Adele embarking into uncharted territories, the tears that frequently stream down her cheeks, and the ache when she's lost the ability to change the direction of the way things are moving. It's an exhausting but rewarding experience that, ultimately, reveals more about the universality of her growth amid the ups and downs of love's turbulence than it does about where her specific preferences end up, though not without its own complicated resonance in that regard.

The Blu-ray:

In a rarity for the studio, The Criterion Collection and IFC Entertainment have presented Blue is the Warmest Color in the first of what appears to be two projected releases for Spine #695, with the initial Blu-ray disc offering little more than the film itself -- the 178-minute, uncut NC-17 version -- inside their now-commonplace clear-case packaging. Stills from the film adorn the front and inner artwork, while a slim foldout Booklet features a longing gaze between Adele and Emma on both sides. Within, the booklet covers the disc's production credits and digital transferring process, while also including an essay form B. Ruby Rich, entitled "Feeling Blue". There isn't really a lot that differentiates this release from Criterion's other recent lower-tier, bare-boned Blu-ray offerings, where their careful and vibrant eye for package design goes above and beyond the lower price-tag.

Video and Audio:

Shot digitally on Canon's EOS-C300 and derived directly from the digital files, Blue is the Warmest Color flows onto Blu-ray in a stunning 2.35:1-framed 1080p AVC transfer, highlighted by Abdellatif Kechiche's inexhaustible usage of close-ups and subtly picturesque locations around northern France. The treatment's focus on fine textures, skin-tone fluctuations, and environmental lighting are frequently spellbinding, where minor details in the main actresses' faces -- their eyes, their lips, their hair -- hallmark the beauty Criterion have expertly carried over to their high-definition disc. The film's playful depth-of-field and subtle movement never stumbles in digital stability, nor does the occasionally complex black levels that fluctuate during darker, intimate sequences, whether it's indoors or during early-evening backyard parties. Most of the film, however, takes place either outdoors or basking in natural light pouring into a classroom, and that's where the razor sharpness and controlled color scheme really stand out. Kechiche aims to make those watching feel as if they're in the moment, and this Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection flawlessly facilitates those aims on a visual level.

Clarity of the French dialogue, enveloping natural atmosphere, and sparse but pertinent usage of music become the central elements of this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio treatment, also taken directly from the digital files and mastered at 24-bit. The intensity of conversations and their reactions to the environment are crucial to the film's success, elegantly handled by this disc amid many conversations both indoors and out, against schoolyard chatter and in the faintly echoic space of a home. Some subtle sound effects strike a chord in this treatment, from the crashing of glass following a slammed door to the ebbing and flowing of waves at the beach, but the majority of the film's balanced channel usage comes from very subtle ambient touches. Unless memory isn't serving correctly, the number of times music emerges from the track can be counted on one hand, but their clarity and response to the film's design -- especially the elegant sounds of a steel drum -- are delights for the ears. The subtitles have been brilliantly translated into English for this release, as one can expect from the label.

Special Features:

"A full special edition treatment of this film will follow at a later date."

That's what we're currently working with on Criterion's page for Blue is the Warmest Color, while this budget-minded, bare-boned release only comes with a Trailer (1:37, 16x9 HD) and TV Spot (:18, 16x9 HD). What that means for a future release -- commentary, deleted scenes, a Q&A with the director and actors, or a making-of piece that touches on the controversial sex scenes and Abdellatif Kechiche's demanding direction -- remains to be seen. There's quite a bit of material, both involving the film's construction and its external reception, that would make for fascinating supplements in a full special edition. It's a curious decision from a label ever-careful with its marketing strategies for future re-releases, so here's hoping the decision towards a relatively inexpensive movie-only edition works well for them and eventually pays off.

Final Thoughts:

There's a certain power and beauty in Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color that's hard to shake. The intimacy and challenges built around Adele's discovery of her attraction for women -- specifically her instant gravity towards one, Emma, in particular -- paints a stunning portrait of modern love through a bold mix of authenticity and symbolic poeticism. It's lengthy, yes, and overly indulgent and explicit at times that extend beyond the film's intentions, but that's counterbalanced by how the performances from Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux connect their collection of moments, both sweet and bitter, into a phenomenally honest mosaic about the joys, boundaries, and pitfalls of young romance and complicated sexuality. Criterion's preliminary, nearly-featureless Blu-ray release of the film still comes Highly Recommended, justified by the disc's audiovisual prowess and budget-conscious price tag -- and the promise of a more elaborate release later on.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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