Review: Class difference and sexual passion

Abdellatif Kechiche (director); 'Blue is the warmest colour'

Conspicuously absent among Academy Award nominees in the category of best foreign film of 2013 was perhaps the most outstanding offering from any country over the last year: La vie d’Adèle, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, a French filmmaker of Tunisian origin, and marketed here in the US under the title, Blue is the warmest colour.

This tale of a youthful lesbian relationship gone awry was awarded the Palme d’or at Cannes in May. The jury, headed by Steven Spielberg, took the unusual step of bestowing its highest accolade not only upon the director, but also upon the two lead actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos (her given name is deliberately retained for the film’s protagonist) and Léa Seydoux. The film was no doubt slighted by Hollywood due to its extended depiction of the two women in vigorous sexual congress - offensive more to the cautious business instincts of tinseltown than to its morality (the religious and the sexually repressed would probably never go to see Adèle in the first place, but might picket and boycott it).

But the film also incurred the disapproval of important elements of the liberal mainstream, of which the Academy is a part. Certain self-appointed lesbian spokeswomen - including Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel that partly inspired the movie - claimed that Kechiche’s lovemaking sequences are unrepresentative of actual sex between women, and tailored instead to the prurient interest of heterosexual males.

Although unqualified to comment on the sexual verisimilitude of the film, I do think the love scenes were of a length not commonly found this side of soft-core pornography, and could have served their purpose in half the time. The lovers in them also seem a little too experienced for people that young (French though they be). That said, the depiction of the passion of Adèle is integral to what is probably something of an innovation in cinematic technique: the use of close-up shots of body and face to create a feeling of intimacy with the subject seldom, if ever, achieved on screen. (Dreyer’s 1928 silent, La passion de Jeanne d’Arc, is the only precedent that comes to mind.) The camera that captures Exarchopoulos’s every nuance of facial expression, at such close quarters that her pores are visible, in addition to sniffles, changes in skin tone, and every strand of hair that falls over her face from an unruly mop, would be delinquent without dwelling at some length upon her body as well.

It is indeed fair to say that Adèle’s physical allure makes the director’s invitation to intimacy a lot easier to accept than it might have been with a plainer actress. But Kechiche seems to anticipate this criticism, and implicitly defends his use of female beauty to draw the viewer in. Both classical nude sculptures, seen in a museum, as well as references in the dialogue to the painters Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, remind the audience that Kechiche is hardly the first one to press Eros into the service of art. In fact, the love scenes seem intended to evoke Schiele’s work.

The controversy over Kechiche’s lavish fleshly displays, however, stands in the way of grasping the theme he explores once he has used sex to get our attention: the way class relations are lived in a corner of contemporary western society - not at the front lines of struggle, but in the less visible folds of the private and the personal; not at the extremes of wealth and poverty, but along the thin and permeable membrane that separates the upper middle class from those beneath them.

Courage of her desires

We first meet Adèle as a not untypical lycéenne in the northern industrial city of Lille. She is running with a backpack from her modest row house to catch the bus to school. Adèle is sensuous, with a strong appetite, especially for her father’s spaghetti bolognaise. She is an enthusiastic participant in demonstrations against government cuts to education, as well as a devoted reader of fiction. Her favourite novel, she relates, is La vie de Marianne by the 18th-century author, Pierre de Marivaux, on which the film is partly based. Adèle is also sensual, although still tentative about the nature of her desire - part of a greater uncertainty that she wears in her every expression, and never overcomes in the course of the film. At the urging of girlfriends, she responds to the overtures of a good-looking male classmate, Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte).

But the nocturnal fantasy life of Adèle revolves around another: a stylish, blue-haired girl with whom she has exchanged stares while passing in the street. After a regretful goodbye to Thomas (Adèle remarks to a gay male friend that “something was missing” in their single sexual encounter), and a schoolyard kiss with a female classmate, who later demurs, but piques Adèle’s curiosity, she follows her homoerotic inkling to one gay nightclub, then another. She finally runs into, and makes the acquaintance of, her turquoise-tinted fantasy-object: a slightly older university art student named Emma (Seydoux). Emma coaxes Adèle away from school a few days later - a rendezvous that does not escape the notice of the latter’s female classmates, who taunt her the next day as a lesbian, provoking Adèle to physical retaliation.

