Title: Blue is the Warmest Color
Written & Drawn By: Julie Maroh
Translated by: Ivanka Hahnenberger
Originally published: in 2010 as Le bleu est une couleur chaude by Glenat Editions
English Version published: in 2013 by Arsenal Pulp Press
*NOTE: I teach my comp students how to write book reviews, and I always emphasize using citations for their work. This past week, I started to feel like a hypocrite for not using page numbers, so I will be doing so from now on!
I remember noticing when the movie Blue is the Warmest Color came to theaters. I remember thinking that I liked how it was about two girls who fall in love, but I also noted that it looked like it was for high school students. As much as I try, I really struggle to watch movies about high school kids because nothing about them seems authentic. I don’t remember people who look, act, or think like the teenagers I see on the big screen (and possibly because many “teenagers” in American films are actually actors in their late 20s). I didn’t know Blue is the Warmest Color was originally a French graphic novel.
The story’s beginning is a bit confusing. A young blond woman rides a bus. She looks sad, and the pages are washed out water colors; definitely sad. She twists a plain gold wedding band around her finger. There are narration boxes: “My love, when you read these words I will have left this world” (5). Already, I’m thinking about suicide notes. The woman arrives at an apartment, rings the bell, is given a letter by a sad-looking middle-age woman who points up, and thus the blond lady goes up the stairs ends up in a bedroom (6-7). The reader learns that the letter is addressed “To Emma” and that the writer has left Emma the most precious possessions: diaries. The diary from the speaker’s adolescence is blue, thus “Blue has become the warmest color” (7). Finally, readers learn the speaker’s name: Clementine (8). I purposefully did not use feminine pronouns in this paragraph because the whole time I was thinking the letter would be from a man (heteronormativity makes me see wedding rings and think husband and wife, which I am trying to not think. My brain can be more open minded).
Through the diary readers learn that a very handsome high school senior named Thomas thought sophomore Clementine was cute. They date, and even after 6 months, Clementine cannot bring herself to sleep with him. Thomas is patient but confused (21). One day, while on the street, Clementine notices two women, one with blue hair and one with a shaved head, walking together. They are obviously a couple, but the woman with the blue hair and Clementine share a moment…and then Clementine can’t stop dreaming about her. These are highly sexual dreams that at first scare her, but then she accepts them (16-19). Clementine breaks up with Thomas (31). It took me a while to realize that Emma (blond in the beginning/present of the book) is the girl with blue hair. The story doesn’t tell readers that Emma is mid-30s in the present, but about 23 when she has blue hair. It also took me a while to realize that the apartment Emma went to was the home where Clementine grew up and where her parents still live. Why in the world would Emma be at the apartment alone, I asked. The father clearly doesn’t want her there, and the mother looks defeated. It slowly comes together than Emma has been instructed, in the note the mother gives her, to read Clementine’s diaries while she spends the night in Clementine’s old room. Why this set up? Why not just give Emma the diaries and let her leave? Without more clues, the beginning seems unnecessarily complicated.
Author Julie Maroh uses color beautifully in this graphic novel. The majority of the pages are grey colors. In the present, the pages are in color, but they all look like they have a dishwater lens over them–sort of washed out and dirty. There is also more color near the end. But, for the most part: grey. While many think of blue as sad or dark, blue in Maroh’s story means warm and love. Blue appears, sticking out greatly in those grey images. It’s not surprising that Clementine’s diary–the one with all of her memories from high school–is blue. Thomas’s shirt is always blue, leading the reader to believe he is the source of warmth, but then enters the blue-haired woman: Emma. Whenever the reader sees blue, it’s a simple sign to guide the way readers feel about people.
Maroh’s images are gorgeous, and not just for their color. She draws some of the best love making and physical affection I’ve seen. She’s not afraid to let the scene linger, to let readers really enjoy the sexual images that are hard-earned after waiting so long for Emma and Clementine to be physical. After seeing Carol this past weekend with my husband, I realized images of LGBT people making love are often hinted at: a door closes and in the morning everyone is putting on their shoes near the bed. But both Carol and Blue is the Warmest Color let these scenes expand fully and naturally. We see hetero loving making all the time, and exposing audiences to what they’re not used removes the impression that what they’re seeing isn’t “normal.”
