Love, to this amateur, seems to have this peculiar quality of specificity and generality, at least in our memory. We remember sentiment, feeling and then some very particular moments or images. It’s like remembering a dream. Blue is the Warmest Color is that kind of book: it is not so much about love as we experience it but love as we remember it. That aspect of memory is woven deep into the narrative fabric of the story, which hits every point we would expect from a great, classic love story. There’s shyness, passion, betrayal, and of course death, which is rarely far from these sorts of stories. I refuse to issue a spoiler alert: it’s a love story, so someone dies. But just as in Romeo and Juliet (heck, even the aptly-named Love Story), that elegiac nature only deepens and enhances the emotion and the sentiment, and highlights the “remembered” nature of the piece.
The “twist”, that this is a love story between two women, should be fairly easy to dismiss in this day and age. While I was reading Blue is the Warmest Color I kept thinking what this story would have been like if the couple had been heterosexual. The answer that kept coming to me was “about 20 pages shorter, but basically the same.” The same-sex relationship aspect matters to the extent that we get to see our main characters struggle with the acceptance of their love by some of the forces in their world (like parents) and usual rule book of fidelity and commitment is somewhat stretched. But I found this book to be first and foremost just a love story, in the classical sense, and thus as universal as it gets. (I have not seen the 2013 film adaptation, so this review will be strictly about the book, as an English translation.)
Blue is the Warmest Color, created by young French writer and artist Julie Maroh, was originally published in France in 2010. Maroh had started the book when she was only 19 years old, finishing it five years later. Here’s another aspect I’ve found to be true about love stories: the best ones tend to be written by the very young or the very old. Perhaps we all go through that cynical phase in mid-life where we claim to jettison some of our more romantic notions in favour of getting on with the business of life. But the young know, and the old remember, how important all of this stuff is and how helpless people can be in the powerful grip of true love.
Maroh displays great wisdom, especially at her young age, in being able to portray the heightened emotions (some would say overwrought) of teenagers as well as the slightly deadened and contained emotions of the “mature” adult. This is evident right from the start in the flashback nature of the narrative. Emma, one half of our central couple, returns to the house where her lover Clementine’s parents still live. Things are tense, because Clem’s parents certainly blame Emma for all that happened to their daughter, and Emma accepts this all with a quiet stoicism. The reason for her visit is to read Clem’s old diaries and other papers that she had left for Emma after the inevitable tragedy of this particular love story. This is our framing device: Emma, sitting alone in Clem’s old bedroom, reading diaries.
The fact that the story is told, for the most part, through the diaries of a teenaged girl, adds another layer of heightened emotion and drama but it’s a brilliant device on Maroh’s part because it forgives a multitude of sentimentality and what otherwise may have been considered adolescent mawkishness. In this context, the adolescent storyteller can get away with a full range of technicolor teenage emotions.
Clem is an enthusiastic high school girl, as the story starts, worrying about exams, and about fitting in, and discovering her emerging sense of sexuality. In the great French style, this is all portrayed in a very matter-of-fact fashion. Clem, for her part, is simply finding her way in life. Like all intelligent and thoughtful people, she also struggles with her sexual identity, initially dating a good-looking boy but feeling horribly out of her comfort zone doing anything sexual with him. Then she spots a shock of bright blue hair in a crowd, belonging to a woman on the arm of another woman. Though she is confused by her feelings, they are powerful enough to draw her towards her own private sexual fantasies, as well as a quiet obsession with finding the woman with blue hair.
An important character in all of this is Clem’s best friend from school, Valentin. Clem confesses her feelings of confusion and anguish over her sexual orientation to him and he casually admits that he had dated a boy at one point. Valentin’s lack of judgement and earnest support of both Clem and, later, Emma, gives an anchor to the wild forces that seize them. He plays a key role right up to the end, and although he is not perfect (letting Clem get away from him at a club so he can slip off with a cute guy), he is the kind of steady best friend we all wish we had.
It’s while out with Valentin that Clem and Emma finally meet properly, at a bar. Like so many scenes in the book, this one plays out with no dialogue, only the terribly specific moments that one would remember from an emotionally charged event. Emma’s hair, for example, and her extremely feline eyes. When her eyes meet Clem’s for the first time, Clem’s heart literally pounds, and she unsteadily grabs onto the bar to keep from falling over. Besides being a great way to demonstrate the emotionality of the moment, this also foreshadows the tragic turn of events at the end, sets a tone for the rest of their relationship and all without dialogue or sound.
