Thursday, May 26, 2016

Comics Review: Blue Is the Warmest Color, Julie Maroh

This review was first published at The Hooded Utilitarian on December 17, 2013.

The small Vancouver publisher Arsenal Pulp Press had a happy surprise this spring. At the Frankfurt International Book Fair last October, they finalized the contract to publish the English translation of Blue Is the Warmest Color, the 2010 début effort of Belgium-based cartoonist Julie Maroh. The acquisition may not have seemed like much; the book’s biggest distinction was having won the Audience Award at the 2011 International Comics Fair in Angoulême. A film adaptation was in production, but it’s not clear the people at Arsenal Pulp were aware of it. The film certainly didn’t influence their decision to take on the book. The company specializes in LGBT-oriented material, and Maroh’s coming-of-age romance between a high-school student and a twentysomething artist--both women--was a good fit. But when the film premiered at Cannes in May, it was an immediate sensation. Director Abdellatif Kechiche and stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux shared the Golden Palm, the festival’s top prize. Arsenal Pulp, in response to the interest the film generated, stepped up their edition’s publication to coincide with its North American release. The first printing immediately sold out, and the publisher may be on its way to the biggest commercial success in its history.

The buzz surrounding the film, which I have yet to see, inspired me to seek out the book. One never knows what to expect in these situations. Film adaptations of good books miss far more than they hit, and the reverse is often the case as well. A good movie (or at least a well-reviewed one) doesn’t mean the source material is especially worthwhile. It’s as true of comics adaptations as prose ones. For every American Splendor and Ghost World that’s worth checking out, there’s a Road to Perdition or A History of Violence where the book doesn’t rate much interest. With Blue Is the Warmest Color, it’s been widely reported that the film took a lot of liberties with its source. Most of this focus has been on Abdellatif Kechiche’s handling of the story’s sex scenes, which Julie Maroh denounced as pornographic. But I gather Kechiche also gave the story a completely different final act, and he even changed the protagonist’s first name from Clementine to Adèle, so it matched that of Adèle Exarchopoulos, the actress who plays her. Kechiche’s title for the film (and the one used for its release in France) is La Vie d’Adèle—Chapitrés 1 & 2 (The Life of Adèle—Chapters 1 and 2). He was clearly looking to put as much distance between Maroh’s book and his film as he could. But whatever the case, movie or no movie, Maroh’s handling of her story needs to stand on its own.

Her cartooning is impressive. Maroh is an extremely capable draftsman and dramatist. She does a fine, detailed job of evoking the Lille, France locations. Her handling of the characters is even better. She shows a remarkable command of dramatic nuance, and the story’s naturalistic tone feels effortless. Jaime Hernandez, probably the strongest draftsman among contemporary English-language cartoonists, couldn’t have provided a more skilled visual treatment. I actually prefer Maroh’s drawings to his. She has a looser, jazzier line, and the relaxed feel to the art gives the story an admirable fluidity.

Maroh’s style is cinematic, but in the opening sections she gets away from the overly literal storytelling that stunts the work of so many cartoonists. These early scenes deal with the teen Clementine’s conflicts over getting involved with Thomas, a popular boy at school. The complication is her attraction to Emma, an artist she’s seen walking around town. The drama is complemented with poetic effects. The story is told in flashback, and after a full-color framing sequence, the watercolor rendering is in gray hues. A shift of this sort is a movie cliché, but Maroh employs it as part of a larger strategy. The grays highlight the selective use of blue, which Maroh uses as a trope for Clementine’s desires and anxieties. It first appears when Clementine and Thomas see each other for the first time, and Maroh uses it to render Thomas’s shirt. As the story progresses, it’s used to render other things, including Emma’s hair, a balloon Clementine sees, and a condom package. The color and the objects it portrays are used to evoke an impressive range of meanings: Clementine’s curiosity about Emma and Thomas, how her attraction to Thomas is borne of insecurity and a desire to conform, her self-loathing over her resistance to sleeping with him, and the intensely sexual nature of her interest in Emma. Maroh’s handling of the last is especially striking. Clementine dreams of being in bed with Emma, and Emma’s hands and forearms turn blue as her caresses become more intimate. The storytelling’s poetic element makes for an admirably fresh treatment of a teenager’s world being turned upside down by discoveries about her sexual identity. The first act creates high expectations for the rest of the book.

And that turns out to be a major letdown. The sequence in which Clementine breaks up with Thomas ends on page 24. Maroh all but abandons her poetic effects for the rest of the book’s 156 pages. Blue is used as a trope in only one other scene. Clementine gets off the phone with Emma, and she’s giddy that the two are going to see each other the next day. The blue flows over the wall Clementine is sitting against, and it colors the sky the following morning. But after that Maroh just uses the blue decoratively, specifically for the coloring of Emma’s hair. The storytelling lapses entirely into the literal. Maroh doesn’t even use the blue as a poetic element in the splashy scene in which Clementine and Emma first have sex. The book doesn’t completely lose visual interest. Maroh’s considerable drawing ability never falters, and her cartooning has some bravura moments. The most conspicuous is the wordless four-page sequence in which Clementine’s parents kick her out of the house upon discovering she and Emma are involved. But after the opening sections, Maroh’s visual choices never challenge the reader, or enrich the story’s moments with new meanings. She relies entirely on plotting, dialogue, and character soliloquies to carry the story, and her script isn’t up to the task.

The story is ultimately melodrama, and hackneyed melodrama at that. Most of the book after the first act is a series of scenes in which Clementine and Emma gradually come closer before pulling away. They’re both afraid of the commitments being in love demands, and Maroh lays on the angst with a trowel. There are plenty of other tired elements. Clementine discovers her parents are homophobic. Clementine’s lesbianism results in her being ostracized at school. Emma’s ex-lover Sabine angrily confronts Clementine after their break-up. Clementine even has a gay male best friend who is the story’s voice of wisdom. The story ends with Clementine and Emma forever parted after one dies from Ali MacGraw Disease. The one who survives looks out on the ocean and muses, “Beyond death, the love that we shared continues to live.” It’s all so stale, and it’s that staleness that makes the story so trite.

The tone is earnest, though, and perhaps Maroh thought that might provide the intensity needed to carry the reader through. I can only speak for myself, but the bulk of the book comes across as a collection of scenes from romantic comedies and melodramas that have long been run into the ground. An earnest rehash is still a rehash. The challenge for any contemporary artist is to, in Ezra Pound’s famous words, “Make it new.” Art is about communication, but the magic of art is communicating what hasn’t been said before, or at least what has been said in unfamiliar ways. Maroh gives the reader that magic in the visual poetry of the book’s opening scenes. The color blue is made to carry meanings one never expected, and those meanings keep changing. The rest of the book is just communication. Yes, the narrative is clearly presented, and I don’t doubt it’s heartfelt, but when I read, I want magic all the way through. If Julie Maroh hadn’t given up on that after page 24, her work might have been able to hold its own with any worthwhile film adaptation. I don’t yet know if Abdellatif Kechiche has cleared the bar she set for him, but she should have made living up to her work, much less outdoing it, a far greater challenge.

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