What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Abdellatif Kechiche's "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

I’ve yet to read a review that does full justice to Abdellatif Kechiche’s brilliant Blue Is the Warmest Color. Lorrie Moore, in her “Gazing at Love” (The New York Review of Books, December 19, 2013), fails miserably. She says, “Girl meets girl. Girl loses girl. There’s not much else going on here for three hours.” Really? Since when is the depiction – in detail after inspired detail, close-up after intimate close-up – of a young woman’s initiation into a blazing relationship, the eventual flame-out and breakup of which pitches her into a desolation she may never recover from, “not much”? Anthony Lane, looking at those same three hours, said, “We are left wanting more” ("Blue Is the Warmest Color," That’s exactly how I felt. I haven’t cared this much about a movie character’s fate in a long while. 

Merve Emre, in her excellent "Feeling Blue:On Abdellatif Kechiche's 'Blue Is the Warmest Color' " (Los Angeles Review of Books, October 25, 2013), says, “What’s extraordinary about Blue Is the Warmest Color is how through its particularity, the film makes Adèle’s blue bruised psyche sharply and essentially human.” Through its particularity – yes, that’s exactly how Kechiche does it. And he does it using Adèle’s face, too. Lane says, “The film is, to a compelling degree, the history of that face – tearful, sniffing, puffed with dismay, spotted and blotchy on a cold day, suddenly ravishing, and reddening in embarrassment or lust” ("New Love," The New Yorker, October 28, 2013). Even Moore agrees with this. She writes, “The close-ups of the young, still-forming face of Exarchopoulos show that the director knew precisely what he had when he cast her.” Moore is hung up on the film’s sex scenes. She writes,

From a narrative perspective the most perplexing problem with these sex scenes is that they mute and obscure the actresses, who otherwise, in many other parts of the film, offer their intelligent faces and voices to the screen in subtle and moving ways. In visual media the body is often deeply inexpressive compared to the heart’s great canvas—the face. The sex between these characters, as is true of most carnality, causes the interesting parts of these women’s personalities to recede.

I’m not sure Moore is right about this. Pauline Kael, in her classic review of Last Tango in Paris, wrote, “The sex in Last Tango in Paris expresses the characters drives” (“Tango,” Reeling, 1977). The same can be said about the sex in Blue Is the Warmest Color. On this point, I’ll let Anthony Lane have the last word:

The movie has gained a certain notoriety for its unabashed view of her sexual encounters; those desires, however, are not set apart like islands, but folded into the landscape of her life, more of which is probably spent in the classroom and the kitchen than in the bedroom.

Lane’s and Emre’s pieces are superb. But they lack the crackling excitement of Kael’s “Tango.” They’re a bit subdued. Maybe it’s no longer cool for critics to rave about movies the way Kael raved about Last Tango (“I’ve tried to describe the impact of a film that has made the strongest impression on me in almost twenty years of reviewing”). Well, I’m not above raving about Blue Is the Warmest Color. It’s the most realistic character study I’ve ever seen. I can’t get it out of my system. To paraphrase Emre’s great closing line, Adèle’s truth has become mine: being without blue is no way to be.

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