Blue Heart: A Tale of Two Portraits

Kate Winslet in James Cameron’s “Titanic.” Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Kate Winslet in James Cameron’s “Titanic.” Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

“Time it was, and what a time it was, it was

A time of innocence, a time of confidences

Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph

Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you”

—“Bookends” by Simon & Garfunkel

At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be whole lot linking James Cameron’s 1997 box office phenomenon, “Titanic,” and Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 Palme d’Or winner, “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” aside from their three-hour running time. One is a big-budget Hollywood spectacle that seduced the world, the other is an intimate character study that seduced the Cannes jury. Yet it’s precisely in what made these films seductive where the similarities start to emerge. Both pictures explore the self-discovery and sexual awakening that a woman obtains through a pivotal relationship in her youth. The erotic peak of her affair occurs during the sketching of a portrait, where she allows her lover to draw her in the nude. Kechiche’s variation on Cameron’s infamous sequence transcends mere homage, suggesting provocative parallels and contrasts between these two captivating tales of ill-fated love.

Consider Act I. Rose (Kate Winslet) and Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) are both teenagers under a great deal of pressure. Marriage to a suitable gentleman appears to be in their inescapable future. Every move they make is scrutinized by society’s magnifying glass. Gossip is as toxic a vexation on the Titanic’s first class deck as it is in Adèle’s high school cafeteria. What choice do these women have other than to put on a performance for all their avid observers, denying the true desires of their heart? Rose is no more interested in an opulent lifestyle than Adèle is in the advances of her smitten male classmate. Many people would happily embrace such good fortunes, but these two are left wanting. Something is missing from their lives, but they can’t put their finger on what it may be. 

Out of the clear blue sky materializes a suave, idealistic artist—Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) in “Titanic,” Emma (Léa Seydoux) in “Blue”—who sets the woman’s heart afire. The attraction is all the more irresistible because of its inherently rebellious nature. Adèle’s secret visit to a gay club is as scandalous as Rose’s descent below deck to dance with third class passengers. It’s here where our heroine is able to indulge in the sort of adventurous instincts forbidden by those “closest” to her. Rose’s mother and Adèle’s friends share a desperate need to control the lives of others in order to justify their own flagging sense of self-worth.  For Rose/Adèle, this new relationship is an opportunity to break from that suffocating control, and their decision to pose nude serves as the ultimate act of defiance. However, the portrait itself marks the point where these pictures begin to deviate from their rather synchronized paths.

Adèle Exarchopoulos in Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Adèle Exarchopoulos in Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Finally stripped of her artificial persona, the woman lays herself bare physically and emotionally. Cameron allows us to experience the erotic tension that builds to the moment when Rose disrobes, though the camera cuts away from a full-frontal view. This was done to preserve the PG-13 rating, but it also invites the viewer’s imagination to fill in the blanks. Kechiche provides no such overture, starting the scene with a leisurely pan up the entire length of Adèle’s body, leaving her fully exposed before the eyes of her lover and the audience. Whereas Cameron’s version takes place indoors and is accentuated by the warm tint of mood lighting, Kechiche sets the scene outdoors, where the blinding daylight diffuses any shred of romanticism. This is appropriate, since “Blue” is a linear narrative that hurtles forward in jarring cuts, while “Titanic” unfolds its primary tale in flashback, taking the form of heightened (and perhaps rose-colored) memories. “Titanic” is populated by heroes and villains borrowed from classic melodramas. “Blue” is inhabited by people prone to imperfection.

In Jack, Rose found her salvation. “He saved me in every way a person can be saved,” she says at the end of her richly fulfilled life. If he hadn’t convinced her, at that crucial moment of her youth, to break out of the trap that was quickly devouring her, then her very identity surely would’ve sunk along with the ship. External forces beyond their control are the only thing capable of breaking this pair apart. “Blue” is all the more heartbreaking because the metaphorical iceberg that separates the lovers is spawned from an inner disconnect. Emma has very distinct ideas of how Adèle can find fulfillment, but she can’t accept that her lover has already found it (Adèle’s passion is in education, not art). Prior to the painting, Emma has a quietly wrenching dinner with Adèle’s conservative parents where she is forced to lie about her sexual orientation (which her own parents have openly accepted). This is, I feel, the moment where Emma begins to disengage, embracing Adèle as less of a partner in life than a muse destined to be framed at an art exhibition. When Emma blows on the fresh paint, it’s as if she’s permanently freezing Adèle in place, both on the canvas and in her heart.

At the core of these pictures is the role that the past plays in one’s life. Rose derives her strength from those few extraordinary days that ended up defining everything that came after them. No wonder James Horner’s score makes continuous use of the melody from Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the Oscar-winning end credits number that was literally impossible to escape from no matter where you happened to be in 1998. In contrast, “Blue” is devoid of non-source music, save for the hang drum tune that reprises during the film’s final moments. It’s the music that street performers were heard playing when Adèle first locked eyes with Emma, signaling a new phase in her life. At the end, Adèle is moving ahead to her next phase, as indicated by the song, suggesting that the past is best left behind. Sometimes the heart goes on, sometimes it moves on.

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