February 2014

Arts & Letters

‘Blue Is the Warmest Colour’ and ‘Nebraska’ film reviews

By Luke Davies
New work from directors Abdellatif Kechiche and Alexander Payne

It will be hard not to notice director Abdellatif Kechiche’s somewhat controversial Blue Is the Warmest Colour (in national release 13 February). The French film divides opinion (it’s either voyeuristic and exploitative or a masterful study of the life cycle of a relationship, depending on your mood and take). It contains graphic sex scenes. It comes with juicy baggage: stars Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos raised the ire of Kechiche during a post-Cannes interview in 2013 (the film had just been awarded the festival’s top prize). “Thank god we won the Palme d’Or,” Seydoux told the reporter, “because [the experience of shooting] was so horrible. So now it’s cool that everyone likes the film and it’s a big success.”

“[Kechiche] asked me if I was ready to make it,” added Exarchopoulos, “and I said, ‘Yeah, of course!’ because I’m young and pretty new to cinema. But once we were on the shoot, I realised that he really wanted us to give him everything. Most people don’t even dare to ask the things that he did, and they’re more respectful – you get reassured during sex scenes, and they’re choreographed, which desexualises the act.”

Exarchopoulos is Adèle, a 15-year-old high school student in the northern French industrial city of Lille. In her open-mouthed stares, her tears of bewilderment, even her blushing, Exarchopoulos perfectly captures the self-importance, insecurity and confusion of an adolescent. Her performance is the heart of the film. Seydoux is Emma, a bolshie art student in her early 20s, who both impresses and intimidates Adèle with her worldliness. “Your type is rare here,” says Emma, in the gay bar Adèle has secretly followed her to. “What type is that?” asks Adèle. “Under-age, hanging out in bars at night,” says Emma. “How do you know I’m under-age?” is Adèle’s retort, but it’s more a surrender than a challenge.

The film plays with tropes. The bar is portrayed as being as raptorial as any hetero meat market, and Emma – at first, at least – has a dangerous, almost predatory air. But the two fall in love, with fierce intensity, and the film charts the six-year arc of that story.

The first sex scene is so extended and so explicit that after five or six minutes of rapt silence some viewers at the screening I attended began to giggle uncomfortably. (Others, on cue, shushed them.) Seydoux and Exarchopoulos have said that the ten-minute scene took ten days to shoot.

The entire film favours the extreme close-up. Adèle, with her endless eating, is in a sense portrayed as pure appetite. At times the close-up device is powerful, tethering us to Adèle’s very psyche. At other times it seems to exhaust itself, rendering the film cloying, claustrophobic and disorienting. As a stylistic choice, it’s extreme, though when Kechiche wants to revert to the omniscient viewpoint, he is more than happy to do that with, say, a tracking shot along Adèle’s naked body.

Friends who have seen and loved the film were astonished that I could have any reservations about it. Their experience was immersive, and deeply emotional. Yet Blue’s three-hour running time was an ample span in which to consider some of its defects.

Adèle is such an earnest adolescent in the first half of the film that it’s all a bit heightened and melodramatic. “Tragedy is that which is unavoidable,” says Adèle’s philosophy teacher early on (it’s a middle school, yes, but it’s a French middle school), signalling perhaps where Kechiche is intending to take us. Also, there’s no great sense of Adèle’s growth or change over the six years of the story. She seems as bored and petulant at 15 or 16 as she does at 22.

One scene soars to greatness: the extraordinary break-up fight. It feels as long as some of the sex scenes, but probably isn’t, and somehow your heart goes out to Exarchopoulos the actor, as well as her character. If Seydoux’s and Exarchopoulos’ accounts are anything to go by, the searing sequence was genuinely abusive and distressing in the shooting. Both actresses have said they would never work with Kechiche again. “Every genius has his own complexity,” Exarchopoulos noted. “[Kechiche] is a genius, but he’s tortured.”

Alexander Payne’s films chronicle the lives of men who have been marginalised from their own power and joy, and who ask themselves, time and again, “What went wrong? How did I get here?”

