Monday, September 29, 2014

What a Girl Wants

Film: La Vie d’Adele—Chapitres 1 & 2 (Blue is the Warmest Color); Wadjda
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix (Blue) and DVD from NetFlix (Wadjda) on laptop.

I’ve lost track of the number of times on this blog that I’ve talked about the way that coming-of-age films work. Typically, a coming of age story for boys involves coming to grips with mortality. Boys, at least in a serious coming-of-age tale, need to confront death. For girls (and for boys in comedies), coming-of-age stories are about sex. Girls need to come to terms with their ability to create life. This is one of the reasons I’ve put off watching La Vie d’Adele—Chapitres 1 & 2 (much more commonly known as Blue is the Warmest Color) for as long as I have. Why else? Well, it’s three hours long, and I’m not always down for that.

Blue is the Warmest Color is not really about that, though. Oh, don’t misunderstand—this is very much a girl’s coming-of-age story and it doesn’t skimp on the sex. So, while the film is very much about sex, it’s far more about sexual identity and personal identity than it is purely about sex. I do feel like I need to throw a warning out there, though; this film is rated NC-17 for a reason, and the bulk of that reason is about 15 combined minutes of sex. This isn’t movie sex—it’s sex. If they faked it, I have no idea how they did it. Honestly, I think they did it by not faking it.

Anyway, Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is at first glance a fairly typical 17-year-old finishing up high school. Her various friends appear to be obsessed with boys and with sex in particular. Aware that a boy in school appears to be attracted to her, Adele dates him briefly, but discovers that while sex is at least interesting, it’s not particularly satisfying. This occurs simultaneously with Adele spotting a young woman with blue hair on the street. She is immediately attracted to her, causing Adele to question her own sexual identity.

Eventually, Adele’s openly gay friend Valentin (Sandor Funtek) takes her to a gay bar. Adele wanders off and winds up in a lesbian bar, where she encounters a number of aggressive advances from the other patrons. Who comes to rescue her but the woman with the blue hair. Thus starts the relationship between Adele and Emma (Lea Seydoux). It begins in secret, in no small part because Adele’s friends begin accusing her of being a lesbian. While Emma’s parents seem to be fine with their daughter’s sexuality, Adele is forced to tell her own parents that Emma is her philosophy tutor.

Jump ahead several years and the two are now living together. Adele poses for Emma’s paintings and finds her life as a kindergarten teacher rewarding. But her home life is not so fulfilled. When Emma has a show of her work, Adele discovers that she feels intellectually left behind both Emma and all of Emma’s friends. Frustrated, confused, and lonely, Adele eventually sleeps with a male colleague, which spells the beginning of the end of her relationship with Emma.

There’s more, of course. Those paragraphs are simply the broadest strokes of a film that spins for three hours. The entire point of the film is not specifically Adele’s relationship with Emma, but Adele’s relationship with her own confused sexual identity and with herself. She is content with her teaching job, but it’s evident that Emma wants her to become more. Adele constantly feels out of her depth around Emma’s friends, which seems to work as a metaphor for her being similarly at sea with her own desires and sexual identity.

I mentioned the sex above, but it deserves a longer treatment. It’s these scenes that will be longest remembered by most viewers not because they depict sex, but because they depict what looks for all the world like peeking into someone’s bedroom. All told, there’s about 15 minutes of sex in the film, about half of which comes in a single scene. Director Abdellatif Kechiche enhances this feeling by having no non-diegetic music in these scenes (or the film, for that matter).

What this leads me to is an important question—why do I accept the sex in this film while I objected so strongly to it in a film like In the Realm of the Senses? It’s a fair question and one that deserves a serious answer. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, while both films contain either explicit sex or what looks to be explicit sex, In the Realm of the Senses is about little else. It’s not exploring anything; it’s just depicting two people going at it like rabbits. The sex in that film encompasses what feels like the entire running time. Here, it’s merely a part of the whole.

So the next question is this: what would the film lose if the sex was cut? It’s another fair question, and I think it could be argued that even though it’s a small percentage of the running time that it overshadows everything else in Blue is the Warmest Color. But I think we need to see the passion. I think we need to understand the depth and intensity of the feelings Adele experiences, and there’s no way to do that without showing us something of whare that comes from. It might not all be needed, but some of it definitely is.

