Film review: ‘Justice’ craves hamburgers and fries

Published by the Alternate Dream

Blue is the Warmest Color

France-Belgium-Spain 2013

Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche

My rating: 5 out of 5

The dear readers should excuse me but there is no other way to open a review about this film, the best I’ve seen this year, than by talking about the humanity itself.

There are many factors that make us humans, strange creatures. But high on the list is our condemnation to loneliness. Your correspondent doesn’t claim to be an expert on other primates and animals but he finds it unlikely that any of them are as shelterless, at the time of birth, as us homo sapiens.

We come to the world without having at all been given the capacity to naturally and physically survive on our own. We don’t even have much fur to protect ourselves from extreme weather. Since the day one, it is through social structures that we survive and we grow. And yet, at the same time, we are infinitely individual. Even though our entire make-up and nature has been formed socially and collectively (our language, for instance, doesn’t exist except in a collective context, as Wittgenstein argued), we are also weirdly unique in ways that we ourselves have to discover as we go through the passage of our relatively short lifetime; a discovery that is rarely without danger and crisis. And one oppressed by those very social structures that introduce us to life.

Such is the predicament of Adele, the protagonist of Blue, played by the magnificent Adele Excharopolous who justly won the Palme d’or for her performance. Adele – whose names means “justice” – is the essence of our innocent lonely humanity, endlessly trapped within social structures that oppress her, always too naively noble to rise up. Emancipation and bliss are elusive for her, even though your correspondent likes to think she’ll get there at the end.

In this age of cheesy, reliable “romantic comedies” that are neither romantic nor comical, Blue is an unapologetic saga that lasts a full 179 minutes. It shouldn’t have been one minute shorter (and I personally could have watched it if it was double this time) as the story of Adele needs to be put on the screen meticulously and chapter by chapter.

We first see Adele at the age of 15, a high school student from a conservative French family. Her father makes a mean spaghetti but he doesn’t like to lift his head up from the plate at the dinner table. Her mother looks like a respectable middle-class woman of provincial France.

Adele and her friends are, of course, from a different world; the world of French youth doesn’t reflect that of these conservative parents. Early on, we see Adele taking part in leftist demonstrations against fee raises (CGT banners could be seen in the background to the joy of your correspondent.)Yet, is Adele a full citizen of another universe? Is she a rebel?

Not really. Not in a straightforward sense. Her face (one that your correspondent is not likely to forget for years) reeks of a primal innocence yet she is so much more. The most handsome boys hit on her but, despite the urging of her friends, our shy Adele is not much interested. She sleeps with one of them who is sexy, kind, cool, gentle and a musician. But she is still not interested. With pain and tears, she breaks up with him, not knowing what’s wrong.

On her journey of self-discovery, our Adele founds out soon, through a little kiss she shares with a classmate, that she likes women. In a sojourn in a lesbian bar, she finds Emma, the other main character in the film. This blue-haired artist couldn’t be more different from Adele. She is from a typically progressive family with a father who cooks oysters and a mother who is supportive. Adele loves children and likes to be a teacher, Emma is a typical  unstable student of arts and letters, dabbling in a philosophy degree and painting on the side. Emma is also a fixture in the gay artists’ subculture, a world totally unknown to Adele.

Adele and Emma start going out and the sexual energies of the former that were so restrained with guys now explode when they find an outlet. The beautifully-shot sex scenes, for which the film got much fame in our sex-obsessed world, are there for a purpose. It is here that we can see the true wild and free face of our Adele and her incredibly humane passion. She blossoms in this some of the best lovemaking scenes in the history of cinema.

Here there is a narrative break in the film and we enter the second chapter: We suddenly found Adele away from the home she shared with her parents. She now lives with Emma, who is starting to make a name for herself as a painter. Adele is a muse of Emma and a permanent subject of her paintings. She has also now become a nursery teacher, as she always wanted.

Is this her liberation, then? Was this about she discovering her sexuality which the gay-friendly, artistic, ‘pinko’ community now warmly welcomes and embraces?

The answer is no. For, alas, our raw, passionate Adele is also oppressed by this artsy, progressive community.

Yes, her parents and much of France could never accept her as a lesbian who lives with a girl. But she is also far from what people like Emma expect her to be.

Here is one of the most delicate and great points about the film. Instead of a simple lesbian coming-of-age-story, we have the story of a soul, so wild and yet innocent, who doesn’t easily fit this or that box. The film exposes not only the conservative, provincial France that is already the butt of many jokes in French films but also the ghettoish island of artsy subculture with all its own oppressions.