In the caustic Election (1999), Matthew Broderick is Jim McAllister, a hapless high school teacher watching his life unravel – and injustice pile upon injustice – partly at the hands of student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), but mostly as a result of his own actions.

In About Schmidt (2002), Payne’s best film, Jack Nicholson is a loner and career grouch, travelling in a campervan to his daughter’s wedding. The journey takes him way beyond his comfort zone; the film is at once a gently hilarious study of family dysfunction and a sombre analysis of one man’s fear of dying.

Sideways (2004), a pleasant tale about a misanthrope (Paul Giamatti) pulled into the orbit of the other humans by his goofy hippy friend (Thomas Haden Church) on a wine-tasting road trip through California, was a sleeper cult hit.

More recently, George Clooney took up the flag for male bewilderment in The Descendants (2011). His character, who learns of his wife’s infidelity as she is perilously close to death in hospital, attempts to work through his bottled rage and mend his fractured relationships with his daughters.

These films are beautifully idiosyncratic case studies of the individual ego in conflict with the forces of fate. “None of this would have happened if Mr McAllister hadn’t meddled the way he did,” says Tracy Flick in Election. “He should have just accepted things as they are instead of trying to interfere with destiny.” But it is in their very attempts to interfere with the social structures of the world that Payne’s characters attain what dignity they might, and through which his films achieve both their pathos and their comedy.

Nebraska (in national release 20 February) is distinctly a Payne film in its tone and textures. But it represents a decided turn, in that it is slower paced and far less commercial than a film like The Descendants. It is also, perhaps unfortunately, Payne’s thinnest and lightest film. Bruce Dern is Woodrow “Woody” Grant, who lives in small-town Montana and has received a “You have won a million dollars” sweepstakes letter in the mail. Woody clearly hasn’t read the fine print, and plans to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his winnings. As the film opens, we see him heading off on foot along a freeway.

Woody is a lifelong drunk, and he may just now have early-onset dementia. His long-suffering wife, Kate (June Squibb), wishes he had won a million dollars: she’d put him in a home, she says. (“I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire.”) Son David (Will Forte), whose relationship with Woody is the centre of the story, works in a hi-fi store. Older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) is a weatherman on a local news channel.

David reluctantly proposes driving his dad to Nebraska: it’s clear he thinks it’s the only way Woody will get the dumb quest out of his system. There’s perhaps something cruel in this, too, since David knows that turning up at the sweepstake company’s offices will shatter Woody’s illusions of imminent wealth.

Along the way to Lincoln, a family reunion of sorts takes place with the Nebraska relatives Woody has been shunning for decades. Once among the relatives, it all turns feral. Word gets around (in no small part due to Woody’s guilelessness) that he is about to become a millionaire. Everyone wants a cut.

“Not to be a spoilsport,” says Ross, who has brought mother Kate to the reunion, “but you all know this is bull.”

“Nice try, Ross,” says one of the redneck cousins, with a hint of menace.

“Yeah, we’re way beyond that,” says another.

Woody’s monosyllabic retorts seem to be part of his Midwestern reticence, but now they’re part of the dementia, too. He was a terrible father to David and Ross, and he’s not about to see the error of his ways. The boys will have to try to accept their father as he is.

Woody has the odd moment of lucidity. They visit the farmhouse, now abandoned, where he grew up. “I got whipped if I came in here,” he says, staring from a doorway at his parents’ ruined bedroom. “Guess nobody’s going to whip me now.”

“C’mon,” he says elsewhere, to David, who’s been trying to give up drinking. “Have a beer with your old man. Be somebody.” As the browbeaten son, Will Forte, better known as a sketch comedian than a dramatic actor, discharges his more sombre duties well.

Phedon Papamichael’s black-and-white cinematography brings to mind Arthur Rothstein’s or Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era dust bowl photos, or Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971). Here, a forgotten America, economically devastated, seems a perfect visual metaphor for Woody, peering over the chasm into dementia and decay.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

February 2014

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