But is it good? Yeah, it is. It’s worth watching, but know for a fact that your spouse, your kids, or your parents will walk in at the most inappropriate time.

Wadjda explores very little about sexuality, spending its time more fully on the idea of gender and gender roles. That might seem like a dry subject, but since we’re dealing with those questions in Saudi Arabia, they are important. I know very little about laws and customs in the Islamic world. I know from films like Osama that there are parts of the Muslim world in which women are virtual prisoners to the local religious ideology and tradition.

Wadjda (pronounced like it’s spelled with the first "d” silent, and played by Waad Mohammed> is a young Saudi girl who spends her days in a madrassa being educated both in traditional subjects and in the Qur’an. What she really wants more than anything, though, is a bicycle. She becomes enamored of the bike ridden by her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) and wants one for herself, specifically because she dreams of beating Abdullah in a race.

And here’s where the culture becomes important. She is told over and over again by her mother (Reem Abdullah) and by the principal of her school (Ahd) that girls don’t ride bikes. More specifically, she is told that if she rides a bike she will not be able to have children.

A great deal of what happens here is not specifically about Wadjda wanting a bike, but about her dealing with a culture and a society that devalues women, and thus devalues her. I mentioned above that there is less here about sexuality than in Blue is the Warmest Color, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. The Saudi culture, at least as depicted here, feels obsessed with sexuality and the sexualization of virtually everything. Girls playing outside of their school are forced to go inside if men at a nearby construction site can see them. For me, the immediate question is what sort of men would become sexually aroused watching 12-year-olds play hopscotch?

Wadjda’s desire for a bicycle seems to be a symbol of her larger desire to, in many ways, be free of the culture that keeps her locked behind a hijab, unable to ever drive herself anywhere, unable to be unaccompanied in the presence of men not her husband or, once she is old enough, to even walk outside without covering her face.

Another significant culture clash here is the situation of Wadjda’s parents. Her father (Sultan Al Assaf) is rarely home, choosing to spend most of his time away from his family. Wadjda’s mother is convinced (and eventually proved correct) that he is looking for a second wife because he wants a son that she cannot give him, having almost died giving birth to Wadjda.

It’s these cultural differences that make Wadjda so fascinating. Without them, this is simply the story of a young girl who wants something she’s not supposed to have and struggling against all of the people who tell her that she shouldn’t have it. Because this desire is overtopped by both culture and religion (or, more accurately, religion expressing itself through culture), Wadjda’s desires seem completely hopeless. Where Adele in Blue is the Warmest Color has the freedom to express her desires but doesn’t really know how, Wadjda knows exactly what she wants and is actively prevented from pursuing it.

Wadjda is the first all-Saudi film production and the first from its director, Haifaa Al-Mansour. It’s noteworthy, I think, that the director of this film is a woman expressing some of the frustrations of living in a repressive culture in the current century. Allegedly, there were many scenes that she was forced to direct from a distance over walkie-talkie, since she could not be in the presence of men in the crew. I can only imagine what that must have been like—to have something to say and to so frequently have impediments thrown up against it. In other words, the creation of the film itself has a great deal in common with its title character.

Speaking of her, Waad Mohammed is an absolute natural in front of the camera. I would guess that this is her first film, and she does not look like she is acting at all. She looks for all the world like a typical 12-year-old kid experiencing growing pains. The part of me that hates to see repression of anyone and anything hopes that she somehow gets out of that culture because I’d love to see her have a career. She definitely has the talent. She’s immensely likable on screen, the kind of person that is incredibly easy to root for. Part of that is the character, certainly, but a great deal of that comes from Waad Mohammed.

All told, Wadjda is a story that you’ve seen before. There’s not that much new here and not much that’s going to come across as new or innovative. That’s okay. It’s great to see the birth of a new national cinema. While Wadjda may be baby steps in terms of plot, pacing, and story, it’s a giant leap for what it might actually mean in the grander scheme of things.

Why to watch Blue is the Warmest Color: A standard coming-of-age story that is anything but standard.
Why not to watch: Your kids, your parents, and/or your spouse will absolutely walk in at the wrong time.

