Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Vulnerable Humanity of a Love Story

//Spoiler alert: the following reveals plot. 

The 2013 Palme d’Or-winning film La Vie d’Adele – Chapitres 1 & 2 (also known as Blue is the Warmest Color) has been critically acclaimed, and yet also criticized for inauthentic, highly stylized and voyeuristic sex scenes. I resolutely believe that director Abdellatif Kechiche and actors Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos earned the Palme d’Or, and it’s because of the great swaths of vulnerable humanity we get to see in the characters (few of which are exhibited in the sex scenes). These swaths of vulnerable humanity are what make the film so compelling and emotionally jolting.

First, I’ll state the obvious; of course the sex isn't "authentic." The sex scenes are subject to the director's stylistic predilections and the actors' interpretations. It is artistic cinema; why cling to the conceit that somehow the director and actors are obligated to portray a specific characterization of “authentic” sex? Art isn’t supposed to be so tyrannical or rigid, with a narrow definition of an “authentic” portrayal of human experience. Just like art, authenticity is subjective.

The Incongruity of Adele's Character

What's more interesting to me than a discussion of the “authenticity” of lesbian sex is the incongruity of some aspects of Adele's character, and how this incongruity manifests in the sex scenes. Early in the film, she's depicted with an intentional aura of authenticity; sprawled out on her bed, asleep like a child; leaning against the window, asleep on the train; a voracious eater (particularly fond of her father's bolognese and an occasional candy bar snuck from a box under the bed); earnestly curious about character studies in literature; tentatively fielding the attention of a teenage boy; spellbound by a spontaneous kiss on the lips by a female classmate. She is an insecure and genuine young woman, grappling with the confusion of hormones and sexual awakening.

It smacks of incongruity, then, to portray her initial forays into emotionally-fueled sex with another woman as so confident and self-assured. This is especially true considering that, even in early 21st century France (among the Western countries to recently legalize gay marriage), Adele's closeted gay relationship with Emma is imbued with the defiance of societal and familial norms of identity. Perhaps the sex scenes would have exuded a more genuine flavor by reflecting Adele's sexual inexperience and her insecurity with the idea of a lesbian identity.

A more congruent depiction of Adele's initial sexual interludes with Emma would depict awkward fumbling, nervousness, and a tentative apprehension about whether she's “doing it right.”  Instead, Kechiche infuses the sex scenes with a masterful idealization of tits and ass. The stylized showcase of two writhing beautiful women diminishes their humanity and fails to capture any sense of mystery or vulnerability. The only glimpse of vulnerable humanity in any of the sex scenes is exhibited by Adele, as her tear-soaked eyes reveal a subtle but genuine display of the emotions that fuel the sex.

Exhibitions of Vulnerable Humanity

There are four specific scenes that temper the idealistic portrayal of sex and infuse the women's relationship with a vulnerable humanity.

The "Pillow Talk" Scene

One such scene is the brief post-coital "pillow talk" scene that exhibits such tenderness between the women. Emma stares longingly at Adele and tells her that she's beautiful. They kid each other by espousing the virtues of studying "philosophy" with one another (an inside joke about the ruse they presented to Adele's parents). In a playful turn, Adele challenges Emma to rate her skills as a sexual partner. Emma takes the bait and assesses her skills as a "14" (where "15" is the highest mark, a nod to the grading conventions of French high schools). Emma teases her with a smile, claiming she's only a 14, because she "needs more practice." Adele earnestly and vulnerably replies that she "gives it all she's got." The two giggle and tease one another with such warmth. This brief exchange of humor and affection exhibits a sense of humanity that is conspicuously missing from the sex scenes. As an exhibition of humanity, the "pillow talk" scene portrays them as having a deep affection for one another. It also frames the sex scenes with a sense of Emma's sexual prowess (assuming the task of rating her partner's skills and asserting the need for "more practice"), and Adele's willingness as a lover to give her partner "all I've got."

