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66th Cannes Film Festival Day 12 – Revisiting the Palme d’Or Winner La Vie d’Adèle

By Moira Sullivan. 

In an unprecedented decision, the jury for the official competition of the 66th Festival de Cannes, led by President Steven Spielberg, awarded the French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche and French actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos the Palme d’Or for La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitre 1 & 2 (Blue is the Warmest Color). The prize was shared by all three, which is a confirmation that the onscreen performances were recognized as auteur work. Kechiche has proven himself a master of capturing the joy of youth on film, but equally the lead actresses of the film Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos command the screen with their raw, emotional performances as co-creators in this epic tale of two women in love. Based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, the film stood out among the other entries at Cannes primarily because of the creative use of the camera and editing but also the gestalt of these two exceptional actresses in screen space. The majority of film is shown in closeups and the editing aligns these spectacular shots into a cohesive story magnificently.

The story opens on the life of fifteen-year-old high school student Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos). She has a brief but meaningless fling with a classmate ends after a one-night stand, which leaves the boy in tears. Afterward, Adèle realizes she is missing something. By chance, she finds herself attracted to the beautiful Emma (Léa Seydoux), a striking girl in her mid 20’s with dyed blue tinted hair. After a brief encounter on the street where Emma is walking with her girlfriend, Adele later dreams about her. Her literature class is reading about the anticipation of desire from the 18th century novel The Life of Marianne by Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, and this only serves to heighten her passion.

Kechiche is excellent in putting this essence on screen and Sedoux and Exarchopolous brilliantly help realize the ambition of the film. The actresses articulate many of the emotions of youth, which to the audience should be painfully familiar. Adèle marches in political rallies for worker rights, better education and gay pride. But her classmates’ comments are cruel when she is seen with Emma, the “tomboy”. Adèle goes to a gay bar, with a friend from school and not long after to a lesbian bar on her own where she meets Emma. An hour into the film Emma and Adèle spend the night. The sex scenes are explicit, passionate and joyful. The close-ups are so microscopic that you can see the tiny hairs on their skin.

Adèle aspires to be a primary school teacher, and Emma is a student at the School of Fine Art (École des Beaux-Arts). As their relationship develops, Adèle becomes an art model for Emma who calls her a muse. However, the differences between the two women become notable when it is time to meet their parents. Emma’s parents are acceptant of Adèle and Emma, but Adèle’s parents are unaware of their daughter’s relationship. The internalized homophobia that both women feel comes across at the dinner table. Furthermore, Adèle cannot introduce Emma to her friends after the bullying she received in school, but Emma has “cultured” art friends who nonetheless ask stupid questions, such as “is this your first time with a woman?”

Emma speaks with a friend at a party, a pregnant woman named Lise, who shares similar interests with her. Soon, she is telling Adèle to get an interest in life other than her. Emma’s world is high art culture, which differs from Adèle’s interests in primary school pedagogics and popular cinema. Emma begins to spend her evenings away discussing Egon Shiele and Gustav Klimt with Lise. And so, Emma and Adèle’s differences, which were the source of attraction, begin to polarize them and they drift apart.

Ellipses in the film time line are frequent during the decline of their relationship. Three years after Emma throws Adèle out of her home, they meet in a café. The sexual attraction is still there but Emma has a family now with Lise and her two kids. She admits she is no longer in love with Adèle. When Emma has her first art show, she invites Adèle. Lise reminds her how her presence is still in Emma’s paintings. The newer canvases in charcoal have a touch of commercialism. One of Emma’s friends claims that she is absent in her gaze in her latest work, perhaps now that Adèle is gone.

As the late French actress Maria Schneider said, “Film is the memory of our time” and to this one can add, the memory of our youth and our loves. Nowhere is that more evident than in La Vie d’Adèle. Echoing these sentiments, the Cannes critics, particularly the French, proved to be in love with the film and its characters. It is the kind of cinema that is appealing to a French audience with a strong frame of reference for literature and cinema, a predilection for good food and parties, and a vested interest in French education. Twelve out of fifteen critics cited in Le Film Français gave Kechiche’s film a Palme d’Or rating symbol.

La Vie d’Adèle is a narrative that compels the spectator to know more. At the press conference on May 23, Kechiche revealed there is enough material for two more films and is willing to put this into more chapters. In fact, he shot a total of 700 hours and cut it down to three. Both Sedoux and Exarchopolous said they are willing to go on with the story, and were surprised that so many  scenes were not in the final cut. It can be understood that further chapters will be assembled if Kechiche decides to do so.

Kechiche underlines that the film is about two people who are attracted to each other , like any other love story, and does not emphasize the implication of the sexual politics in this film. “It’s not good to delve or say anything about homosexuality”, said Kechiche at the press conference. Not only the director but also Sedoux and Exarchopoulos, who are both heterosexual, had little to say on the subject. The fact that gay marriage was hotly debated in France at the time the film was made was something Kechiche decided to avoid in Adéle, despite violent protests in the streets in Paris in April.

Kechiche has proclaimed that a revolution must contain a sexual revolution, so his film nevertheless goes a long way and makes a huge statement. As yet, he has not gone on record that gay marriage is a legitimization of same sex relationships as part of the revolution. Still, Emma and Adèle are two lesbians living in a heterosexual world, a matter the first official press conference at Cannes addressed, and as the film opens itself up to wide screen distribution, it becomes time for Kechiche and the co-creators of La Vie d’Adéle—Sedoux and Exarchopoulos—to take note.

Distributor Wild Bunch informs that the film has already been sold to the US and other countries and that the 179 hour runtime will remain intact. La Vie d’Adéle will be released in France on October 9, 2013.

Moira Sullivan is an accredited journalist at Cannes, and served on the Queer Palm Jury 2012. She is a member of FIPRESCI with a doctorate in cinema studies from Stockholm University and graduate studies in film at San Francisco State University.

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