La Vie D’Adele: Chapitres 1 & 2 (2013) is probable my favorite film of the past few years. When I saw the film premiere in the Netherlands on the Film by the Sea festival it overwhelmed me. The emotion of its very simple, yet utterly captivating love story took my breath away and I remember the film lingering in my thoughts for weeks afterwards.
The film took the Cannes film festival by storm in 2013 and for a brief moment it was the most celebrated movie of the year. Unfortunately in the months after its debut the press began to focus more on the difficult production, the tension between the director and its stars and the prominence of its very explicit love scenes, eventually leading to a slight critical backlash, damaging the reputation of the movie. Thus is the painful way in which film criticism sometimes trumps artistic qualities…
But I remain convinced that there hasn’t been a movie in years that so beautifully and innocently depicts blossoming love and the eventual heartbreak. Its actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux give tour-de-force performances and the intimate, no-nonsense direction and cinematography pushes the viewer in the utmost personal space to connect to those performances. Every tremble in their lips and longing in their gazes is captured in detail and makes you feel all the emotions these young woman seem to experience.
So powerful are the performances that it’s easy to overlook the nuanced cinematography, but I was equally as impressed with the cinematography as with the acting. The director, Abdellatif Kechiche, together with cinematographer Sofian El Fani, chose to work mainly from extreme close-ups and obsessively search for the details in every performance and situation.
The movie was filmed mostly handheld, with a small digital camera (the quite new Canon C300), but it never feels like a shaky-camera exercise in confusing faux-realism. The camera moves as calmly as the edit flows (the movie is almost three hours long) and seems to enjoy lingering more than hurrying.
And even though the film is completely convincing in its realism and the camera never calls attention to itself through visual flourishes, the film is littered with surprising compositions and framing which perfectly elicit the director’s emotional intentions.
The ‘almost’ One Shot
A noteworthy example (which would be my second favorite shot of the film) is found when Adèle is hanging out at Emma’s birthday party in their backyard. An old friend of Emma is present and she seems to constantly pull Emma’s attention towards her. Combined with the painful realization that Adèle just doesn’t seem as culturally educated as Emma’s group of friends, it becomes a very difficult and confronting evening for her.
Jealousy and doubt envelop Adèle when she is dancing with a friend while Emma is intimately chatting with her friend on a couch. The camera focusses more and more on Adèle and we see slight hints of her doubt and insecurity coming through.
But the genius of the shot comes when El Fani frames Adèle’s doubtful face with a projected image of an old movie behind her. In that movie, the actress is seemingly expressing the exact same emotions as Adèle, but since it’s a scene from an old, silent film, the actress’ expression is much more vivid than Adèle’s. Through the composition of the shot El Fani uses the projected image as a magnifying glass for Adèle’s restrained emotions. And as hard to read as Adèle’s face may be through her introverted gaze, the shot now perfectly and vividly tells us how she feels.
It’s a great shot that shows how a filmmaker can use the context of a frame to enhance the emotions contained in the subject. The environment becomes an extension of the inner thoughts of the character.
BUT. This is not my favorite shot of the film. And this is something I realized while re-watchting the film for this blog. Because originally I did intent to use this shot for my blog. But there was something nagging me about the shot. In a way, it’s too clever, too intellectually composed. It is effective visual storytelling for sure, but the shot didn’t hit home emotionally as much. And for a film which is so overtly and powerfully emotional, I realized I needed to call out another shot which was more emotionally powerful and resonant to me, while at the same time being utterly iconic to my eyes.
The One Shot
This shot is from a later point in the story, where Adèle and Emma have broken up and Adèle has to cope with her heartbreak and loneliness. It fits into the most emotionally exhausting part of the film where Adèle is struggling with her grief and tries her best to remain functional in her profession as a schoolteacher.
During a visit to the beach with her class she escapes the group to go for a swim in the sea by herself. As she walks of into the sea, and starts to drift off on the waves, the film grabs focus on her face, barely extending above the water. With her eyes closed she zones out, possibly reminiscing about her life together with Emma. Because of the subtle color grading the sea around her has a curious shade of blue that’s just a bit unnatural.
The color, of course, is highly reminiscent of Emma’s blue hair-color from the first part of the film, when their love was still true and flawless. Silently we imagine Adèle is drifting off in a blue dream of happier times.
The shot is pretty obvious in its intention and metaphor but it’s not on that point that I picked it as my favorite. I picked it as my favorite simply because I had to fight back my tears when I first saw it. I thought it was the most beautiful image in the film, and I could relate so strongly with Adèle’s desire to drift off in the fantasy of her memories. That quiet, secluded atmosphere of being alone in the sea, semi-submerged, felt so perfect, so sad and so true.
So, in a sense my point is that after dozens of One Shots I still encounter shots of which I cannot rationally explain their effectiveness. They simply get me. Sure, I can talk about the beautiful color palette of de-saturated blues contrasting with the burgundy red of Adèle’s bathing suit, or the touching subtext of the moment, but in the end the shot is simply my favorite because it moved me more than any other shot, and I cannot fully explain the way in which it touches me so much, it’s a personal connection to the image most of all.
That’s kind of a silly conclusion to a blogpost about the techniques of cinematography, but I do love the idea that cinematography at times simple is magical, and no amount of deconstruction and analyzes can sufficiently describe the workings of that magic. It’s like love. Kind of appropriate for this film.