Yet Adèle has the courage of her desire. She and her new-found friend find refuge in a nearby park, where Emma lectures Adèle, a little pretentiously, on Sartre and sexual freedom, while capturing her image on a sketch pad. When Adèle remarks that essence and existence are like the chicken and the egg, in that she cannot figure out which comes first, we get an initial hint that the two girls inhabit slightly different worlds - not that far apart, but separate nonetheless.

The difference becomes more apparent when the newly paired lovers are introduced to each other’s parents at dinner in their respective homes. Emma’s parents are solidly petty bourgeois, Adèle’s on a somewhat lower rung (although we are never told exactly what either set of parents do for a living). Emma’s stepfather descants on the joys of culture (her mother’s first husband was also an art lover, we are told), while Adèle’s father lectures Emma on the impracticality of the artistic career she looks forward to, and the necessity of a sensible vocation - like that of primary school teacher, which comprises the goal of Adèle’s more limited aspirations. Emma presents Adèle openly as her lover, while Adèle tells her less accepting parents that Emma is a friend who is tutoring her in philosophy. The raw oysters, which Emma’s parents - with a sexual symbolism not lost upon the audience - assure Adèle taste better when eaten alive, are an elegant contrast to the familiar spaghetti dish served up at Adèle’s table.

The late French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, emphasised the way in which objective class structures are reproduced on the subjective level through the notion of habitus: a series of pre-reflective mental and bodily dispositions, tastes and expectations, transmitted mainly through the family and operating with the force of instinct. According to Bourdieu’s empirical research, habitus greatly influences the ultimate position of individuals in the social hierarchy. We might add that, in young years, when personal identity is fluid, and sexual passion can overflow social constraint, individuals of different classes are commonly thrown together. This is especially likely in a pseudo-egalitarian, middle class culture, where overt class snobbery is unwelcome. But under the weight of time and circumstance, traditional patterns reassert themselves.

With his ability to draw attention to significant details without disrespecting the variety of lived experience or appearing to hurry its pace, Kechiche shows how social differences that may have appeared trivial in the beginning gradually amplify to subvert the relationship between Emma and Adèle.

Gap widens

Kechiche is not shy about celebrating the rapture of the two girls in their new-found intimacy and passion, even to the point of having one of his characters - a friend of Emma - deliver a lengthy speech on the vastly superior, almost mystical, capacity of females for erotic pleasure. The lovers, now cohabiting, also settle into apparently comfortable roles: Emma pursues her artistic career, which includes painting Adèle in the nude (a fact that will become significant later on); Adèle, now an institutrice, delights in the toddlers under her care, and is otherwise content in the role of homemaker. Tensions soon appear, however.

At a party Emma throws to present her companion to her art-world friends, Adèle serves wine and spaghetti prepared from her father’s recipe, to the generous compliments of the assembled guests. Yet, when she stops serving long enough to socialise, she finds herself in the midst of conversations about aesthetic theory that are out of her depth. One of Emma’s friends is pursuing a doctorate in the fine arts, another runs an art gallery, while a third has travelled to Hollywood and New York in pursuit of an acting career. When they enquire as to what Adèle does, her answer - that she instructs small children - elicits blank stares or prompts a switch to another topic of conversation.

Later, in bed, the lovers review the evening’s events. Emma says Adèle made a favourable impression upon her friends, especially a certain Joachim. When Adèle enquires as to what Joachim does, she is told that he is the biggest art impresario in Lille, and that being exhibited in his gallery is a sure-fire ticket to celebrity. Emma then suggests that Adèle might do something that she ‘really likes’, and that would give her fulfilment, like parlaying her writing talent into a career. Adèle replies that she writes only for herself, in her journals, and has no wish to expose her private life to the public; besides, she is happy and fulfilled - in her teaching and in her relationship, and wishes that Emma would not be so insistent that she do more. Emma then declines an invitation to sex, pleading the early arrival of her period.

With the above scene, conflict simmering below the surface is now rendered explicit. The world of self-promotion and careerism that Emma inhabits is foreign to Adèle, whose lack of social ambition is something of an embarrassment to Emma. Emma, moreover, finds the notion that her lover could be content with her lot as a school teacher completely incomprehensible. For her, creativity and the cultivation of unique talent is the only conceivable path to happiness.

