Middle class and artistry as incompatible: the dysfunctional relationship of Adèle and Emma in Abdellatif Kechiche’s ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’

‘Immersing us in the everyday facts of 21st-century French life — including school, politics, food, wine and sex — Mr. Kechiche illuminates the suffering and ecstasy of an awakening consciousness.’ (A. O. Scott, 2013)

Kechiche clarifies from Adèle’s and Emma’s first meeting that they are different. Furthermore, he establishes their familial, social and educational backgrounds as binary oppositions, but nevertheless they are interdependent. This interactivity consists of Adèle being the object of Emma’s art, gaze and love life and Emma being the subject that creates, leads and defines their relationship. In contrast to the opinion of several film critics, Kechiche does not treat Adèle as an object of art that is merely and passively looked at. She is the absolute protagonist, the entire story revolves around her as she evokes it. She is the centre of attention and often the viewer sees through her eyes. Kechiche shows her in ecstasy, in frustration, in desperation, in confusion and in love. Almost nothing is left out, she is not humanised, she is humane and not a static work of art that can be formed and reformed according to one’s wishes and expectations. This will eventually lead to the conflict that perturbs Adèle’s relationship with Emma. In contrast to Kechiche, who shows, accepts and praises Adèle in her entirety, Emma wants her to be a product, a bestselling and success-assuring advertisement for her art. Moreover she wants to mould her in order to remain interesting and justified as her muse. The fact that Emma and Adèle love each other passionately is out of the question, but the complication lies elsewhere.

Although both have the same values, they have other principles which cause trouble. Kechiche foreshadows the weight of these conflictual mind-sets by demonstrating the contrasting backgrounds, behavioural patterns, social mannerisms, conversational habits and viewpoints of Adèle’s and Emma’s parents and friends. Despite the at times bluntly stereotypical, but nevertheless rather adequate portrayal of both worlds, it will be clear at some point that in order for Adèle to persist in Emma’s world, into which she privately vanishes after all, she needs to fit into Emma’s displaying cliché-vision of an artist and all that entails. The one thing that is constant in Kechiche’s film is that Adèle is and irrevocably remains and becomes herself despite of intolerance, hostility and discrimination and because of all her choices and actions, good or bad. What is rather intriguing is that, according to the content of Emma’s art, it is rather Emma who betrays Adèle, exactly for the pretence of art, which she thereby abuses, trying to change what she sees and adapt Adèle to something predetermined by herself. That is when art goes wrong and where her love fails. And that’s when Adèle stops being Adèle in the eyes of Emma who is paradoxically blind to this issue.

Giorgio Agamben explains that ‘there are no longer social classes, but just a single planetary petty bourgeoisie, in which all the old social classes are dissolved’, which seems to be true as a general idea in the film as a whole, but, precisely seen, Kechiche distils it by excavating the clear differences between Emma’s family and friends and Adèle’s, not without working with small signifying details of class-stereotypes such as food or conversation topics (Agamben, 1993). Although the film is about Adèle’s coming of age in many aspects, it is not about homosexuality as a category apart that needs to explored, but about the discovery of her own individual sexuality and love relationship with another human being who happens to be woman. As Agamben states, the lines between the different social classes are blurred due to the free interaction with each other, although the dissimilarities are still operating. In Adèle’s and Emma’s case, at one point passion is traded for compatibility. It is interesting to see that as students they work out perfectly fine, but as soon as adult life begins and they both get their kind of jobs their class difference seems to re-appear and starts to complicate, burden, disintegrate and distance their relationship. Although one should not have to do anything with the other, it is Emma who draws Adèle into her art, objectifying her and making her art dependent on Adèle. The problem is that Adèle does not develop according to Emma’s one-sided vision of her, which in a way blocks her artistically or even reinforces the drawing of her illusion as this is the only thing that seems to satisfy her at one point, because the ‘real’ Adèle appears to her as frustrating and unfulfilled, incomprehensible even, unidentifiable.

