Blue is the Warmest Color

Which is of course Le Bleu est une couleur chaude, by Julie Maroh. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, and the library had it (unfortunately only in English).


It’s the story of Clem (for Clémentine), a high school student who, to her surprise, falls head over heels for another girl, an art student with blue hair named Emma.

Clem is also dead. This isn’t a spoiler, as we find out on page 1. The framing device has Emma coming to Clem’s house and reading her diaries for the first time— learning all the bits of Clem’s life and mind that, she says, she was unable to tell Emma while she was alive.

The power of the book is that it’s all emotion. Everything hits Clem hard: confusion over her first feelings of love (and why she doesn’t feel anything for her first boyfriend); shame and loneliness; the joys of her immediate infatuation with Emma and her frustration that Emma has a girlfriend, Sabine; the anger and bitterness of her best friend turning out to be a raging homophobe; withdrawal and depression; the ecstasy of her first time in bed with Emma.

Emma is centered and solid, at peace with her sexuality; Clem is all teenage all the time, a storm of hormones, completely given to her passion for Emma, yet perfectly capable of punishing her for a month for not paying enough attention to her. It doesn’t help that not only her schoolmates but her family is homophobic. (She does have one steadfast friend, her gay pal Valentin.)

Toward the end of the book, Clem grows up— in two pages.  But we only see a few images from a 13-year relationship. Admittedly this fits the conceit of the book— Emma is reading Clem’s words, filling in what she didn’t know about her; plus perhaps a transition to a very different kind of story— something that recorded 13 years of togetherness— would have been jarring.  Instead of that, tragedy strikes, and then a few pages later, tragedy strikes again. This is perhaps the one flaw in the book: to maintain the emotional roller coaster, the book becomes melodrama.

On the other hand, at least based on the book, France is not as evolved on LGBT issues as one might imagine. Same-sex marriage didn’t come until 2013, three years after the book was published; one of the worst cruelties depicted in the book is that the hospital where Emma takes Clem when she falls sick won’t tell her what happened, because she’s not “family”. Julie Maroh has written that she was not writing for lesbians or even for allies; she was writing for those who “have no doubts, who have false ideas without knowing anything, who detest us/me”.  So an extra dose of pathos may have been what was needed to get through to people’s hard hearts.

Maroh’s art fits the book: melancholy, evocative, almost all of it in sepia tones with blue highlights. It’s mostly realistic, but there’s a manga-like willingness to stretch the drawing to communicate more emotion.

There are extra hurdles for Clem because her great love is lesbian; but Maroh easily reaches the universal as well. We don’t actually learn that much about Emma— what kind of art she makes, what she thinks about Sarkozy, why she has blue hair, what exactly she sees in “the little brunette from the main square”, as she calls Clem. But in a sense it doesn’t matter; all that matters is that the coup de foudre hit Clem, she’s in love for the first time, she is miserable when she’s apart from Emma, she feels she would do anything for her. First love makes us feel like angels and act like crazy people and goes a long way to making us lovable (and sometimes the opposite).

I haven’t seen the  movie, but from what I’ve read it’s been substantially changed— starting with Clémentine herself, who’s been morphed into Adèle, after the name of the actress who plays her.  Maroh (from the above link) isn’t bothered by the adaptation, but she was bothered by the inauthenticity of the sex scene, which she called “a brutal and surgical display”. Ouch!  Maybe it would have helped if at least one of the actresses was lesbian, as in Room in Rome.

Linguistic note: The French title is the subtler Blue is a warm color. In Russian it became СИНИЙ – САМЫЙ ТЕПЛЫЙ ЦВЕТ; as Russian famously has two words for blue, it has to specify that Emma’s hair is dark blue. And the Japanese title is ブルーは熱い色 Burū wa atsui iro. I’d love to know why they used the French/English word… what’s wrong with aoi?