American readers may struggle a little with this graphic novel. It’s set in France, and so the things people do at different ages is not typical in American culture. For example, Clementine finally meets her blue-haired beauty in a gay bar. At this point, Clementine is a junior preparing for her entrance exams (she’s just shy of 17), and Emma is in her 4th year at art school (56). Little descriptions like this will be surprising or unusual for American readers, but it doesn’t interfere with story line.
Blue is the Warmest Color is a complicated story because Emma already has a girlfriend, and Clementine’s never loved a girl before. She’s new to her feelings, and so she denies them, doesn’t understand them, and has to work through them by talking to Emma and her best friend, Valentin. Emma believes, “We do not choose the one we fall in love with, and our perception of happiness is our own and is determined by what we experience” (77). Sometimes these lines felt a bit cliched to me, but I’ve also never had to be reassured that me loving someone is okay, because I’m straight.
Clementine isn’t the only one who’s confused: Emma stays with her girlfriend Sabine because Sabine shaped Emma’s life. Emma explains, “Sabine and I met at art school…it’s thanks to her that I live the life I live now. She really helped me to accept my sexuality, and my work too. And she introduced me to the gay culture, and her friends have become my friends. I don’t know what would have happened to me if she hadn’t been there” (77). Maroh uses Sabine and Emma to show that relationships that help us create who we are make things more complicated in a way that isn’t trivial. Maroh could have said that Emma simply didn’t want to break up with Sabine and hurt her (an excuse I hear all the time in American books and movies), but making the relationship a pivotal one in Emma’s life emphasizes the situation is harder and more realistic.
Of course Clementine’s parents find out that she loves Emma, and she is thrown out of her house when she is 17 (129), creating a rift between Clementine and her parents that she cannot heal. She feels their absence deeply, even when the narrative skips ahead to when Clementine is about to turn 30 (132). This point in the graphic novel was confusing to me. I’m not sure why the author chose to skip so many years. Based on the images, readers learn that Clementine becomes a school teacher (137). But she’s not happy. She writes in her diary, “Emma has been there for me with more and more love to give. But something I cannot control in me keeps creating a bigger and bigger distance between us. For Emma, her sexuality is something that draws her to others, a social and political thing. For me, it’s the most intimate thing there is. She calls it cowardice, but all I want is to be happy (131). What exactly are these conversations? Is Clementine now “out and proud” the way Emma is, the way Sabine taught Emma to be? Does this mean that the couple cannot be happy together? I had more questions than Julie Maroh has answers.
Since the first page reveals that Clementine is dead, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that she was using some kind of drug that wore her heart out. The doctor does that all-too-familiar “It’s too late” speech (149). The pills–we’re never told what they are–that Clementine was taking did damage over a long period of time and then makes worse the “arterial pulmonary hypertension” she dying from (148). I thought Maroh could have done much better. The whole death seems quick; readers never get the true downfall of Clementine. It’s all hinted at over a page or two. The goodbye letter from the beginning also suggests Clementine would have cut her wrists or taken a large number of painkillers to kill herself. I get the feeling Maroh didn’t want to be cliched, but the result felt a little over dramatic–heart damage for years! From prescriptions Emma never saw! (148). This speedy ending also makes it harder to believe that Clementine wrote letters and last diary entries for Emma to read after she’d died. There’s even a scene in which Clementine in her hospital bed hands her mother a letter, and the mother says she promises (152). Obviously, this is the letter that Emma is reading at the beginning of the book. Why make it all so dramatic and complicated? I felt Maroh could have handled the sharing of the diaries in a much more simple way. If you feel confused by my descriptions of the timeline, I’m not surprised. They’re hard to explain because they’re unnecessarily difficult.
Blue is the Warmest Color has gorgeous drawings, and the love between Emma and Clementine is believable, but some of the set up and the conclusion were unnecessarily dramatic which served to confuse me more than anything.