Our Adele loved her spaghettis, you see. She craves hamburgers and fries and fast food and eats them (so much of them) with all her passion, using all her fingers. It is telling that both the conservative France and the artsy crew find this objectionable.

Our Adele loves Hollywood films and their action scenes. She doesn’t like the abstract paintings of Emma’s friends. She loves shaking to Salsa and to the Arab Maghrebi music. She loves all kinds of music, but, as we find out early on, not the hard rock and metal stuff. They don’t correspond to her humanity.

ُThis tension between a passionate love for all that is buzzing and exciting and a haughty reverence for a respectable, inaccessible art has a pedigree in literature. It is a tension between what can be carelessly categorized as the American and the French faces of modernity. This was also the theme to Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita: There also, a passionate, innocent character who loved American rock and roll lost her childhood to a man of fine art with lineage in European nobility.

And what does Emma do to our Adele, to Justice herself? Not unlike what Humbert Humbert does to Lolita.

Adele, this alive and passionate human being, much of Emma’s friends are in awe in whose sight, is basically not cool enough for Emma. She doesn’t like her being a teacher and suggests writing to her, based on the beautiful diaries she’s written. But Adele doesn’t want to write for anybody but her own notebook. She is satisfied with her life as a teacher.

It is not hard for us to see how is Adele being oppressed by Emma. She is cooking and cleaning and running around while Emma explores her paintings. Emma is also, of course, sleeping around with another woman, who, by her own later admission, has nothing of the passion of Adele but is artsy and all.

In the face of an unfaithful, unstable, ungrateful and inattentive Emma, Adele sleeps with a boy from work a couple of times; a boy with whom she shares a couple of Salsa outings too. Outings that we can imagine would have been impossible with Emma and her crew.

When Emma finds out, she violently throws Adele out into the streets. Even in that very heated moment, when she is being accused of infidelity and being thrown out, Adele doesn’t say a single bad word to Emma. She doesn’t talk about Emma’s apparent unfaithfulness and all the attitude that had destroyed their relationship. Where is this girl, from? Where does the golden color of her innocence come from? Your correspondent can only think of two Perso-Arabic adjectives to describe our Adele: Najib, Mazloom.

She goes and finds her own way. When we catch up a few years later, Adele is alone while Emma is living with the same girl with whom she cheated on Adele. They have children and, despite all their artsy pretensions, share a settled bourgeois life. And Adele? Still discovering, still as passionate, and her face, still with that primal innocence.

In the last scene of the film, Adele visits an exhibition held by Emma who is now a well-known painter. She goes around and looks at the abstract paintings and the artsy crew that mingles in the gallery. Other than Emma and her partner, she only speaks to one person. That is Kader, an Arab boy she knew from a party at their house a long time ago. Kader wanted to be an actor in hollywood films, those that Adele loved. He was clearly taken with Adele, back in that party, but she, with all her Najibness, didn’t respond to his advances. And now? Now that all this time is past and she is available?

Adele walks around the exhibition. She doesn’t talk to anybody but twice says thank you to the waiter who passes water around. She is the only one who speaks to the waiter. She, like him, is alien to this bo-bo world. And then she takes off. Without a good-bye to anybody but to the waiter. Kader, caught up in a conversation, loses sight of him. He runs into the street after her. But she is gone. Our Justice has left and even though she is around the corner, Kader never finds her.

Where does Adele go? What will happen to her? This is not the only question we are left with. There are so many more.

What happened to her all these years? Did she break from her family and the spaghettis of her papa? With what pain? When she was thrown into the street by Emma, where did she go? All these years, surrounded by Emma, who had taken her innocent childhood from her, how did she feel? What did she think? How often did her silent tears wet her unforgettable cheeks?

Like many true romantic heroes, we never find the answer to these questions about Adele. The same that we never found out the answer to similar questions about Fusun in Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. It is perhaps that no one ever knew.

Adele, however, represents what is so primally and wildly beautiful about humanity; and how this is defenseless in the face of many structures in our world, some of them the ones you don’t expect.

I’d like to dream that some time after Kader lost her around the corner, Adele walked into a life she deserved; that she found a human bliss, worthy of her originality. That she lived many happy moments.

But these are my own dreams. They don’t matter much. What matters is that Justice once lived among us; moved so faultlessly among us; taught our children Arabic dance and served us a meal or two. After watching Blue, I can say: Justice? Yeah, I knew her. She is nothing like what you think. The Justice who I knew craved hamburger and fries and slurped her spaghettis with so much passion. She is somewhere near; somewhere around the corner. “On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

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