A. O. Scott claims that ‘Emma prods Adèle toward loftier ambitions, almost as if she is embarrassed to be with someone so down to earth’ (Scott, 2013: n. p.). Emma needs Adèle to represent and embody the Adèle that she paints, to her friends and especially herself. In the scene where Adèle is preparing food for Emma’s party guests, two symbolical shots can be seen. The first one shows a painting of Adèle posing majestically, topless and in jeans with the ‘real’ Adèle cooking in the kitchen next to it. In Emma’s world, those two versions or appearances are not compatible, which makes her art partly unrealistic because it is exclusive and elitist, denying the physical realities of the working class. Adèle is constantly confronted to a version of herself that she cannot fully or exclusively identify with. The second shot demonstrates exactly this difficulty, Adèle, operating like a housewife, is serving food, standing in-between the two paintings of her. This seems to be the only imperfect crevice where she can be a more natural version of herself, she seems to be oppressed and pressured by these idealistic interpretations of her, which she somehow tries or fails to ignore and avoid as she feels she cannot live up to them. Emma seems to nourish her love for Adèle merely by producing her icon on canvas and not evolving with her in flesh. She is in love with the Adèle that she apprehends and reproduces in her head, and despite the fact that her attraction is very strong, it is also one-sided. Emma only seems to be intrigued by and interested in the ‘Fine Arts’, thereby hushing up the ‘Ugly Arts’. As she says, she chooses what she likes, to see what she wants to see, she hunts for details that capture her attention in order to captivate them in her art. Although their love for each other cannot be denied, it is nevertheless complex because she wants to modify Adèle into the format of the ‘Fine Arts’ and recycles her Adèle over and over. She explains that the most excluded underdogs in art history, who did not necessarily produce paintings in the taste of the masses, nobility or aristocracy, are the greatest artists, which seems absurd and self-contradictory considering her reforming intercourse with Adèle.

Emma’s love is observatory, physical, sexual, selective and based on a rather secret enjoyment as Adèle’s senior and her unspoken mentor, whereas Adèle’s love is curious, voracious, all-encompassing, demanding, expectant and totally devoted. It is clear that it will be Adèle who adapts to Emma’s lifestyle, ideals and environment as it seems more liberal, welcoming and tolerant, but only at first sight. A. O. Scott states that Kechiche ‘rarely allows the machinery of plot to distract him from the tangents of talk, and the first part of “Blue” is preoccupied with what seem to be extraneous, trivial arguments and conversations’ (Scott, 2013: n. p.). By concentrating on the several specifically natured conversations Adèle takes part in every day, Kechiche establishes her environment. They explicitly unfold her character, her frustration and her interests, which functionally seen makes them everything but extraneous, no matter how trivial their content seems to be. For example, when she mostly listens to her vulgar friends talking about sex, rather than actively participating in the conversation, often reveals that she is rather reserved and modest about her personal, emotional and sexual life. Nevertheless the conversations always seem to revolve especially around Adèle’s interests, maybe precisely because she is not as revelatory as the others.

When she is eating dinner with her parents, there is no communication at all, except standard basic behaviour when it comes to a refill or a comment on the quality of the food, but other than that they are all staring at the television, ignoring their togetherness and quickly shoving the meal into their squelching open mouths. The comfort and ease she projects in the initial conversations with Emma and Thomas already indicate her moving toward a different set of mentality and communication.

Whenever Adèle is in the company of others she studies them, simultaneously exploring herself in contrast to others. Emma seems to be the only one to gaze back at her, observe and study her, but where Adèle sees the whole, Emma only sees details that intrigue her, which she then tries to collect for herself. During Adèle’s and Thomas’ date, both communicate at the same level, both seem more emotionally intellectual and natural opposed to Emma and her privileged friends who are egotistically intellectual, judgemental, practically superficial and subconsciously artificial. Agamben analyses that ‘[t]hat which constituted the truth and falsity of the peoples and generations that have followed one another on the earth—differences of language, of dialect, of ways of life, of character, of custom, and even the physical particularities of each person—has lost any meaning for them and any capacity for expression and communication’ (Agamben, 1993: n. p.). In this context as long as Adèle remains similar to her friends, as a known category, they feel safe and comfortable. As soon as she differentiates herself from the group characteristics and perspectives, she counts as ‘something’ alien and a threat. Their void and hypocritical tolerance of a male homosexual and their homophobic heinousness towards a female homo/bisexual is absolutely incompatible. The only time where Adèle’s and Emma’s friends behave and talk the same vulgar way is on the one side when Adèle’s friends talk about sex in the cafeteria and on the other side when Emma’s friends daunt Adèle in the gay bar. Where the majority of Adèle’s friends emerge as hypocritical and exclusive about their tolerance, Emma’s pseudo-elitist friends act hypocritically as well without really recognising it.

