Monday, March 3, 2014


Adele is a teenager in one of France's provincial centres. Her interests are existential literature and self-definition. The second of those is the tough one. She tries a boy. Doesn't work. On the way to dumping him she sees and can't stop seeing a slightly older girl with blue hair. After taking a tantalising pass from one of her female schoolfriends and then getting rebuffed for taking it too seriously the next day she suspects she has found her path. When she walks out of a gay friend's party and into a girls only bar Bluehair glides down to the rescue from the pit of bulls and cougars and the rest is history.

Kinda. Adele and Emma (Bluehair) share a love stronger than the most ferocious of peer group onslaughts and one more nurturing than all of the literature to which Adele has professed devotion. And we get to see it in daily sunshine and nightly dimmed bedroom glow. And see it and see it and see it.

Every review of this film cordons off a moment for the sex scenes. They are clearly erotic to begin with and that has more to do with their role in intensifying the relationship, same as in real life. As cinema there is a completeness to them which goes against the initial sense to become more observation than celebration, more Kubrick or Matthew Barney than 9 1/2 Weeks. While the eroticism greys down into Masters and Johnson laboratory conditions plainness at no time is the spectacle remotely pornographic. This is a film that lingers rather than states, inviting us to stand nearby and absorb it. The wonder of it is how seldom the epic running time feels laboured. The sex is not laboured, no more than the loose ramble of the conversations or the insistence on scene-length closeups. Part and parcel.

But this film is more than mere aesthetic approach. The tale of the two women moves with a kind of stately verite. Apart from the sudden caesura that seems to take us across years while feeling like a single scene, the pace is decorous and encourages examination. Examination is important here as we are going to go beyond genre where the love at the centre of the love story is tested to destruction but strong enough to defy the divides of oceans or death themselves and into the uncomfortable realm where it is denied unto death. If we liked the erotic spring we are going to have to live with the wintry pain as well.

That, for me, is where this film is at its strongest. While it has served above and beyond the call of love story duty in the first half it settles down to live with the harder stuff. When love turns into affection management and personal administration. Adele continues to serve as painter Emma's muse, starring in life size high impact canvases. Adele finds her vocation in teaching preschool where she finds constant bright fulfillment and the eye of the (h)unque in residence. The latter follows her through days of fete-ing as the face of the inspiration of a rising local artist and the realisation that her biggest impression on Adele's social circle is the pasta she feeds them with. The fiercely independant mind we saw in her adolescence is allowed only grazing in this new role. It's not that Emma has no  problem with this, it's that she doesn't notice that it has happened.

In a more mainstream film, Adele would emerge from this experience full of fight and corner Emma over with a spiky argument about being trivialised, reduced to a likeness on canvas and spaghetti chef. All we need to see the the size of the serving dish and hear the praise for the food which arrives at the point where the champagne has created a mass appetite. Adele begins to look around and we don't wonder as we see Emma's eye wandering and her body language preparing for a transfer of affection to someone else. Then, when we get the big confrontation we don't need to hear dialogue from Husbands and Wives because we feel as sad and tired as the characters.

But if we really wanted to see emotional violence we have to wait until the first meeting of the pair after their separation. The longing barely visible through their restraint swells and bursts through like a demon on the rampage, giving us a sex scene that, fully clothed and unfulfilled, is the most powerfully erotic of all of them. It is also heart-rending. We are looking at what feels like the final act of pure attraction between these two lovers and find the energy exciting only long enough to be gutted by its ultimate emptiness: burning love by programmed robots. This is a common scene in real life but I've never seen it so powerfully realised in fiction. It is the single strongest moment in this film so well supplied with them.

If you looked at the poster for this or any other promotional material and formed the impression that it was a low-substance wish-wash you might want to watch it if only to revisit the lesson about first impressions. It's not just French and pretty faces. This is a serious study of human attraction, youth and experience and features some of the strongest performances and visual direction you will see all year. These are three screen hours which do not quite feel long enough.

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