The film shows us not only a class distinction between its two main characters, but also - for those viewing it in the English-speaking world - an important difference between the bourgeois culture of France and that of Anglophonia. In the latter, wealth and possessions tend to be the main measure of social status. The worlds of art and culture are restricted in scope and permeated with business logic and its attendant vulgarity. Much of the French bourgeoisie, on the other hand, flatters itself with being above crass Anglo-Saxon materialism. The ability to appreciate, and participate in, the creation of ‘culture’ functions as a major mark of social distinction.

Yet the cultural world rests on a material foundation. The ability to absorb art and literature requires a good deal of leisure, which is in turn impossible without a certain income. Emma, we can surmise, could not cultivate her talents without generous subventions from her parents. And, despite her vocal protests against the commercialism of her agent, Emma depends upon relationships with gallery owners such as Joachim, for whom, she tells Adèle, money is the bottom line. Above all, both the business-dominated Anglophone bourgeois world and its more ‘cultural’ French counterpart are dominated by an ethos of individualism - networking, deal-making and social climbing - as opposed to any sense of collective solidarity.

Bond snaps

Vaguely aware of Emma’s growing disappointment in her, Adèle’s suspicions are aroused when Emma begins phoning home to say she is working late on an art project with her former companion, Lise, whom we have already met at the aforementioned house party. Lise is late-term pregnant, though not living with a man. Adèle now makes something of a counter-move: she finally accepts the long-standing invitation of a male co-worker to join him and a group of teachers from the school at a pub one evening. It is the first of several such gatherings. At one, we see Adèle dancing suggestively with, and finally kissing, the man who had invited her. This move is more than simply a reaction to the waning of Emma’s affection: Adèle has also expressed the desire to have children, and the pleasure she derives from the toddlers she teaches underlines the point.

Adèle arrives home to find Emma in a cold fury. She brutally interrogates Adèle concerning her relationship to the man she has watched through the window as he dropped Adèle off. After a few unconvincing denials, Adèle finally admits she has slept with him three times. Emma calls her a liar and a whore, and, in a highly charged emotional scene, scorns her companion’s tearful apologies and desperate pleas, demanding that she leave the house at once.

Is Emma’s anger at Adèle’s wanderings entirely genuine? Or is it, as her late-night sessions with ex-girlfriend Lise would suggest, a pretext for a calculated decision about her future? We are never told for sure. Art, like the life it reflects, leaves certain questions unanswered. But subsequent developments add weight to the second possibility.

Adèle does not rush into the arms of the co-teacher she had been sleeping with, but rather goes through the motions of her job, while lamenting her lost love. Her life at this time is captured by an image of her at the seashore, floating on the waves. When enough time has passed, she meets Emma in a café. While superficially amicable, the meeting still displays the contrast between Adèle’s unrequited passion and Emma’s coolness. Now become something of a celebrity in the art world, Emma reveals that she has been living for some time with Lise, who has given birth to a child, to whom they are both devoted. When Adèle asks Emma if she is happy sexually, the latter replies that things between herself and Lise are “not the same” as they were with Adèle. Adèle then confesses her undiminished longing for her former partner, and kisses her passionately. Emma is momentarily drawn into the embrace, but soon breaks it off and assures Adèle that, despite her continued affection, she has definitely moved on.


In The threepenny opera, Bertolt Brecht contrasts the personalities of, on the one hand, Jonathan Peachum and his daughter, Polly, entrepreneurs who hire beggars to appropriate a portion of their earnings, with, on the other hand, that of Macheath (‘Mackie’ or ‘Mack the Knife’), a low-level gangster in the Peachums’ employ. Brecht clearly intends this as a contrast between social classes. The difference, however, is illustrated in terms of psychology, not material conditions. For their part, the Peachums are completely successful in subordinating their emotions to the demands of the market. Mackie tries to do the same, and for the most part succeeds, but not as completely as his employers. He cannot resist visiting a prostitute to whom he is sentimentally attached despite his knowledge of the risks involved; the visit leads the police to him and results in his arrest. Macheath’s working class psychology manifests itself not in antagonism toward the bourgeoisie, but - in the non-industrial commercial world of London - in his inability to be a perfect bourgeois.