The "Tell Me All About It, Girl!" Scene

Another scene that exhibits Adele's humanity is a minor scene that was not included in the final cut of the film, but is an outtake available on Youtube. In this darling scene, Adele reveals to one of her best friends (Valentin, a boy who attends her high school, who, not coincidentally, is openly gay) that she's had multiple Earth-shattering sexual encounters with "the girl with blue hair." She is timid and yet also eager to share the recent experiences that have rocked her world; and she does so after she swears him to secrecy. Adele's vulnerable humanity is captured in this confession laden with awkward glances, giggles and raised eyebrows. Both Adele and Valentin relish the details of her secret and somewhat taboo sexual experience (described by Adele as "as much rough as soft" and by Valentin as "the smell of fucking"). "That's bliss," Valentin surmises. The scene ends with another exhibition of Adele's vulnerable humanity, as she pronounces the need to shower before seeing Emma again. 

The "Break-Up" Scene

A major scene that especially renders vulnerable humanity is the devastating "break-up" scene, in which Emma accuses Adele of being unfaithful. A harrowing, crushing scene ensues. Both characters expose deep wells of pain, as exhibited by the harsh and insulting words, raised voices, shoves, slaps and slammed doors. Emma is wary of what she perceives as Adele's closeted identity, asking Adele about whether she's ashamed to be with a woman. Adele is desperate to fix the rudderless state of their current relationship, as she physically and emotionally clings to Emma. 

Emma is resolute that the relationship has run its course; Adele's infidelities are the final straw. Is Emma conveniently using Adele's casual infidelities to justify her own fledgling interest in a long-lost friend who also happens to be a painter? It's unclear; but what this scene does reveal is a huge swath of vulnerable humanity. Emma reckons with her anguish and forcefully rejects Adele, and Adele limps away in fraught bewilderment and utter devastation. This scene also represents the vulnerable humanity of the juxtaposition we often see in love stories; the culminating break-up, in contrast with the previous periods of intimacy, both twinged with their own distinct flavors of desperation. 

The "Reunited" Scene

In what is arguably the most emotionally resonant scene in the entire film, the women reunite at a restaurant several years after their tumultuous break-up. This scene renders vulnerable humanity that is just as ferocious as the break-up scene, with an equally desperate tone (but without the raised voices or insults). The scene is fraught with such profound longing that it's wrenching to watch.

The scene begins with both women glad to see one another. They immediately begin to catch up on each other's lives. Emma casually inquires about Adele's relationship status; first inquiring about whether she has a boyfriend ("nothing concrete"), then whether she has a girlfriend. Adele's compulsory heterosexuality is subtly implicit; of course she might have a boyfriend. Whether or not she has a girlfriend elicits a chuckle from Adele and a smile from Emma, as if to imply that Adele is not gay, she simply fell in love with Emma (who happens to be a woman). We see glimpses of Adele's ambivalence about a lesbian identity. Adele has no qualms about asking Emma about the quality of her sex life with her current partner; is it lousy, she wonders? Is it boring, she hopes out loud? Emma throws her a bone by assuring her that it's "not like with you."

The casual queries about their respective professional lives and relationships begin to unravel when Emma offers to give Adele one of her recent paintings. Instead of receiving a gift, Adele exhorts Emma to let her pay for it "in flesh and blood." Adele claims it was a "joke, a bad joke,"' but both characters sense the awkwardness. Adele eventually confesses that she's still in love with Emma; "I want you. All the time. No one else," Adele implores her. Her confession sparks a desperate seduction that manifests as a heated but brief sexual interlude (right there at the restaurant table). Despite her initial incapacity to halt the interlude, Emma asks Adele to stop and insists that they can't pursue it. Adele even refuses to believe it at first, asking her, "are you sure?" when Emma declines to pursue her.

Adele concedes, in an exhibition of her vulnerability, that her feelings for Emma are "beyond my control." She is compelled to confront Emma and asks her point blank whether she still loves her. Emma's nuanced answer is heart-wrenching; she shakes her head, but her tears, body language and facial expression contrarily depict an affliction similar to Adele's. Emma pops Adele's balloon, telling her that they can't see each other, yet assuring Adele that she has "infinite tenderness" for her. It's cold comfort to Adele, but she recognizes a need to not burden Emma with her emotional strife. In a piercingly ironic turn, Adele admits "sometimes I cry for no reason," and yet she is crying precisely because of a specific reason; her heart is shattered by the recognition that reconciliation is not in the cards. She attempts to get herself together, driven by a need to maintain the ruse of a broken romance that ends on a civilized note, clinging to any connection to this woman she loves so much.

