La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 et 2 is a film about sexuality. It is a film about coming of age, about finding one’s identity. But most of all, it is a film about love and loss, and a girl whose world is torn apart as she’s thrust into a whirlpool of the two.
Adèle’s appearance in the film is that of a real person, with messed-up hair and rabbit teeth. When she cries, she cries like a real person: snot and tears everywhere (what Emma laughingly calls ‘blubbering’). She’s not portrayed to be some kind of surreal beauty like the actresses in most other movies are. You could be Adèle, I could be Adèle. And therein lies her immense value: you can relate to her. She is real to you. By the end of the movie, she has grown on you and you can feel her regret, her sorrow. You worry for her future. Perhaps the next day you will wake up wondering if she’s okay (as one critic did). La vie d’Adèle has in fact, become your vie.
What I love about this film is how closely the camera follows Adèle. She’s young, and her emotions easily and immediately show on her face. In fact, when Emma quotes Sartre’s ‘mysterious weakness of a man’s face’, it could not be more apt. So Adèle’s story starts with her being a normal teenage girl, running after her school bus, enjoying her meals, writing her diary, sleeping peacefully. And as she passes Emma on the street, what she knows to be true comes crashing down. Her rhythmic sleeping becomes erratic, her face worn and blotchy from her confusion. Her world is coming unstuck, piece by piece. And we’re lucky enough to be privy to it.
All this as she worries about what is wrong with her for not being satisfied with her boyfriend Thomas. Even the most untrained eye can see the stark contrast between her lovemaking with Thomas and with Emma, both in terms of quality and regularity (and that’s why the sex scenes became necessary). With Emma, she shares not only a raw, fiery passion but also a tenderness. They can’t even keep away from each other in either of their parents’ homes. It could not have been clearer that Adèle is genuinely in love, genuinely happy. With Thomas, she has to reassure him that it was good. Adèle is bored but, as she always is, sincere.
One of my favourite scenes is Emma meeting Adèle’s parents, who spew some retrogressive filth about husbands being able to financially support wives and art being only a hobby, not a career. Contrast this with the ease with which Emma kisses Adèle at her own parents’ home in an earlier scene. This is perhaps when Adèle realizes that all those dinners in front of the television had done nothing to help her parents understand her.
Adèle portrays her fluid sexuality perfectly, initially afraid of it and lashing out at her “sex cop” friends who accuse her of paranoia, then perplexed by it and how it seems to affect her perception of everything around her, and finally coming to terms with it to the extent that she starts a life of routine domesticity with Emma. Not once does an emotion seem contrived.
There has been a raging controversy over Kechiche’s cast and crew alleging miserable working conditions and borderline abusive directing methods. This is not the first time a great film has been achieved from torturing its actors (think The Shining), nor will it be the last. But as with all such films, the torture may well have been worth it: the two heroines are completely fearless. Kechiche has achieved a true masterpiece.