Considering Agamben’s statement, Emma is judged merely on her outer appearance and her wishful career as an artist by Adèle’s old-fashioned parents, who silently scrutinise and depreciate her ambitions and vocation. For Adèle’s conservative father Emma must learn something concrete, mainly to earn money in the quickest and most hardworking way. Adèle’s close-minded mother seems to express relief when she hears the lie that Emma has a boyfriend who works in commerce. Only thereby she sees a meaningless possibility for Emma to do her art, because in her traditional view the man would do the ‘real’ work and bring the money in, allowing the woman to stay closeted in the good old prescribed gender role focusing on and indulging in her own ‘frivolous’ and self-centred activities. Scott highlights that ‘[t]here is a subtle but unmistakable class difference between them. When Adèle has dinner with Emma’s mother and stepfather, she is served oysters and high-flown conversation about the value of culture. At Adèle’s house, Emma eats pasta and gets a paternal talking-to about the frivolity of art and the importance of making a living’ (Scott, 2013: n. p.).

Whereas Adèle’s parents are conventional, practical and realistic, Emma’s parents are free-spirited, supportive and pro-artistry. During Adèle’s father’s patronising lecture to Emma, her choice to have sought like-minded refuge in a circle of artists and art students is once more reinforced as there seems to be no harmony or understanding between both worlds, except for Adèle, who desperately tries to combine everything. What is interesting to note is that both of them feel uncomfortable in the presence of their closest friends, family and companions, who ultimately influence the destabilising downfall of their relationship.

The definite turning point in Emma’s and Adèle’s relationship is at a party they are hosting. It is already clear at this stage that Adèle has adapted a rather domestic function in the household and that she gradually loses Emma’s passionate and sexual interest in her, especially because of her work choice to become a teacher. Whilst Emma urges and puts pressure on Adèle to become a writer, take a risk, do something creative and interesting in her eyes and secretly something that would make her fit into Emma’s circle of friends and desired self-representation, Adèle does not understand what the problem is. She is happy with what she does, which is incomprehensible to Emma, who tries to project her idea of happiness, fulfilment and purpose in life onto Adèle. She wants to adapt Adèle to her world and if there are no more interesting details to be found in her she becomes boring and replaceable to her. Manohla Dargis claims that ‘[t]he lecture takes place during a party given by Adèle and Emma. Adèle has become Emma’s muse, a familiar division of labor that carries into the kitchen, where Adèle cooks the food’, which lays bare, despite every effort by Emma, the conventional and stereotypical role distribution even in same-sexed couples (Dargis, 2013: n. p.).

Whereas it appears that Adèle has finally found love and happiness, being content in the down-to-earth situation she is in, Emma almost pushes and forces her back into a state of questioning, frustration and gives her the feeling of not being enough for her. Whilst Adèle is happy in her modest ambitions, Emma always seeks and needs more. In her eyes, Adèle has stopped evolving, especially in a direction she has not signed up for. Peter Bradshaw further examines that ‘when Emma’s art career takes off, Kechiche shows how she is starting inexorably to outgrow Adèle, and yet it is Adèle who develops a kind of emotional maturity that Emma, the increasingly smug careerist, can’t match’ (Bradshaw, 2013: n. p.).