This "reunited" scene exhibits an aspect that dooms many love affairs; the domesticity and logistics of everyday life (especially when said domesticity involves a gay relationship). Despite the history of a relationship, a persistent deep affection, and an evident sexual connection that hasn't waned, Emma is not going to sacrifice her current domestic arrangement (as imperfect as her current sexual relationship might be) to reunite with Adele in any capacity. One possible factor that compels Emma to this decision is Adele's ambivalence about a lesbian identity. Without a commitment to a lesbian identity, Emma recognizes that attempting to live a domestic life with Adele would be futile.

The Vulnerable Humanity of Identity

Throughout the film, we see Adele wrestle with a core contradiction of her identity. As her fledgling romance with Emma unfolds, she defiantly insists to her classmates at school (whom she would call her best friends; the attendees at her surprise 18th birthday party) that she is not a lesbian. Indeed, one might infer that she "doth protest too much." This scene exhibits the hostile nature of teen-age clans, especially when one member is perceived to be somehow "other" in terms of normative identities.

During a family dinner at Adele's parents' house, Adele and Emma are both complicit in a ruse to present themselves as friends instead of lovers (a ruse comprised of Emma's "boyfriend" who works in business). The ruse continues well into the evening, as the women retreat to Adele's childhood bedroom to indulge in a subdued sexual tryst, ensuring their moans of pleasure are not overheard by Adele's parents. Later in the film, we see Adele working as a teacher; she has decided not to reveal her relationship status (living with her lesbian lover) to her colleagues at the school. She remains closeted, despite an astonishingly intimate and emotionally-driven relationship with Emma.

And yet, Adele is clearly wrestling with the contradiction. There are two milieus in which she feels safe to publicly exhibit her relationship with Emma. One is the celebratory ambiance of the gay pride parade. I've attended dozens of gay pride parades since the early 1990s (including New York and San Francisco), and I can vouch for the liberating exuberance of these events. There is nothing quite like the public affirmation of exhibiting a non-normative relationship in such a positive environment. 

The other safe milieu for Adele is a party at her and Emma's home, celebrating Emma's artistic achievements. Though Adele feels safe in this environment (presented as Emma's muse and inspiration), this is where cracks in their relationship begin to emerge. Adele insists that she is content as Emma's muse and party hostess, but she is feeling adrift and inept in the company of Emma's colleagues and friends. Emma appreciates her earnestness, but she recognizes a growing chasm between the two of them in terms of artistic ambition. This chasm diminishes Emma's sexual desire for Adele. Of course, diminished sexual desire is the death knell of so many relationships, especially one in which the sexual passion was such a key aspect of the relationship's foundation. Adele's vulnerable humanity is exposed throughout the film, as she attempts to reconcile her explosive feelings of love and longing for Emma with societal and familial expectations of her.

Despite the criticism, Blue is the Warmest Color succeeds at exhibiting more than just stylized (and admittedly titillating) sexual encounters of young lovers in a modern-day love story. The tenderness and torments of passionate love, and the salient and profound questions of identity, are what imbue the movie with a vulnerable humanity. Seydoux and Exarchopoulos deliver consummate performances; they embody the characters of these women to the extent that we feel their universal vulnerable humanity. While both Seydoux and Exarchopoulos are immensely gifted actors, Exarchopoulos's talent is mind-boggling. I've never seen an actor with such emotional intelligence or a more refined capacity to render her character's truth (except for perhaps Meryl Streep, and that's not an overstated comparison). Given that Exarchopoulos is still in her early 20s, I expect to see great things from her upcoming catalog of performances; I don't expect that any role will ever quite match the emotional gravity of Adele Chapters 1 & 2. 

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