Blue Is The Warmest Color

Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, the two young actresses who star in Blue Is The Warmest Color, deserved to share the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year with the director, Abdellatif Kechiche. In fact, I think they might have deserved more of a share than he did. Kechiche’s range of expression isn’t much more expansive than Christopher Nolan’s; his camera has a hammerlock on the girls, and most of the film’s storytelling relies on reading their faces, and, to a lesser extent, their bodies—which the director likes to have wiggling on top of one another, in the buff. In this context, I don’t think that the NC-17 material is pornographic, exactly, but it sure is an easy way for the movie to generate publicity for itself in a critical environment primed to hail girl-on-girl booty-slapping progressive. The shrewdness of making an art film with explicit sex scenes between two gorgeous women in 2013 and passing it off as radically broadminded (Kechiche to Reuters: “Everyone who is against … love between two people of the same sex must see the film”) reminded me of Beyoncé releasing her surprise album earlier this month and bemoaning that music these days is “all about the single, and the hype is so much that it gets between the music and the artist and the fans”—as if the surprise stratagem wasn’t a different form of hype that just so happens to have saved her millions of dollars. I think there’s more to what Kechiche is doing than that—but maybe not enough more.

The French title translates as “The Life of Adèle, Parts 1 and 2,” and I think I liked Part 1 better. In these scenes, Adèle (Exarchopoulos) is about 17; she has a pretty, gamine, chipmunky face, hair she must soak in a deep fryer, and a jaw that hangs down stupidly, as if her lower teeth were dumbbells. Adèle is not stupid, but she seems as intent on closing herself off as she is on opening up books. Nothing seems to draw her to her female friends; she doesn’t break the mold at family dinner, which her parents spend speechless, slurping spaghetti, in thrall to the TV; and when she finally gives in to the advances of a meatheaded but kind upperclassman, she’s terrified to find herself going through the motions, and that those motions produce no heat. When she confesses these perceived failings to Valentin (Sandor Funtek), her gay best friend, one can tell that she isn’t falling on her words here for want of trying; suddenly, she notices the ickiness of her hair. Funtek conveys his character’s gayness very subtly, and though out-and-proud Valentin offers Adèle some consoling words, it’s impossible to tell just how much he knows, even if it’s quite possible to induce how little she lets him know. Curiously, the gay club he takes her to is lighted mainly blue, but the lesbian equivalent into which she strays is the warmest, mellowest yellow. The blue is in Emma’s—Seydoux’s—hair as she approaches Adèle at the bar. I think the closed-in camera achieves intimacy with the adolescent girl here; I think it does so, and gives the lie to her solipsism, when Adèle brushes past her old friends to meet with older Emma in the school parking lot; and when she denies, later, what they met for.

The blue in Emma’s hair is artificial, but the blue in her Buddha eyes is not, and the dissonance alone is striking enough to pierce Adèle’s heart. She’s studying to be a painter, and her butch look is an invention: the chassis of an android from some better time and place than Adèle’s lower-middle-class naturalism. (This isn’t always the case, but Emma’s blue hair sends the opposite signal that a collar of the warmest color would.) Emma is the aggressor, the buyer of Adèle’s drink, and she senses that Dorothy has wandered in from Kansas. They talk Sartre and art, sketch (Emma) and get sketched (Adèle); and we see them suddenly transition from a kiss in the park to bliss in the bed in what Richard Brody calls “one of the most jolting cuts in the recent cinema.” But I disagree with him that the “intermediate stages of seduction or proposition” are skipped. It’s an earned release, for the girls and for the viewer—a resolution to an hour’s worth of ardor that radiates without getting lost and yet is finally found. (He is correct that “the sexual teasing of anticipation or [the] buildup of undressing” aren’t there, but that’s a different story. Adèle is too serious for teasing foreplay; what makes her sexy, perhaps, is her absence of wit, her absolute, unconscious liberation from the world of wit, which is to say: the world.) No, we don’t see them take their clothes off; but Adèle has been naked since Emma laid eyes on her, a meet-cute in a dream that Adèle later made wet.

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Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club is a great example of how Hollywood confronts dangerous subject matter: By locking it safely into genre constrictions. Don’t take that the wrong way. The Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée—working with a script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack—has made a good, old-fashioned American movie. The revelations can be practically read off a timetable; the ambiguities served up are chewed for our convenience; and the villains are not given the contours that round out the hero. But it zeroes in on that hero: a homespun crusader who learns to overcome his prejudices, and—more American still—turns a profit doing so. Between his diagnosis with AIDS in 1985, and his death from it in 1992, Ron Woodroof smuggled in AIDS medicaments from across the world; many were not approved by the F.D.A., which was slow to react to the crisis. Although Woodroof was straight, and an electrician by trade, he distributed his wares to a primarily gay clientele in an operation that was on the fringe of legality. The primary source for his tale is a six-page feature story that was published in the supplement to a local newspaper a few months before he died, so the paucity of details has given the screenwriters perhaps too much wiggle room. But what makes him a fine subject is simple: Life gave him lemons and he made lemon-AIDS.

