The tragic homosexual has been a staple of gay literature. Rather than finding the happiness afforded to their hetero counterparts, gay characters tended toward ruin and suicide. In Blue is the Warmest Color the tragedy is presented up front, or so it seems.
The book opens with a woman mourning the death of her lover, Clementine. She’s been invited to spend the night at her lover’s homophobic parents’ house. The parents are bitter and hostile, and she retreats upstairs to read her inheritance, her lover’s diaries, which begin twelve years earlier.
The graphic novel is told largely from Clementine’s perspective and the diary is set in mid-90s Paris against a backdrop of marches, gay pride, and teenage confusion. The diary begins the way all diaries do, with its origins as a gift, and promises to write often. She introduces herself as Clementine, a fifteen-year-old girl starting at a new high school. She makes friends quickly, and with their encouragement begins to date a cute senior guy. He’s nice, friendly, and they have fun together, but she finds she’s not attracted to him. A chance encounter with a blue haired woman makes her heart race, and a playful kiss from another girl at school sparks something deep inside.
The true gift of the diary reveals itself not just as a token of Clementine’s past, but of how they met, and her formative experiences as she comes to terms with her sexuality.
Later, Clementine visits a gay bar with her best friend, Valentin, and again sees the blue haired woman. This time introductions are made, and she learns that Emma is older, an art student at university, and that she has a girlfriend, Sabine. Soon afterwards, Emma meets up with Clementine outside her high school. They become friends, and Emma becomes the central focus of her life. In this, the true gift of the diary reveals itself, not just as a token of Clementine’s past, but of how they met, and her formative experiences as she comes to terms with her sexuality.
As she learns to navigate her feelings about her desires, she loses many of the new friends she made at school, who in turns insult and avoid her. Julie Maroh was nineteen when she began working on the comic, and the high school experience feels fresh. Maroh perfectly captures the pressure to conform, and the anxiety and urgency of being a young woman in love.
Both Clementine and Emma feel conflicted about their budding relationship. Clementine’s anxiety and urgency feel overwhelming, and Emma is still with Sabine, and unsure of Clementine’s feelings for her. They carry on in secret for months. For Emma, lesbianism has political dimensions, and influences her art and social relationships, but for Clementine, it’s the most private thing about her. When Clementine’s parents find out about their relationship they kick her out of the house, and she moves in with Emma’s parents.
Maroh has a subtle way with colour. In the present, when we first meet Emma, the colours are subdued but visible, as if her grief affects the palette. The diary scenes are portrayed in washed out earthy tones, save for the title blue that shines in Emma’s hair, the diary’s cover, and odd accents throughout the narrative. Colour returns after the silent break with Clementine’s parents, when she and Emma begin their life together in earnest.
From here the narrative skips forward ten years, and the distance between them has grown to a point where Clementine has cheated on Emma, as Sabine did before her, rendered in stark oranges and yellows. Emma ends the relationship, and Clementine begins a downward spiral, depicted in greens. After the long discovery period this seems abrupt, and we’re not given enough to parse what happened between them. It seems so sudden: Clementine gets sick, they reunite briefly, and she dies.
Clementine’s last note, addressed directly to Emma, says that she was happy and loved. They encountered the same difficulties that any couple can go through, and Clementine’s death was chance and circumstance, the kind no one can prepare for. Their relationship didn’t end in tragedy; the tragedy here is that Clementine’s parents remain unable to understand its beauty and warmth.
Maroh had previously self-published three comic collections, and this is her first traditionally published graphic novel, originally published as Le bleu est une couleur chaude by Glénat in 2010. In translation, the language sometimes comes across as stiff, but the illustrations carry it forward.
The live-action, French-language film version of the book won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2013. Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche and starring Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos, the film has generated both praise and controversy for its more explicit scenes. Julie Maroh has denounced the sex scenes in particular as pornographic.
As a graphic novel, it is largely successful. Blue is the Warmest Color is gorgeously illustrated and incredibly moving.
Arsenal Pulp Press | 156 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1551525143