Friday, November 22, 2013

Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La vie d'Adèle - chapitre 1 & 2)

The title of Abdellatif Kechiche's new film is Blue Is the Warmest Colour, but its full French title is rather different – La vie d'Adèle - chapitre 1 & 2. Such a title suggests that this is simply the first instalment in Adèle's story, but further chapters now seem very unlikely given the acrimony that has surrounded the film ever since its moment of glory at the Cannes Film Festival. The film has generated heated debated wherever it has screened, with much of the discussion focusing on one particularly long sex scene, while the stars and director have been busy sniping at each other in the media over Kechiche's apparently brutal working conditions. All of this attendant noise means that it will now be hard for any viewer to come to Blue Is the Warmest Colour with fresh eyes.

Fortunately, for all of Blue Is the Warmest Colour's three hours, everything else simply fades into the background. The film is not without its problems, and discussions over the approach used by the director are certainly worth having, but the first thing to say about Blue Is the Warmest Colour is that the film hit me like a train. It is a blast of pure emotion that aims to replicate the feeling of actually being in love. It's messy and unpredictable, consisting of dizzying highs and wrenching lows, and prone to making misguided choices governed by the heart more than the head. It's simultaneously a draining, frustrating and thrilling experience.

The film is an adaptation of Julie Maroh's graphic novel, in which the young lead character was called Clémentine. Here she is named Adèle and she is played by Adèle Exarchopoulos, whose inhabitation of the character is so complete it's easy to understand why her name was used instead. Adèle is 15 years old at the start of the film and Kechiche immerses us in the ordinariness of her teenage experience. She is an attentive student in class, she has a voracious appetite at home (this is not a film to watch on an empty stomach) and she is beginning to traverse the difficult territory of teenage romance. At the prompting of her friends, Adèle has a promising relationship with a male student and even loses her virginity to him, but the experience leaves her dissatisfied and yearning for something more; something akin to whatever she feels when she briefly exchanges glances with a blue-haired woman in the street, for example.

That beautiful stranger is Emma (Léa Seydoux), and if what she experiences with Adèle can't be described as love at first sight, it at least sparks a curiosity and attraction that quickly blossoms into an all-consuming love affair. Blue Is the Warmest Colour charts the ups and downs of this relationship across a number of years, as Adèle grows from a teenage girl into a young woman, and while it doesn't handle these transitions as elegantly as Mia Hansen-Løve's Goodbye First Love (which dealt with very similar themes), it has a raw, propulsive quality that's difficult to resist. Kechiche has clearly mined his hundreds of hours of footage for the most expressive, intense and intimate moments, and he benefits from having two lead actresses who are capable of communicating an extraordinary depth of emotion by exchanging a single electrifying glance.

Something magical happens to Blue Is the Warmest Colour whenever Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are together on screen. The film is structured around three extended set-pieces, which see the film hitting astonishing heights of emotional intensity, to the point that the intimacy Kechiche has achieved sometimes feels uncomfortably intrusive. The first is that much-ballyhooed sex scene, in which Adèle and Emma energetically enjoy each other’s bodies for a number of minutes. This sequence has been criticised for its apparent break with the overall aesthetic of the film, and for the director’s apparent eroticisation of the girl-girl scenes. But I think the scene feels out of place within the film because it represents a moment of heightened sensation for Adèle, and a moment of pure connection between the pair. It reminded me a little of Vicky’s dance in The Red Shoes; a moment of ecstatic bliss that lifts the character out of herself, and a peak that she might spend the rest of her life trying to recapture.

Instead, like most love affairs, Blue Is the Warmest Colour dwindles into disappointment and recrimination as those moments of ecstasy dry up. The two subsequent tumultuous encounters between the pair are a terrifyingly real breakup sequence and a heartfelt but futile attempt at reconciliation, both of which are attacked with total conviction by the actresses. It’s not often that you get the opportunity to see acting this naked, immediate and spontaneous, and Blue Is the Warmest Colour frequently hits you with a power that can leave you reeling. At other times, however, it can feel as unmoored as Adèle herself, with Kechiche’s indulgent approach to story construction leading to the occasional longueur, and giving us justifiable cause to wonder if the three-hour running time is entirely necessary. But Kechiche’s mantra appears to be “Go big or go home,” and even in its less compelling sequences, Exarchopoulos is a constantly wondrous screen presence; utterly guileless and present, and capable of giving us access to Adèle’s inner life in quiet moments.

A lot of Blue Is the Warmest Colour feels that way. Kechiche’s direction can be heavy-handed and his symbolism occasionally feels far too on-the-nose; not only in the use of the colour blue, but in individual scenes such as Emma teaching Adèle to eat oysters, which can’t have seemed like a good idea at any stage. But these two wonderful women pull us in every single time, and at its best, Blue Is the Warmest Colour feels like the most vital, involving and emotionally true examination of young love that has appeared on screen for many years. The film made history at the Cannes Film Festival when Steven Spielberg’s jury awarded the Palme d’Or to Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in addition to Abdellatif Kechiche. In truth, I suspect the actors are a little more deserving of the prize than the director.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Berlin Alexanderplatz

In Robert Katz’s biography Love Is Colder Than Death, Michael Fengler recalls seeing the young Rainer Werner Fassbinder walking the streets of Munich with a book in his constant possession. That well-thumbed novel was Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, a book that Fassbinder had discovered as a teenager and one that had an enormous impact on his life; a book that penetrated “my head, my flesh, my whole body and my soul,” as he described it. After re-reading the novel some years later, he said that “it became clearer and clearer that an enormous part of myself, my behaviour and reactions, almost all of what I had thought was me, the me-ness of my existence, was nothing more than what Döblin had described in Berlin Alexanderplatz. Without realising it, I had, quite simply, made Döblin’s fantasy my life.”