Again, at the party, everything is about Adèle and it is not. Everybody is seeking the young woman from Emma’s paintings, but are confronted to a more secretive and introverted reality that has a lot more facets than Emma’s art depicts. Emma constantly tries to sell an image of Adèle that only she sees as intimately. She tries to promote her version of Adèle at the party so that her art does not lose its truthfulness and sensual reputation. Adèle feels increasingly irrelevant, playing the servant for the bourgeoisie who go on and on about art, literature and philosophy. In contrast to how she has been taught in class or her conversation with Thomas, these conversations or monologues seem rather self-important, braggy, unnatural, sentimentally hollow and interactively detached. Dargis continues:

The women’s silence is deafening and, like the sex scenes, punctures the movie’s realism. It isn’t that it’s inconceivable that a man, an art type whom Emma thinks could help her career, would yammer on at a party about representations and female orgasms to women who say little. It’s improbable but not unimaginable. The man’s words and the women’s silence are aesthetic choices, and as much a part of the movie’s meaning as the hand-held cinematography; Adèle’s appetite; her work with children; the absence of a score; and her silent, downward look after a man at the same party asks her what sex with Emma is like and then asks Adèle if she wants to be a mother. All these add information and at times serve as metacommentaries on the female body on display in “Blue”. (Dargis, 2013: n. p.)

Whilst Emma and Lucie can endlessly discuss the characteristics and qualities of either Egon Schiele or Gustav Klimt, which might seem pompous and trivial in Adèle’s eyes for that matter, they nevertheless remain rather submissively and consensually quiet when Joachim is lecturing them about the wonders of femininity and the female orgasm. Suddenly there is no room for discussion anymore except general consensus because his praise should be left without the reality of defects, which, after all, is what all of their secret philosophies are all about. Every time there is a new conversation in order, Adèle seeks refuge in her serving role so that she will not be involved and exposed. As Scott says, as ‘[t]he child of a lower-middle-class family in the northern industrial city of Lille, Adèle is pointedly and contentedly modest in her ambitions’, which in the society Emma lives in is considered as a failure, unbelievable, unsophisticated and uncultivated (Scott, 2013: n. p.). Although Emma’s society claims to be free, liberal and unconventional it is rather obvious that there are as many categorisations, limitations, preconceived ideas and stereotypical intolerant role distributions at work, especially in this pseudo-elitist microcosm of a party where one of the few man dictates the Überopinion at the top of the powerful hierarchy.

Whilst Joachim is confidently forwarding his opinion, the women surrounding him are suddenly speaking in assumptions, possibilities, estimations and probabilities, although it is precisely about their own bodies, which they by nature simply know better than Joachim, who should rather be inquiring instead of imposing. As soon as Adèle is asked to sit down, stop serving and talk to Emma’s friends, her discomfort and fear of judgement are written all over her face. Not only does Emma interrupt and adjust her verbally, she also pressures her to reveal something about her private writings and speaks in the third person about her in her presence, thereby denying her a voice and avoiding a possible embarrassment for herself. Again it is all about how Emma represents Adèle and how her interpretation of her must be foregrounded.

Whilst she is talking to Lucie, a PhD student, the binary oppositions in thinking are very clear. Adèle’s being a teacher is quickly dismissed as something boring, unspectacular, non-creative, normal and non-ambitious and a topic that asks for fremdschämen and an immediate change of subject. In order for Lucie to explain her thesis she starts by questioning Adèle’s knowledge about Egon Schiele, doubting her since the beginning and judging her knowledgeability as poor only because she admits to not having heard about him. Emma intervenes one more time to patronise her and work on her image, which influences the behaviour and attitude of the others who think that Emma should be introducing Adèle into the world of art and philosophy in order to be like them.

Already during the party it seems like Emma is heading towards the next stage of her vision of womanity, namely the fascination with the pregnant Lise, who will appear in her art after her break-up with Adèle. This is not a coincidence, as Emma’s art needs to move on exactly as her lovers do as soon as they are absorbed. Whilst Adèle is someone who eats all the skins, Emma throws them away in disgust and rejection. The separation scene, in contrast to all the vivid, rather tender and sexually magnifying getting-to-know-each-other-scenes, is intensively moving into the climactically destructive abhorrent gaze where the possibility of denial is eliminated. They are no longer studying each other’s face in curiosity, hunger and admiration, the sight of Adèle’s lips are no longer a beloved detail for Emma, but a begrimed crime scene where her art has been betrayed. She stares at them with her eyes almost closed. Everything she has loved about Adèle, every feature, her inquisitive eyes, her open lips and her authentic mannerisms are now banned, ‘uglified’ and repulsed, as Agamben explains that ‘appearance becomes a struggle for human beings: it becomes the location of a struggle for truth’ (Agamben, 1995: 90).

