Blue is the Warmest Color: When the Movie Exceeds the Book

Blue is the Warmest Color was one of last year’s international indie darlings. The film won the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and I suspect that much of the popularity of both the graphic novel and the movie had more to do with the subject matter than with the quality of the story itself. It’s an explicit tale about two girls who fall in love, and because there are still relatively few high-quality queer stories that make their way into the mainstream, I’m afraid that Blue is the Warmest Color was given more credit than it deserved. However, the film was significantly better than the book. My review and comparison of the two follows below.

Blue is the Warmest Color

The graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color is beautifully illustrated by French author Julie Maroh. Cast mostly in somber gray tones, the book’s only distinguishable color comes in the form of Emma’s hair — the confident and talented art student with whom Clementine falls in love. The first thing you’ll notice about the graphic novel (or at least, the first thing I noticed) was Clementine’s horrible personality: She is an immature 15-year-old schoolgirl, who, in spite of her desire for Emma, still harbors homophobic tendencies. She is ashamed to admit that she might be gay; she complains to her gay friend, Valentín, repeatedly, and also to her diary, the narration of which constitutes the dialogue in Blue is the Warmest Color. Told from this perspective, Clementine comes across as whiny, unsure of herself, and more or less stalkerishly obsessed with Emma, who is in her last year of art school and approximately seven years older than Clementine.

I understand that the coming out process is an extremely difficult one, and, furthermore, it is not something that I have personal experience with, so how can I criticize a character in a fictional book? Still, at the end of the day, because there are so few mainstream queer love stories, I think it is critically important that those stories contain examples of healthy relationships. Clementine and Emma’s relationship in the graphic novel does not fulfill this expectation. Clementine remains ashamed to admit that she is lesbian, which eventually undermines her relationship with Emma. Emma, meanwhile, is insecure enough to be seduced by someone much younger than she, and to cheat on her current girlfriend, Sabine, as if unwilling to make a decision between the two. Clementine is always the instigator, and when Emma finally has an excuse to end their relationship, she does so spectacularly. Their relationship is based primarily on Clementine’s unbridled lust and desire, and while that’s an important aspect of a functioning sexual relationship, it’s unwise to let that be a substitute for interpersonal development.

On top of all of this, because the graphic  novel is narrated by a 15-year-old character, the dialogue is predictably trite and superficial. Conversations are filled with hackneyed phrases, and all of the stereotypical developments in a gay coming-of-age novel come to pass. When Clementine inexplicably falls ill and dies rapidly, the denouement feels cheap and unearned. It’s like A Walk to Remember with queer instead of Christian overtones.

Overall, I found the book extremely disappointing. It’s probably my least favorite graphic novel. Which is a shame, because the artwork is stunning, and I usually love graphic novels. Luckily, the movie was a huge improvement.

blue is the warmest color - movie

In the movie Blue is the Warmest Color, Emma and Adèle’s relationship is significantly less dysfunctional. In fact, during the first half of the film, they have a beautiful connection. You’ll notice that Clementine, the 15-year-old schoolgirl, has been replaced with 17/18 year-old Adèle, a mature high school senior who is immensely attracted to Emma without becoming obsessive. Their relationship feels more equal, balanced, and united by common attraction, instead of a one-sided pursuit. Emma is less cowardly; Adèle, less immature and flighty. In addition, the diary narration is gone, replaced by sparse dialogue and evocative facial expressions. I was pleased that Adèle’s breasts were not overemphasized in the movie the way they were in the book; the attraction between Emma and Adèle felt organic, mutual, and exciting, and despite the explicit 10-minute sex scene, it felt less gratuitous as well. Gone is Clementine’s unwarranted fear of dating a girl; gone is Emma’s insecurity and her subservient relationship with her ex-girlfriend Sabine. Instead, the relationship blossoms naturally, with Emma finding herself surprised that an 18-year-old could pique her interest. Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos are both marvelous, filling their roles with ease.

Unfortunately, although all of the changes from the graphic novel significantly improved the film adaptation, the latter half of the movie is extremely difficult to watch. Emma and Adèle drift apart, as many couples do, but although Emma, confident in her burgeoning painting career and with a cohort of like-minded art colleagues, manages to recover quickly from their disastrous breakup, Adèle never does. She put so much of herself into Emma, and into their relationship, that she failed to develop her own personality. This leads to the infamous scene in the cafe, in which Adèle attempts to convince Emma to return to her. She grovels and sniffs her way through the conversation; it’s one of the most painful and achingly sad scenes that I’ve ever watched. It’s much more tragic than Clementine’s inexplicable death in the graphic novel, not to mention completely deserved.

I enjoyed the first half of the film very much and was looking forward to a rosy ending. The second half nearly ruined it for me, even though it was well executed. I’ll never be able to watch it again thanks to that scene in the cafe. Nonetheless, it’s beautifully done, and certainly worth watching.

Again, I understand why Blue is the Warmest Color became the phenomenon that it did, because most, if not all, marginalized communities are desperate to see their experiences reflected in the media they consume. Unfortunately, Blue is the Warmest Color falls flat in terms of offering much in the way of guidance. But to be honest, I can’t think of a better example. My advice? Skip the book, watch the movie if you like, and I’ll keep looking alongside everyone else for good literature about queer romance.

Overall rating, graphic novel: 2.5/5 stars
Overall rating, film: B-

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3 thoughts on “Blue is the Warmest Color: When the Movie Exceeds the Book

  1. “Clementine remains ashamed to admit that she is lesbian, which eventually undermines her relationship with Emma.” – Yes, and that’s because her ex-friends and her parents mistreat her when they find out she’s gay. This was taking place in the 1990s… she was afraid to be hurt upon coming out, and she knew it would be painful. Even though Emma helped her find more accepting circles, Clem was still in pain since she had been disowned by her parents. – This is an element not present in the movie but one central to the comic. I would say the “A Walk to Remember” comparison is apt.

    1. Yeah, it’s a tough situation, to be sure. I think in certain circles it’s just as bad, if not even worse, to come out as gay in 2017. In that regard, you are probably right that then graphic novel is realistic in its portrayal of Clementine’s insecurity. If your friends and family – and the world at large – don’t accept you, then I’m sure that can have a huge negative effect on your ability to function normally in a relationship.

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