If you’ve ever heard of Blue is the Warmest Color, it’s probably because of the film adaptation. It came out not too long ago, premiering at the Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim and great controversy. The film, written and directed by a man and staring two straight women, was accused of misrepresenting not only the characters, but lesbians in general. The author of the original graphic novel called its portrayal of queer sexuality “not convincing at all” and “ridiculous.” Needless to say, I was intrigued.
I’ve always been wary of adaptations, especially adaptations that take a story from book to film. (My own novel The Cannibal’s Prayer addresses the subject.) Film is an extraordinarily powerful medium, one which essentially gathers all the aspects of art – narrative, image, sound and performance – under one roof. The results, of course, can be very effective. To convert a story, however, which began life as a more specialized art-form, one must both strip away something and add something. An artist can accomplish this with deft ease, finding and exploring the true heart of the work. Cheap hacks out to make a buck, on the other hand, usually tear the soul out of a story.
But this is all a diversion. I’m not here to compare the book and film. I’ve never seen the film and I’m not planning to. I want to talk about Julie Maroh’s book. So let’s do that, shall we?
Blue is the Warmest Color begins with death. A woman has come to the house of her recently deceased lover. There she finds a journal, and in that journal she reads the story of how her lover and she met and fell in love. It’s a fine set up. Not exactly original, but well realized here (fair warning, you may see that phrase a few more times in this review).
This is the story, told in flashbacks, of a girl named Clémentine. She is in high school when we meet her, shy, unassuming and sexually confused. She dates a boy, can’t bring herself to have sex with him, dumps him, hangs out with her gay friends, gnashes her teeth in denial when accused of being a lesbian, blah blah blah. You’ve probably read or watched this story before. It’s the archetypal lesbian coming of age. The grumpy homophobic dad, the sad mother, the bitchy friends, the guilt the shame the anger and finally the sweeps her-off-her-feet romance.
The blue of the title refers to Emma, an older lesbian, very much out, who catches Emma’s eye on account of her striking blue hair. We already know that Clémentine and Emma get together, because Emma is the woman who is reading the journal at the beginning of the book. Emma and Clémentine engage in a very passionate whirlwind romance, not without its hitches. Then (spoilers!) we jump ahead twenty years and Clémentine dies. Yeah, it’s about that sudden and out of left field. You’d think that for a book that begins by telling you that a character is going to die that it won’t feel awkward and crammed in, but there you go.
So so, anyway anyway. You’re probably wondering if this is any good. Well… yes?
I guess so? Probably.
Yes it’s probably rather good.
Well, but then…
No, no, it’s good.
THE ART IS LOVELY, ISN’T IT? That subdued color palette, those soft watercolor scenes… Yeah. Just great. Faces seem a bit off sometimes, but never mind that. Never mind! I love it, thought it was great to look at.
The story’s good too. Mostly. The individual scenes are all really well done, and feel very true, which is no mean feat. Finding true is really the goal of all fiction, so I guess by that metric Blue is the Warmest Color is a success. Put all the scenes together, however, and they don’t quite hold…
Ah, you should read it. It’s good. But it’s not great.