I had admittedly never heard of French author and graphic artist Julie Maroh’s graphic novel, Le Bleu est un Couleur Chaude (it’s being translated as Blue is the Warmest Colour, although the title more literally says “blue is a warm colour”) until I read about the film version’s win of the Palme D’Or—the top prize—at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and the controversy surrounding one apparently ten minute long sex scene. I became even more interested when I read that Maroh had some serious problems with the film adaptation and—remember this is translated from the original French—called the sex scenes “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, turned into porn, and which made [her] feel very ill at ease.” She ultimately concludes that “as a feminist and lesbian spectator, [she] can not endorse the direction Kechiche [the director] took on these matters.” You can see the original French blog post here and an English translation (not the greatest) here.
Since the movie hasn’t been released in North America yet (it’s set to be out this fall), I decided I had to read the book. I’ve been wanting to brush up on my French anyways, and I thought a graphic novel with plenty of lesbian sex (or so I assumed) would be a great way to start. I was also excited about this novel because the English translation, which has just been released, is being published by one of my favourite presses, Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press. Arsenal publishes a host of great queer writers, including Ivan E Coyote, Amber Dawn, and S. Bear Bergman. So, with the occasional help of a dictionary and a Francophone friend (thanks Yayuk!), I read the original French version. What did I think? I liked it. But I didn’t love it.
Let me tell you why. The drawings are definitely the novel’s strength—Maroh is certainly a talented visual artist and manages to convey complexity and emotional turmoil in what are mostly black/brown and white shades. The occasional splash of blue—the hair colour of the main character’s love interest—is a shock, as it should be. What might also be shocking to some readers are some pretty, shall we say, graphic sex scenes. They’re well done, to be sure and hot and authentic and pretty much everything you could ask for. This page, in particular:
In fact, I think the drawings have a subtlety and power that the language often doesn’t; or rather, the plot as it is drawn through words. This is a teenage coming out story; it’s also a love story that follows the two women into their later lives, but a large part of the novel deals with Clémentine figuring out that she’s a lesbian and dealing with that revelation. And deal with it does she have to. Le Bleu manages not to miss a single coming-out trope and opportunity for drama: intense initial denial, virulent explicitly homophobic friends who drop her as soon as they find out Clém is gay, self-loathing, projection of internalized homophobia onto your lover, and, finally, parental rejection. Let me make it plain: this is a dramatic book. I don’t mean to downplay the seriousness of these issues, but it just seems a bit like—did Maroh really have to make it that bad for her in order to garner support from hetero folks? Really? Clém has one queer friend, it’s true, a gay guy who acts as a kind of mentor. Other than that, she’s on her own.
A lot of teenagers are going to love this book, I’m guessing, because it really does do teenage melodrama well. It kind of makes me glad I didn’t come out until a little later. To be fair to the book, it takes place in France in the 90s, and this is clearly a very different environment compared to both France today (although, the controversy surrounding same-sex marriage there does speak volumes) and North America. Maybe I don’t know enough about the political and social climate of France to be able to fairly judge how out of proportion the homophobia is in the book. All I know is, I’d ideally like to read a different story, where the explicit, overwhelming homophobic obstacles to Clém’s happiness don’t keep appearing like moles out of molehills (it’s like that whack-a-mole video game—as soon as you get rid of one, another one pops up for you to squash).
It’s not just coming out and being queer that provide constant hurdles: Clémentine and her blue-haired lover, Emma, have quite the tumultuous, sensational relationship. Of course, the older woman Emma—she’s in university while Clém is still in high school—is already in a relationship when they meet. Drama ensues. They’re together, but Emma doesn’t want to break up with her partner, who introduced her to the queer scene and is a bit of a stereotypical scary territorial butch (I’m giving Maroh the benefit of the doubt here, but it is unfortunate that this is the only representation of a masculine woman). There are stupid misunderstandings that take way too long to clear up and the whole storming out instead of finishing the conversation schtick happens fairly often. There is never a dull moment once Emma and Clém are together; I actually preferred the slower pace of the novel before they get together. The final piece of melodrama, of course, —if you prefer no spoilers skip to the next paragraph— is that Clémentine dies young, tragically, after Emma kicks her out when Clém confesses to having cheated on her. This is not really a spoiler, actually, since you know Clém has died from the beginning of the novel, which starts after her death and then goes back to tell the story of how everything came to this final depressing scene.
Other reviews I’ve read emphasize the emotional impact of the novel, and the whole unfairness of the situation and the how awful it is. I mean, it was sad, but by the end mostly I just felt like: oh brother, well, that’s the icing on the cake of the rest of the drama. I just couldn’t make myself feel quite so emotionally involved. This might be a language barrier. But I don’t think so. Actually, I think the melodrama and cheese factor must be pretty high for me to be able to sense it so strongly in a second language. Despite what I’ve said, I would still recommend this book, for two reasons: one) the art is really exquisite and tells a beautiful and sexy story all by itself; two) I think the fact that the book takes place in 1990s France is really a context, as an Anglophone Canadian who was ten in 1995, I can’t understand—maybe it’s not my place to judge the book on certain standards too far removed from the novel’s context. Don’t say I didn’t warn you though: Le Bleu est un Couleur Chaude is the most melodramatic thing I’ve ever read. If you become more emotionally involved than I did, be prepared to cry. And cry some more.