Blue Is the Warmest Color (Guest Review)
This review is by Kristine Downing, an old friend of mine who doesn’t typically read comics. When she last visited me, she noticed my copy of Blue Is the Warmest Color and expressed interest in reading it. I asked her to share her thoughts, and she sent the below.
Blue Is the Warmest Color by author and illustrator Julie Maroh is a graphic novel first published in French in 2010 by Glenat as “Le bleu est une couleur chaude”. The English-language edition published in 2013 by Arsenal Pulp Press was initially slated to be released under the title Blue Angel. However, much of the artistic tension established with the original title would be lost, and it also helps to maintain consistency with the award-winning movie adaption coming out this fall.
Set in France from the mid-1990s to the end of the first decade of the new millennium, the graphic novel paints an authentic love story between two young women against a backdrop of social and political change. The story, much of which is told in flashback through the diaries of the main character, Clementine, captures the complexities of a girl questioning her sexuality and her same-sex attraction to Emma, as well as all of the other “normal” aspects of being a teenager, such as friendships, school, college plans, difficulty with parents, etc. While this storyline is not new, it is effective in making the statement that attraction and love have no boundary, that societal boundaries are artificial and create fragmentation were none should exist. The honesty and beauty of the storyline and panels adeptly illustrates a teen’s confusion with sexual attraction, same-sex desire, the eventual intimacy she experiences, and the personal/societal pressures she faces after being thrown into adulthood. That makes Blue not just an important graphic novel within a lesbian/gay context but within the art form itself.
I found Maroh’s use of color (or lack thereof in many places) intriguing from both an artistic and storytelling perspective. The title itself stands in opposition to normative perceptions. Blue is not a warm color. Blue becomes warm, a symbol for connection, sexual desire, and love (Clem’s diary, Thomas’ shirt, Emma’s hair and eyes, fantasy/dream sequence, condom wrapper, etc.). The sparing use of color throughout the novel accentuates what color is used, especially the color blue. Most of the illustrations stay within a cool color palette, with the exception of several panels where yellow/orange are used to depict coolness when Clem and Emma grow apart.
Quite simply, what we are taught is cool can be perceived as warm; what we are taught is wrong can be perceived as right. Experience is subjective. These juxtapositions work effectively to challenge our learned perceptions, ultimately reinforcing the storyline challenging traditional societal norms and notions of attraction, love, and commitment. If there is an overarching theme to be found in this graphic novel, it’s that sexuality and love are fluid, the most intimate experiences we can share with one another, and that attempting to make sexuality a fixed location from either a hetero- or homosexual perspective places arbitrary limitations on the human experience.
My only criticism of Blue Is the Warmest Color (and it is minor) are a few word choices I found slightly awkward. The only two examples are Emma saying “my dear heart” and during a love scene, Clem says, “My God, her sex, her sex, naked against mine”, which made me wince because it felt a bit cliché. Word choice in these instances may have more to do with what the translator chose versus the original in French.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and recommend it. I am also very interested to see the movie adaption and if the film’s “graphic” lesbian love scenes push the boundaries of cinema or tend more toward straight male porn fantasy. Based on the author’s objections to the film, I am inclined to think the latter.