"Blue Is the Warmest Color" is not just about sapphic sex. Some very potent intercourse takes place between a working-class high school student and an upper-class artist, but that is only half the story. “I actually believe that the other themes in the film, specifically the social class division — there's a gap — are problems that are even more important in our society,” director Abdellatif Kechiche recently told Interview. Where the two lovers come from is essential to the thrust of his fifth feature. “[T]hematically, what really interested me the most was a love story between two women, or two people that came out of very different social milieus,” he said. “And to deal with the breakup, which is the result of belonging to different social milieus.”
A devoted practitioner of Renoirian realism, the filmmaker hired two actresses who shared his heroines’ socio-economic backgrounds. Léa Seydoux, granddaughter of the chairman of Pathé, “comes from an extremely wealthy, bourgeois, very comfortable milieu” and plays Emma. Relative neophyte Adèle Exarchopoulos, who “comes from something that is definitely much more modest,” plays Adèle. Kechiche admitted in The Guardian last week that he chooses working-class actresses like Exarchopoulos as a “political” move, saying “it’s a real satisfaction for me to bring them into a profession that wouldn't have been open to them otherwise.” Though he denied a preference for either "Blue" character, Kechiche told Collider he felt an affinity for Adele in terms of “where she’s coming from in the social class – the proletarian working class that I grew up in and identify with and that she works and exists in.”
The class conflict that eventually ruptures the film’s romance mirrors the real-life war that recently erupted between Kechiche and Seydoux. In a now-infamous interview with The Daily Beast following "Blue’s" Cannes premiere, Exarchopoulos suggested Kechiche was disrespectful in the way he filmed her sex scenes with Seydoux and that he exercised “a kind of manipulation.” She said the stars “were really suffering” during a fight sequence in which Seydoux was encouraged to hit Exarchopoulos numerous times. “It was horrible,” Seydoux acceded and abruptly announced she would “never” work with Kechiche again. In a subsequent interview with The Independent, she added that the film’s sex scenes made her feel “like a prostitute.”
In response, Kechiche waged what appeared to be a class war, using Seydoux’s privilege as ammunition. In reference to her interview with the Beast, he reportedly told Canal+, “If Léa hadn’t had such a sheltered upbringing she would have never said that.” In an op-ed for the French website Rue 89, Kechiche criticised the 28-year-old actress for having “the arrogance of a spoiled child” and belonging to “an untouchable caste that turns her into a sort of 'Princess and the Pea.’” He also accused her of hypocrisy. “If she really lived what she says, why did she come to Cannes crying, thanking, climbing the stairs, spending days trying on dresses and jewelry? What job does she have, actress or gala artist?” But the coup de grace came when he told Canal+, “Léa Seydoux is part of a system that doesn’t want me, because I disturb it.”
That system is French film and the disturbance, according to Kechiche, is his ethnicity. “Because of my social origins and my roots, I have a hard time getting judged like an artist,” the Tunisia-born Frenchman said in Telerama. Lia Brozgal, Assistant Professor in UCLA's Dept. of French and Francophone Studies, said the “palpable and pervasive” tension between the French and North African (including Tunisian) immigrants stems from the lengthy war for Algerian independence, which lasted from 1954 to 1962. “Even today, many French feel deep animosity toward the Algerians — animosity rooted in the events of the war and its aftermath,” she said via email. “As if this weren't already unfortunate, Tunisians and Moroccans, who make up a proportionally smaller number of North African immigrants than Algerians, nonetheless get lumped into the same camp.” In 2007, Kechiche admitted in Le Monde that his upbringing “was marked by the difficulties and racism suffered by a child of immigrants.”
Panivong Norindr, Associate Professor of French and the Comparative Literature Chair at USC, has written about Kechiche’s “political cinema” and agrees that the filmmaker’s background is the reason he is not often cited as a French auteur. “People want to peg him as an immigrant filmmaker, of ‘beur’ or Tunisian descent,” he said. “But he’s not didactic, he’s not moralistic, he doesn’t take the position of the victim.” According to Brozgal, the term “beur,” a colloquialism for those born in France whose parents emigrated from North Africa, “indicates a very low status, socio-economically.” Despite being a successful filmmaker, Kechiche reportedly still chooses to live in Paris's “Arab town,” Belleville. “For me the important thing about living there is that it’s a working-class district,” he told the Guardian.
Kechiche’s socio-economic background and his ethnicity have both informed his work; three of his five films – "Games of Love and Chance," "The Secret of the Grain" and "Blame It on Voltaire" – center on working-class North African immigrants. Across his oeuvre the director addresses “the complexity of the new France,” according to Norindr, not only through race but also in the way he “mixes high and low culture.” In "Games," a group of kids from the projects attempt to assimilate into French high culture by putting on a play by Marivaux. Assimilation into high culture also happens to be the lifeblood of "Blue."
The first time Adèle sees Emma, the latter is physically higher than her. Seated on the balcony of a gay bar, the École des Beaux-Arts student on her pedestal literally personifies high culture. In the same scene, Emma descends from her throne to educate Adèle about the 19th century Salons des Refusés, aka “The exhibition of rejects,” featuring work snubbed by the Paris Salon. Though Emma is the painter, the cultural reject here is Adèle. While Emma is surrounded by art, adores oysters and talks openly with her family, Adèle scrambles for culture in her school books and eats spaghetti alongside her distant parents, all eyes on the boob tube.
When the two families mix over dinner, a sort of cultural indigestion surfaces. Adèle’s working-class father encourages Emma to find “a real job” instead of painting. Meanwhile, Emma’s family is equally puzzled by Adèle’s aspirations to be, not a prof, but a simple teacher.
Just as she initiates Adèle into the art of lesbian sex, so too does Emma attempt to pull her young lover into the world of high art. “I want her to write,” Emma tells her artsy friends, before settling for calling Adèle her muse, which, at the very least, turns her girlfriend into the subject of high art if not its creator. On one of their first dates, Emma introduces Adèle to Sartre’s "Existentialism Is Humanism." She explains that she is attracted to the French philosopher’s argument that “we can choose our lives without a higher principle.” But this philosophy of life appears to only apply to Emma. Adèle’s higher principal is Emma herself.
Despite having her own cultural guide, Adèle appears destined to remain an outsider, art-wise and otherwise. She appears out of place in her childhood home, her school (once her cultural touchstone, it becomes a benchmark of bigotry) and at a gay club (“You seem lost,” is the first thing she hears there). Even years later, at the home she shares with Emma, she is unsettled. Like a neurotic housewife, she weaves in and out of her girlfriend’s art crowd serving up spaghetti and circumventing small talk. “They seem so knowledgeable. So cultivated,” she says. “I felt so uncomfortable.” She briefly finds solace in another outsider, an Arab actor who lives for New York. “I’m sure it’s a city you’d adore,” he tells Adèle. “Everything seems possible. You can do whatever. Like there are no barriers.”
But to escape barriers, Adèle need only retreat to the bedroom with Emma. This is her seat of democracy, the place where the body trumps the mind. Here is the culture of the corporeal where the entangled lovers are indistinguishable. “I can pay you in flesh and blood,” Adèle tells Emma toward the end of the film, scrambling for the only currency they have left to share. But Emma, ever the higher power, turns her down. She knows theirs is a cultural chasm that will yawn forever. But that doesn’t stop Kechiche from trying to close the gap.