Something of a similar contrast is at work in Kechiche’s portrayal of Emma and Adèle: the first acts swiftly, decisively and - as we have by now come to suspect - with more than a soupçon of calculation; the second is slower to act, more ambivalent and guided by her emotions. Adèle is still ruled by her longing for Emma, while Emma, who more or less admits that her life with Lise is less than passionate, is able to discipline her emotions, if not to the imperatives of business, at least to long-term personal goals, which include the acquisition of a certain status in her world.

In the final scene we are shown the results. Adèle has accepted an invitation from Emma to an art-gallery exhibition of her work. Many of the same friends of Emma, whom Adèle had met earlier, are present, along with a few celebrities and Emma’s companion, Lise. The occasion cannot be seen other than as a celebration of Emma’s triumph and a symbol of Adèle’s failure and loss. Emma has not only achieved recognition in her career. She has also found a companion who is an artist like herself, with whom she has achieved one of Adèle’s unaccomplished life goals: having a child. And, in the most profound humiliation of all, Adèle’s naked body, which Emma had painted while they were together, is prominently on display among her paintings, clearly recognisable to all those who know Adèle - almost as a kind of trophy. And this cruel ending to a romance begun in sensual ecstasies - more brutal in its way than the turbulent break-up scene - takes place in an atmosphere of artistic sophistication and bourgeois politesse. The only thing that Emma has salvaged from this now definitively ended part of life is her youth, and - as Kechiche suggests at the very end - the possibility of opening a new chapter.

No refuge

La vie d’Adèle stands in marked contrast to typical Hollywood treatments of love and class. In such films as Frank Capra’s It happened one night (1934), Peter Yates’s Breaking away (1974), and Mike Nichols’s Working girl (1988), to name a random few, class is viewed as a temporary and insubstantial barrier to true love, which always prevails in the end. Kechiche’s film makes the opposite argument: that class distinctions are present in the most intimate of personal relations, to the point where they can tear asunder powerful sexual and emotional bonds. Kechiche is perhaps unsurpassed in his ability to bring the audience into the private emotional and physical hemisphere of his leading character. But class dwells even there.

Unlike those of the petty bourgeois, the social relations of workers are not principally transactional, because those who are forced to rely upon the sale of labour-power are limited in the number of transactions they can perform. Workers are also less able to flatter themselves with the notion of being possessed of a unique sensibility or talent, since they are constantly reminded of their dispensability and interchangeability with other members of the class. These circumstances make it possible for workers to realise that their principal strength lies in the ability to act collectively. In so doing, they can experience in direct form the power of association that most makes us human, but is entered into by the rest of bourgeois society unconsciously and through the mediation of commodities and cash.

Adèle does not have a bourgeois, individualist self-conception. But neither does she have an alternative self-conception to guide her through a stormy coming of age . Her situation is markedly different from that of working class characters portrayed in the British ‘angry young man’ movies of the 1960s. Unlike, for instance, Colin Smith, the hero of Tony Richardson’s 1962 masterpiece, The loneliness of the long distance runner, Adèle cannot conceive of proletarian solidarity as an answer to bourgeois social climbing. She is compellingly human in her disingenuousness and courage. But she inhabits a post-industrial western world that makes her appear not as representative of a class ‘in but not of society’, but as a stranger in a strange land. Even in a historically industrial town like Lille, even in a country that frowns upon blatant commercialism, and amid an artistic milieu that considers itself in some sense counter-cultural, the decimation of the working class is so advanced, and neoliberal individualist values so pervasive, that uncertainty and self-doubt replace anger in Adèle’s psyche; her lack of the sharp elbows needed to negotiate the petty bourgeois status scramble appears, to herself and others, not as a class difference, but an individual failing. She is, in contemporary parlance, a ‘loser’.

But, in the end, our sympathies are with the ‘loser’, Adèle, not with the ‘winner’, Emma. Kechiche’s film is a paean to the many Adèles of this world - those whose sense of human solidarity and stubborn authenticity resists the pressure to turn all social relations into a balance sheet of individual profit and loss. He helps them understand that they are not alone.

Jim Creegan