At this point, it may be hard to approach Julie Maroh‘s Blue is the Warmest Color (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013) without some expectations and preconceived ideas about it. After all, as the cover clearly states, the movie based on this book did win the Palme d’Or this year at the Cannes Film Festival. Most of the press about the movie surrounded the lengthy and intimate sex scene between the two main characters, as well as Maroh’s own mixed reaction to the film (link is to the original French. Here’s PDF of it in English). As the U.S. release for the film approached, the two actresses have turned on the director somewhat, saying they didn’t feel respected.
All of those things made me less and less interested in the movie. After reading the graphic novel, I lost all desire to do so. Touching, beautiful with just the right amount of melodrama, I want nothing to take away from the experience I had reading Blue is the Warmest Color.
Framed by Emma traveling to Clementine’s parents’ house after Clementine’s funeral, most of the book is told through Clementine’s teenage diaries — her first encounters with boys, her relationships with friends and her first chance meeting with the blue-haired Emma.
What begins as general intrigue soon turns into something more. For the tentative, unsure Clementine, the artistic and bold Emma represents something she could become. The friendship is sweet and beautiful initially and when it bursts into romantic passion, it feels absolutely perfect.
Later complications with friends and family tend hit the expected plot points, but Maroh lets the drama happen organically. Her story is not meant to speak of the experiences of all young lesbians in France; it’s just meant to be about these two women and their lives. While the final melodrama of Clementine’s death feels a little like Maroh wasn’t sure where else to go with her story, there is a sweetness and poignancy to it. After all, these women were so tied together, what else could actually separate them other than death?
Maroh’s art follows in the tradition of a lot of French comics, but her round faces and big, overly expressive eyes point to an obvious manga influence. While the book is narration and dialogue heavy, her characters’ body language and posture tell more of the story. Her characters are very physical on the page and she uses silence well. When Clementine’s parents chase her and Emma out of their house upon discovering the relationship, it’s done in frenzied, dialogue-free pages. Knowing what was said who minimized the impact and shows how quickly it all happened.
And yes, there’s sex in this book and Maroh is not shy about presenting it. It’s not for titillation, though, or even eroticism. The sex is gorgeous and moving and communicates the intimacy of Clementine and Emma like nothing else could.
Maroh also uses color masterfully. Pages in flashback are washed-out sepias, with pops of blue (usually Emma’s hair) as the only color. More modern scenes are in color, but are muted in tone. Throughout, blue is the color that is the most predominant. While that could come across as being obvious, it neatly ties the past to the present and creates a consistent emotion throughout.
In Blue in the Warmest Color, Julie Maroh has created an intimate portrait of two intertwined lives. It’s thoughtful and it’s heartfelt and I love the time I got to spend with Emma and Clementine. Those are the images and experiences I want to keep with me. You can go see the movie if you want, but trust me when I say I already know the book is better.