In 1978, Fassbinder was offered the chance to bring Döblin’s fantasy to life in a television adaptation of his beloved novel. He was 33 years old, and had been directing films for barely a decade, but he already had almost forty credits – consisting of shorts, features, TV-movies and serials – to his name. His astonishing work rate was fuelled by a seemingly insatiable artistic hunger and whatever drugs he could get his hands on, and now he was approaching the apex of his career. When he found himself with a few months free before production on Berlin Alexanderplatz could begin, he decided to squeeze in a “quickie,” The Marriage of Maria Braun, which turned out to be his greatest commercial success. He was now being handed an enormous budget (the biggest in the history of German television, at the time), 15½ hours of broadcasting and unlimited freedom to present a deeply personal take on Döblin’s work. The wunderkind of German cinema was about to make his magnum opus.

Saturday, November 09, 2013


The first thing we see in Gravity is Earth, surrounded by space. Slowly, as the camera floats forward, we make out a white space shuttle gliding through the blackness, and then we see human figures attending to that machinery. The camera continues to move forward, above and below these astronauts, circling them as they work. Of the three people at work, we are quickly introduced to two – Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is diligent but anxious as she carries out her first task in space, while her veteran colleague Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) happily cracks wise and enjoys the view, cherishing his final moments in space before retirement. It appears to be a routine mission, but Stone and Kowalski are in for a rude awakening as a storm of debris comes hurtling towards them, destroying their craft, killing their crew and severing their connection from each other, with a panicked Stone hurtling out into the endless darkness.

All of this happens in Gravity's remarkable opening shot. While the vast majority of what we see on screen at any point during the film has been generated inside a computer, what's most impressive about Gravity is how immediately real and organic it feels. Alfonso Cuarón and his regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have created an entirely convincing environment and they use these opening minutes to pull us into it, to immerse us in a situation where up and down no longer have any meaning. Lubezki's camera has the freedom to move around Bullock and Clooney, viewing them from all conceivable angles, and even at one point passing through Bullock's visor to position us inside her claustrophobic helmet, where all we can hear is the sound of her rapid, nervous breathing. (The sound design matches – even surpasses – the film's visual achievement, although Steven Price's score sometimes gets in the way of our appreciation.)

All in all, Gravity is a technical tour de force. The last film that Cuarón and Lubezki collaborated on was 2006's Children of Men, which was similarly elevated by their bold and innovative camerawork, but the addition of cutting-edge effects work and a third dimension has allowed them to push their ideas even further. The film constantly plays with our sense of scale, isolating its characters against the vast emptiness that surrounds them, before rapidly bringing us into close quarters with them as they collide with one another, or crash into a satellite and desperately try to grab something, to avoid being carried by their momentum away from salvation. Bullock spends much of the film being tossed against objects like a rag doll, unable to arrest her inexorable fall, but the physics involved in her movements all feel incredibly convincing. The filmmakers' exacting verisimilitude in their depiction of space and Lubezki's dynamic camerawork makes Gravity an extraordinarily visceral experience.

While the visual work pushes at the boundaries, however, the story that Cuarón and his son Jonás (who has directed a short companion piece, entitled Aningaaq)have chosen to tell is very traditional, even quaint. From the minute that Dr Stone finds herself lost in space, the film becomes a very straightforward tale of survival, with Stone having to find a way to get from A to B, negotiating an ever-escalating series of obstacles and disasters as she does so. In case that sounds too slight for a feature, the Cuaróns have given Dr Stone a backstory. We learn that her daughter died some years previously, and that Stone has been drifting aimlessly through life ever since. It's an unabashedly corny device, and the symbolic gestures that the Cuaróns use to present the story as a metaphor for overcoming grief and reconnecting with life can be a little on-the-nose, but they get away with it. Given the disorientating manner of the viewing experience, the straightforward simplicity of the screenplay actually works in the film's favour, and Bullock brings a raw emotion to her performance that grounds the film in a recognisable, relatable reality. The sight of a tear emerging from her eye and floating away rather than rolling down her cheek might seem like a gimmicky 3D trick, but there's no doubting the source of those tears.

Whether Gravity will stand up to repeated viewings, once the sense of excitement and awe has faded away, is open to debate. It doesn't feel anywhere near as resonant as Children of Men, and I suspect that the shortcomings occasionally displayed in the writing may become more of an issue over time. None of that matters now, though. Gravity thrilled and gripped me in a way that few recent films have managed to do, and I certainly can't recall the last major effects-driven studio blockbuster that has had such an impact on me (or the last such film to get its business done in a mere 90 minutes). It is one hell of a ride, and its flaws seem entirely meaningless as I gazed in wonderment at the remarkable images Cuarón and Lubezki had produced. These two constitute one of the most exciting partnerships working in contemporary cinema – who could resist the opportunity to watch them reaching for the stars?