Why to watch Wadjda: A familiar story in very unfamiliar clothing.
Why not to watch: It’s not hard to figure out where it’s going.


  1. What a great central performance by Adele Exarchopoulos, a pity the film wasn't eligible to receive oscar noms. I liked how the camera work is very in-your-face, so we witness every little facial expression and vulnerability.
    I also was ok with the sex, it tied in with the passionate relationship. Agree that Emma wants her to become more. Perhaps the age difference could be a factor, Emma I believe is a few years older than Adele, and maybe Emma needed someone who has more life experience and education than Adele had.

    1. What makes that central performance so good, and in fact all of the performances so good in both films, is that it's entirely natural. I never really get the feeling that anyone is "acting" more than they are just living through an experience.

      This is especially true of Blue, and more important for that film, since it purports itself to be a slice of real life.

  2. I liked Blue far more than Wadjda, though I respect both films.Despite Blue being a 3-hour French film, it's the one I'd be most likely to revisit between the two of them. I never felt bored during Blue... with a few exceptions. The third act was just a LOT of dull classroom teaching scenes that went far too much into detail on every little aspect of the stuff she does. It's like.... how is this relevant to anything? Also, special mention to the weird restaurant scene near the end that made me wonder if those people were watching them or what.

    Wadjda was.... respectable, but entirely forgettable. Not a bad movie, but I'm not sure I could tell you more than a couple 3-second moments in the film at this point.

    1. Wadjda is far more important for what it represents than for what it is. I found it charming, but as a film, there's not a lot there. But it represents the birth of a national cinema, and for that, it's really important.

      I didn't mind the end of Blue, although I agree that the restaurant scene is pretty weird.

  3. Interesting to see both of these in the same review.

    I agree that the sex scenes in Blue are not gratuitous and are entirely in keeping with showing where they are at that stage of their relationship and that they set up an important contrast with where they are later. The fact that people have spent so much time focusing on them says far more about our society than about the movie, the director, or the actresses. I like to point out to people that have gotten hung up on it that there are just as many minutes spent showing people eating spaghetti as showing people having sex. Where are all the long posts about how much spaghetti eating there is in the movie?

    I thought Exarchopoulos deserved a nomination for her performance in the film. I felt she was completely natural, just as I agree with you on the young actress in Wadjda.

    I liked Wadjda quite a bit, but we have 180 degree different takes on the film. The reason I liked it is precisely because I saw it as an innocent tale of a girl trying to get a bike, not that it was a movie focused on how badly the women were getting treated.

    It didn't go out of its way to hide the fact that the society she lives in puts up roadblocks, but it didn't go out of its way to make them the main point of the film, either. It was simply treated matter of factly. THAT is what was important to me. It wasn't a movie about a Saudi girl; it was a movie about a girl who just happens to be Saudi. The central story could have taken place in Ohio, London, Paris, Australia, or Japan. The fact that it happens in Saudi Arabia is part of what makes it good, but it is not good only because it takes place in Saudi Arabia. (For me, of course.)

  4. I had the opportunity to do both at the same time, and while they are wildly different, there is a thematic similarity, at least on some level.

    I've come to the conclusion that the sex scenes in Blue are necessary. I think an argument could be made that they are excessive or that we don't need so many of them, but I'm not sure that's an argument that I would make. Exarchopoulos probably did deserve a nomination, and my investigation gives it an October, 2013 U.S. release date. Stranger things have happened then the Academy rewarding a film the following year, though, especially with a foreign release.

    I don't think Wadjda necessarily focuses on the treatment of women per se, but that's an undeniable part of the film. Were this to take place in Ohio, there wouldn't be such incredible resistance to her having a bike in the first place, and much of the story comes from her fighting in her own naive way against that sort of cultural oppression. A big part of the reason it's so compelling for me is that without that, it's just a kid who wants a bike.

  5. I watched Blue Is the Warmest Color this morning because it's been on Netflix Instant Watch for a while and I'm afraid it's going to be gone if I wait too long to watch it.

    I liked it quote a bit. I bet it's irresistible on a big screen, but I no longer live in Los Angeles and movies like Blue don't play around here very long, if at all.