Emma knows how to look for the signs in Adèle’s physiognomy and this might be the very first time she really looks into the abyss of her repressed power as an artist to finally see the defects, the weaknesses and shortcomings of a human being, although too late and in the wrong circumstance and again she neither tolerates, nor accepts them. ‘To walk in the light of the face means to be this opening – and to suffer it, and to endure it’ (Agamben, 1995: 91).

For the first time Adèle avoids Emma’s stare, not subjecting herself to it, her face is an open book, thus she seeks to find a way out through her words, but all Emma needs is her face that cannot withstand the justified accusations. ‘And nature’s being exposed and betrayed by the word, its veiling itself behind the impossibility of having a secret, appears on its face as either chastity or perturbation, as either shamelessness or modesty’ (Agamben, 1995: 91). As Adèle is incapable of lying well, her words are exposing her as much as her face does and again this is the first moment in her two chapters where she is intentionally, not helplessly, faking it. During the entire film Adèle’s face operates as a sincere and empathetic guidepost that asks to be studied, seen and comprehended in all its entirely natural characteristics. What happens to both of their faces in the separation scene is exactly what Agamben describes:

‘This is precisely why the most delicate and graceful faces sometimes look as if they might suddenly decompose, thus letting the shapeless and bottomless background that threatens them emerge. But this amorphous background is nothing else than the opening itself and communicability itself inasmuch as they are constituted as their own presuppositions as if they were a thing. The only face to remain uninjured is the one capable of taking the abyss of its own communicability upon itself and of exposing it without fear or complacency.’ (Agamben, 1995: 95)

Emma finally realises Adèle and that she is unhappy in the relationship and not because of the work she does. There will not be an understanding, just betrayal on many levels. Kechiche’s camera achieves what Emma could not, it has shown interest to every facet of Adèle, bearing with her as she is herself, not posing, not paying attention, not caring actually. There is nothing artificial and that is what makes the observation of Adèle truly artful. ‘This is why the face contracts into an expression, stiffens into a character, and thus sinks further and further into itself. As soon as the face realizes that communicability is all that it is and hence that it has nothing to express – thus withdrawing silently behind itself, inside its own mute identity – it turns into a grimace, which is what one calls character’ (Agamben, 1995: 96). The tragedy of the story is that the artist fails to fully grasp her muse and that especially in the artist’s eyes the muse has been neglected as a lover. Although the societal class differences and viewpoints might be damaging to their relationship, the last word is up to both of them if they let them influence their love to such a degree. The problem is that they both carry their upbringings inside their minds. Anthony Lane utters that ‘[t]he film is, to a compelling degree, the history of that face—tearful, sniffing, puffed with dismay, spotted and blotchy on a cold day, suddenly ravishing, and reddening in embarrassment or lust’ (Lane, 2013: n. p.). Kechiche exposes the truth of Adèle’s face through emotional intelligence and without any kind of artificial means. It seems like Adèle has fulfilled her falsely predetermined middle-class role to be misrepresented and reduced on canvas, to be the short-time conversational topic of the bourgeoisie to which she will still remain invisible, but not to herself, Kechiche’s cinematographic eye and, despite everything, not to Emma. As Lane concludes: ‘The screen is crammed with faces, shouting and contorted, and you realize that, despite all the campaigns for sexual tolerance, in France and elsewhere, nothing will ever tame the hyena-like teen-age habit of snapping at the frailties of others’ (Lane, 2013: n. p.).

woman ii white long sleeve shirt standing near white flowers
Photo by Amir SeilSepour on Pexels.com



Agamben, G., tr. Michael Hardt (1993) The Coming Community, ‘Without Classes’.

Agamben, G. (1995) The Face.

Bradshaw, P. (2013) ‘‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’- Review’, The Guardian, November, n. p.

Dargis, M. (2013) ‘Seeing You Seeing Me: The Trouble With ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’’, The New York Times, October, n. p.

Lane, A. (2013) ‘New Love: Blue Is the Warmest Color’, The New Yorker, October, n. p.

Scott, A. O. (2013) ‘For a While, Her Life Is Yours: ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche’, The New York Times, October, n. p.

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