I am being glib about Dallas Buyers Club, but only to demonstrate that the factual material has been fitted into a feel-good structure that confirms current attitudes about homophobia and government regulation; and I indicate this from the top because, in biopics, dramatic structures are often mistaken for a factual truth; and I use “factual” as a modifier because, without it, “truth” is open to interpretation. With all deference to Matthew McConaughey, when his Woodroof rattles off epithets like faggot and cocksucker at the beginning of the film, the blow is softened because we in the audience know we’re safe—know that he’ll be redeemed. (And in case we have our doubts, we’re clued in on his change of heart when Woodroof is the only guy at a construction site who’s compassionate enough to call an ambulance for an injured undocumented worker.) The filmmakers have made him worse than the real Woodroof probably was, and then, for the sake of an inspirational arc, made him—probably—more heroic. When we’re shown him confronting a (fictional) doctor, a lollipop dangling in the deep pockets of Big Pharma, the M.D. is playing Patch Adams to the children’s ward, and this is meant to make him look like a fool. This isn’t art, it’s melodrama: a tight leash on our feelings. White lies help make D.B.C. succeed as popular entertainment.

Yet Woodroof is a colorful character who refuses to be desaturated; McConaughey looks like a death’s-head come to life. It’s a broader role, and thus a less suggestive performance, than the one Brad Pitt supplied as Billy Beane in Moneyball: a comparable role in a comparable movie. But neither McConaughey nor Vallée allow themselves to get mawkish about this Texan; by his magnetism alone, the star suggests a will to survive so fundamental that Woodroof would’ve remained immune to coke and booze had not H.I.V. been added to his regimen. His silk suits and grooming are as much a disguise for him as the priest’s robes he dons to hop the border. These appurtenances of entrepreneurship aren’t meant to impress his desperate clients or dubious contacts in the medical community; they’re an assertion of life as a hex on death. If we’re not let too deeply inside this ladies’ man’s sense of loss—his sacrifice of intimacy; the poisoning of his pleasure—it is out of tact; and I find that to be a gallant gesture.

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Nebraska

If Dorothea Lange had shot a father-son road-trip movie, it would have probably looked like Nebraska. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is Last Picture Show black-and-white: it emphasizes dignity rather than romance, showcases imperfections instead of concealing them. If Bruce Dern doesn’t win the Academy Award for Best Neck Beard, the system is rigged. Nebraska gives Amour a run for its money when it comes to restraint—and it must be a testament to Alexander Payne’s pacing (and personality) that he can be this miserly with camera motion and not register as a stick in the mud. But he’s left the sludge to Bob Nelson’s script. Without the distanced look and tone, the gentle sense of humor, and the strength of a few performances, this movie would be as vacant as the plains.

Judging by fashion and technology, the film looks as if it could be set anytime in the last two decades—if not before—but its premise is rooted in baby-boomer guilt, circa Morning in America. In recompense for snubbing them in their youth, boomers placed their parents on a pedestal. If the notion that the older generation might’ve suffered in life was ever a newsflash, it’s a faded headline by now; but as a narrative device, it’s proven as durable as a sensitive boy’s coming-of-age. While Nelson has supplied Dern with some evocative understatements, he’s stranded Will Forte with a grown-up version of those lonely, sensitive drips from The Kids Are All Right and The Way Way Back. Someone must have made the assumption that comic actors like Forte and Bob Odenkirk would fill in hollow parts and light them with a funny aura. But with nothing to do but react to Dern, Forte is like Linus without the blanket—or the drive and imagination to get the hell out of Dodge. (Well, in this case, Billings.) And though the emotional core is between Forte and Dern, Odenkirk’s role is so vapid that he barely even functions as a contrast to Forte’s more forgiving baby brother. (Playing a thick-haired TV newscaster straight makes Odenkirk cringe at the waste.) Unflappable Dern has a daughter, too, who misses out on all the revelations due to her own daughter’s dance recital—but why write her into the screenplay if only to apologize for her absence?

I’m being rough on this elegant movie because I miss the films in which Payne spared his compassion for spiteful or pretentious losers, and even aggravatingly ambitious winners. Dern’s Woody Grant is terse, but also feeble and a dreamer, and both he and Forte’s Davey are so helpless that our sympathy is too easily won. Payne used to get by on his compassion because it was heartfelt, but also because there was an acid streak in his work that corroded all the easy forms of sentimentality. Here, his goodwill is displayed like window dressing for a holiday sale. He has a gift for satire without malice, and, at times, the patience instilled in his comedic timing is rhapsodic; his warmth in chilly settings conveys a heavy-lidded dreaminess that Hawaii couldn’t quite support. But the gamesmanship is gone, and, with it, the challenge, the kick. At 84, June Squibb—as Woody’s wife who flashes the grave of a former suitor to show him what he missed—provides some piquant nose-thumbing. There’s a hard country woman, who’s lived in this dust bowl too long to sustain any illusions, hidden behind the comic relief. However, the old Payne mischievousness—the deviltry that transcends impudence—really only shines through in how he treats one of Davey’s oafish cousins, who’s home from a prison stint for sexual assault. Payne’s deadpan here is killer.

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