Abdellatif Kechiche Tunisian-French director’s Palme d’Or winning 2013 film ‘La vie d’Adèle’ happens to be a successful attempt to talk honestly about the subject that tends to be most lied about in the history of cinema – love. MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILERS
Its reputation as a ‘three-hour-long graphic lesbian film’ might misguide the audience of multiple award winning ‘La vie d’Adèle’ – rather than celebrating or judging homosexuality the film does not manipulate, it simply offers a realistic insight into the two chapters of its protagonist Adèle’s life (its original title is therefore more accurate) and the story of a relationship the viewer can relate to regardless of gender and sexual orientation. In contrast to Lars von Trier’s strongly graphic ‘Nymphomaniac‘ of the same year Kechiche shows sex with the same objectivity and elaboration he shows a family dinner or a school conversation – either omitting sexuality or over-romanticising it with candle-lit close-ups would turn out to be hypocritical.
Lower middle-class French schoolgirl Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) studies French literature at school and wants to be a teacher herself. After a frustrated attempt of dating and having sex with a boy from school to give in to peer pressure she becomes confused about her own sexual identity. On the street she passes by a woman with blue hair (this sign of their inevitable meeting, possibly the only sentimental moment of the film, resembles Peter Coyote’s story of meeting and falling in love with her future wife in Roman Polanski’s ‘Bitter Moon’). She later masturbates fantasising about the woman. She misunderstands a girl’s flirting and kiss in school. As a gay friend introduces her to the night life of gay bars she accidentally meets the same blue-haired woman, Emma (Léa Seydoux). They become friends, and, eventually, lovers.
Adèle is not necessarily straight or lesbian. She is confused. She is awkward. She is unsure of herself. While the art student Emma is strong, determined and masculine, she is weak, unambitious, vulnerable. With the help of Emma she explores her own desires and sexuality and meanwhile becomes emotionally attached. Adèle is a character driven purely by her emotions. Attending a gay pride parade she is uncomfortable the same way she was while having sex with the boy from school. The only thing she can be sure of is the love they share. This is where chapter one ends.
The film touches on the controversy over homosexuality and different social attitudes towards it in an objective way, showing the underground culture of lesbian bars and gay parades or the aggressive rejection of Adèle’s friends towards her as she is rumoured to be a lesbian. Emma’s upper class family is open to the fact that she is in a same sex relationship while Adèle has to lie to her parents about Emma – this conflict of oysters and pasta, bourgeoise and working class might be the main reason of the couple’s separation in the second chapter.
While Adèle is satisfied being a teacher and muse for Emma’s paintings Emma would encourage her to evolve and start a career in writing. They are destined to grow apart as Adèle feels more and more uncomfortable around Emma’s intellectual friends and Emma becomes busy with her artistic career. While the differences of social presence and intellect become obvious their love also cools down (the same way as Emma’s rebellious hair colour of blue changes to neutral brown). After Emma discovers that Adèle has slept with a male colleague out of emotional frustration she ends their relationship and orders her out of her apartment. Time passes and Adèle experiences pain and loss. Still in love with Emma she meets her in a coffee shop only to find out that Emma has become part of a family and does not love her anymore. The two women hug both knowing that their relationship was ‘something special’, an experience they will never re-live again.
The last time they see each other is when Adèle attends one of Emma’s art exhibitions. They have a formal conversation, one of the nudes Emma has painted of Adèle is exhibited. After talking to Samir (Salim Kechiouche), one of Emma’s friends, Adèle has a sudden change of heart and leaves the building. Samir attempts to follow her but as he reaches the corner she has disappeared. Her actions could be explained by the realisation that she and Emma never were in a position to understand or accept each other. The happy ending of her finally finding herself and being able to move on to the following chapter of her life is an optimistic conclusion of Adèle’s coming-of-age story.
But then again, is it a happy ending? Or was the love of her and Emma something never to be repeated? A concept of losing true love (which might be over-romanticised yet it’s not only Adèle who feels loss as Emma’s new paintings have “something troubling in their eyes”) makes us question if the following chapters of her life are of any importance. However, if she does realise that it wasn’t true love, it might suggest that there is no such thing at all. Either way, Kechiche understands and reports on the essence of human relationships, emotions, desires, fears and, well, life.