There has been, it must be said, a lot written about this new movie, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes film festival, and very little of it has particularly engaged with the film itself. Which suggests that the film’s most famous scene between the two female protagonists was a little bit of canny marketing to generate column inches. That aside (and I’ll deal with that particular scene later in my review), “The Life of Adèle: Chapters 1 & 2” — it takes its English title from the graphic novel from which it is adapted — is a bold and compelling coming of age film focused on one young woman growing up in the suburban fringes of Lille, a city in France which lies near the border with Belgium.
I mention the film’s setting not because a lot is made of it in the film, but because this is a story about living on a border — specifically, the borders of sexual attraction, as well as those between two countries, or between the city and its suburbs. The very first shots are of Adèle (Exarchopoulos) leaving her home on a leafy and blandly middle-class street, running to catch a bus, nodding off on a train, and eventually ending up at her high school somewhere near the city centre — her life, in other words, has been a fairly sheltered one. So when she catches sight of the blue hair sported by a university student while meeting a boy from her school in the centre of town, one gets the sense that this kind of thing is a bit more noticeable to her than to those of us jaded folk who’ve lived in huge cities all our lives. In any case, having broken off this unsatisfying relationship, she’s out in town again in the evening with a gay male friend and, wandering away from his choice of club to another nearby (lesbian) bar, meets the blue-haired woman again and they hit it off. Emma (Léa Seydoux) is a Fine Arts student, and the two fall into a relationship that tracks in and out of the rest of the film in various ways.
This, however, is very much Adèle’s film, as the (French) title suggests, and it’s Exarchopoulos’s face that dominates the film’s three-hour running time, in the grand tradition of a certain strain of French arthouse filmmaking that you see in, say, Godard’s Vivre sa vie (find a pretty face, focus on it). Three hours may seem like a long time, but if I were director Abdellatif Kechiche, I’d have been happy to film her for another three hours. As it is, for the first half of the film, Kechiche pursues a strategy of starting scenes with these tight close-ups of the participants in the place of the usual establishing shot, perhaps because knowing what’s happening around Adèle is less interesting than how she reacts.
This does of course place this film in another grand tradition of visual arts throughout most of the history of Western civilisation, which is to say the male gaze. Of course, as a straight cisgendered male myself, I’m hardly in a position to offer much critique of what’s seen, but for me that male gaze of Kechiche problematises the much-discussed sex scenes, if only because it makes the scenes seem more prurient than they need to be, bathed in bright light and taking in rather more of the bodies of both women than have hitherto been glimpsed. After all, for the rest of the film to this point, it has been the actor’s faces that meet the film’s gaze and largely control the way we react, and in this respect the performances by the film’s two female leads are wonderfully unadorned. Exarchopoulos captures something of her character’s suburban naïveté just as Seydoux exerts a more calculating and knowing worldview of one focused clearly on getting a foothold in the art world.
The film then skips forward a number of years, to find Adèle in a steady job as a nursery teacher and Emma as a painter trying to arrange gallery shows. The film starts to dissipate here, as it seems that Adèle still maintains a sort of simplistic naïveté, and her interactions with the worldly Emma become more strained, though it does lead to a memorable and painful scene between them at their shared apartment. This though is much shorter than those sex scenes, if only because it seems to prompt more circumspection from the director, and that in the end is a rather odd set of priorities — however one may argue for their inclusion, it doesn’t seem as if the sex scenes as filmed really add much to the drama, which is the connection between two people. And as they drift apart, so does the film a bit, but one senses that is what the (French) title is trying to suggest: that Adèle’s life will continue more strongly as the camera’s gaze (and Emma) lets her slip away.
However, putting aside the controversies around the sex scenes and around the fraught interaction between the director and actors on set, this is a film that excels through its focus on one woman’s experience of the world, and I think that Exarchopoulos really carries it well, with a great deal of unforced naturalism. Coming of age movies will never really rank among my favourite genres, but in its very close and detailed focus, this one makes for rewarding viewing.
UPDATE: I neglected to mention when I posted this review a few other things that struck me about the film. The first, the most obvious, is that this is very much a class-based story. I touched on it, but it becomes clear in the depiction of Adèle’s school life, which is made up very much of the banlieue — or “projects” if you will (“estates” in the UK) — kids, a multi-ethnic group, obsessed with status and fitting in, who make Adèle’s life difficult when they discover her sexual orientation. There’s conflict there, though it’s not overdone; as I said above, you feel it wouldn’t be quite the same story if the setting was a metropolitan capital like Paris. Which is why Emma’s story is so different: she is from the metropolis, from the largely white and upper-middle-class world of arts students, philosophers and those whose identities (sexual and otherwise) can be far more freely chosen. When each of the two women visits her respective partner’s family homes, the differences are almost excruciating, but it’s all expressed in the tiny details — the way Marianne’s family eat their spag bol, open-mouthed and unpretentious, while at Emma’s they sip wine and the two women can openly kiss rather than hide their relationship (as they do at Adèle’s). One gets the sense that the early scenes set at Adèle’s school are dealing with this clash of classes, as the students read Pierre Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne (The Life of Marianne), and though I can hardly claim to have read the book, it would appear to deal with a woman growing up in an environment (Paris) in which she moves more freely among different classes and social structures, and ultimately rejects restrictive social structures in favour of natural intuition (so much do I glean from a quick online search).
The other issue I wanted to touch on is its status (which is sort of presumed from its plot more than anything else) as a “gay film”. I’ve tagged my review with that generic description, but I put it in scare-quotes here because, subject obviously to the caveats I’ve already mentioned above, I don’t really feel I am the right person to pass judgement on what it really contributes to that discourse in wider cinema. Which is another way of saying it still feels — to me — at times like a straight man’s fantasy of what identifying as bisexual or lesbian entails. But that’s a subject for others to take up more fully. As far as I’m concerned it’s a love story and a relationship drama, above all, and it does well at that level.
Director Abdellatif Kechiche عبد اللطيف كشيش; Writer Ghalia Lacroix غالية لاكروا (based on the graphic novel Le Bleu est une couleur chaude by Julie Maroh); Cinematographer Sofian El Fani سفيان الفاني; Starring Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux; Length 180 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 25 November 2013.