    I prefer the big screen for long movies, for reading sub-titles and for movies about relationships instead of guns, monsters, vampires, samurai and vengeance-seeking spirits of the wrongly killed. But Blue was more than good enough to keep me interested, even after the sex scenes stopped.

    I give this movie extra points because Diary of a Lost Girl with Louise Brooks was showing on the wall at the fancy art party where Adele made spaghetti.

    I really want to see Wadjda but I'm having trouble finding it.

    1. I think Blue is a really special movie. I found the sex scenes uncomfortable because they're so long. I get why they're there, but it's more than I wanted. The rest of the movie is damn good, though.

      As for Wadjda, consider your local library. I know at the very least my local library has a copy of it.

    2. I use my local library as much as possible and I can get movies like Babel, The Last King of Scotland and United 93 pretty easily, often through inter-library loan. Sometimes they surprise me, and I got Once and Citizenfour with no problem. But they don't trade "recent" movies across the system, so I couldn't get Whiplash or Leviathan.

      And one of the branches has Wadjda but they won't trade it with the other libraries in the system.

    3. Hmm. That's unusual. I haven't had that issue with my local library, and another one that I use is willing to move things between branches for patrons. Systems are different everywhere, I guess.

    4. I talked to one of the librarians and they put in the request for me. Some of the movies are flagged in such a way that you can't request them from a computer, you have to go to the reference desk and have a librarian do it. I've been meaning to ask about some of the movies I can't get via computer request, but I kept forgetting until today.

      I told the librarian about Wadjda and she acted like she wants to see it. I'll probably get it in three or four days. Maybe a little longer.

    5. Fingers crossed. It's a pretty interesting film.

      The more libraries you can get access to, the more options you have. I use three different library systems for what I want, and I still can't get everything. You might look into seeing of your library will request through WorldCat.

    6. I still have well over 300 movies from the expanded version of the List left to see. TCM is showing several of the documentaries in the next week or so, I have The Ear on the DVR, I noted five more on Netflix Instant Watch (and there's probably a lot more) and there's bunches that I know are available at the library. The one I've been wanting to see for years that I just can't find anywhere is Abel Gance's Napoleon.

      And TCM is showing Trouble In Paradise in a week or so! Been wanting to see that for awhile.

    7. You can actually find a lot of older films on YouTube and services like Vimeo. It's worth searching title/year on Google and seeing what pops up. I've found a lot of films like that. Keepvid allows you to download things off YouTube, so if the film goes away, you still have it.

    8. For the record, I still haven't seen Wadjda. It's on the "Request" queue on my online library account and listed as "Active," exactly where it's been since the fall.

    9. You may be in a queue. It once took me more than six months to get a Harold Lloyd collection from my local library. Don't give up hope.

  6. I never got Wadjda from the library, but I decided to see if it had turned up on On Demand from the cable company ... and Voila! It wasn't there the last time I looked a few months ago, but it was there last night. I watched it this morning partly to make sure I get to see it before it disappears, but also because I really want to see it!

    It's wonderful! It's right up there with Four Lions and In the Loop as one of the best additions to the List. (I will stop questioning these later additions to the List because so many otherwise unknown (to me) gems are popping so often.)

    So many wonderful little details! I especially liked Wadjda's shoes, the black Converse sneakers with the blue laces. And I loved how brazenly she said "I'm going to get a bike!" when she won the Koran competition.

    Another thing - I really liked how much attention they put on proper pronunciation of the Koran. I really had no idea that Arabic was like that. The scene where the girls were reciting the passages from the Suras was actually very pretty and touching.

    I'm sorry you didn't like it more. I wasn't sure how it was going to end. I was a little afraid that the school would turn her into the authorities for wanting a bike and wearing jeans in public, and she would end up married to some creepy old imam, like the ending of Osama.

    You can imagine how happy I was when she got the bike!

    1. I liked Wadjda fine. It's just nothing particularly new in terms of its plot. It's a bit predictable, but, based on how the film was created and its backstory, that predictability is perfectly understandable. It's sweet, though, and nice to see from a place where it's hardly expected.

    2. I'm somewhat amused at how blasé you are about the "Muslim girl wants a bike despite disapproval of culture at large" genre.

    3. That is the surprising aspect of the film. But you've got to admit that if it's not going to end like Osama, there's only one place for it to go.