It’s at moments like this that Blue is the Warmest Color shows what the comics medium can really do. Since the emotional energy of such a scene is probably familiar to everyone from some point in their lives, the spare storytelling is appropriate and effective. But while film would be layered with so many other texts by the nature of the medium, and prose would lock this story into one language, comics storytelling transcends time, space and language in sequences like this. The actual dialogue that we get on the next pages simply build on the energy of that moment. When Emma gently makes fun of Clem, and Clem’s sputtering crush and wide eyes react with those monstrous teenage emotions, even explicitly mentioning sexual orientation, it just puts into words what was already said so effectively in images.
Clem, for her part, goes from elation to deflation when she discovers that Emma has a girlfriend, a much rounder and tougher woman named Sabine. This isn’t necessarily that much of a deterrent to their love affair, as we find out, but it’s a complication. As Clem recalls later, Emma’s sexual identity was very much a part of her social life, associating as she does with activists and Gay Rights causes. But Clem’s own sexuality is more of a private matter, as she associates socially with all sorts of people and also knows that her parents are literally violently homophobic. Emma’s social life was built around Sabine, who introduced her to the whole community. Breaking up with Sabine is not such a simple matter, although as time goes on, and Emma and Clem get physical and continue to be drawn to each other, it becomes an inevitability.
One of the great strengths of the book is that neither Clem nor Emma are perfect people. In a Hollywood romance, one partner or the other tends to be sure-footed and in control. But Clem makes lots of mistakes, and one particular act of infidelity later on brings about the avalanche of tragedy that usually lies at the end of a love story. Emma, too, has some deep character flaws, and her relationship with Sabine is one of them. Rather than really dealing with the fact that she’s falling in love with Clem and being honest with Sabine, a person who she also loves, Emma just avoids the issue. Her occasional bouts of “morning after” regret might balance the scales of her conscience, but she goes back to Clem over and over. When Sabine finally finds out, her response is ugly and mean-spirited but not mysterious, screaming insults at Clem in the street and driving off. Emma shrugs it off when Clem brings it up, saying, “I told you that she can get hysterical at times,” but that’s just another way of avoiding the issue for her. Emma has a tendency to “skate” above it all, which makes the framing story of her reading Clem’s diary in an attic and showing her regret and pain in subtle ways, all the more effective.
Many love stories may have ended right there, as our two lovers are together and essentially without impediment to their relationship. Here, the Honeymoon lasts only a few pages before Clem brings Emma to her parents’ house for dinner. In another effective and powerful sequence without any dialogue (or any comic book sound effects), Clem’s father kicks them both out when his wife discovers a naked Emma in the middle of the night, getting a drink after leaving Clem’s bed. To use that phrase, “kicks them out” is a bit mild for the snapshots of family tragedy in this sequence. The stern rage in Emma’s eyes, the hurt in Clem’s mother’s and finally the horrible pain in Clem’s own, convey a universe of tragedy. “We’ll never be the same,” she later writes in her diary, and she’s correct.
It’s at this point that the book’s visual tone takes a sharp turn in addition to the narrative so we should pause and mention Maroh’s hauntingly effective artwork. Almost completely devoid of color, save for the judicious use of blue, her pencils and shading explore all the lightly tinged tones of expressionist chiaroscuro but also opens up into evocative street scenes that Truffaut would have loved. Her characters are obviously extremely expressive but strike the right tone between realism and cartoonish abstraction. But the color, when she uses it, is a very effective tool. For the first 130 or so pages, the only color of note has been blue, whether it be the blue of Clem’s diary or especially the blue of Emma’s hair. The brief framing scenes, which feature an older Emma, are a notable exception, with warmer tones of orange and brown and even Emma’s hair is now closer to deep blonde (though she wears a sweater with her former hair color). But just here, at the turn of the story when Clem and Emma are out on their own and should by all logic be “happy ever after”, the color palette returns. Emma changes her hair from blue to yellow, and as the months and years slip by, their apartment takes on shades of fire and earth. This deliberate reversal, from cool colors like blue representing warmth and warm colors like orange representing emotional cold and distance, is no doubt where Maroh gets her title.
Emma’s activism continues, literally carrying a rainbow flag, as does her more severe temperament. Too often Clem is left on their couch alone. Until one cold November, in a scene featuring Emma in a purple shirt sitting on a blue bed, Clem confesses an infidelity. And Emma, being flawed and imperfect, overreacts as many people would. She kicks Clem out of their house, humiliating and emotionally destroying her. Clem reaches straight for the pill bottle. Valentin, always the steady friend, takes her in and keeps her alive, more or less. But Clem openly confesses that she can’t live without Emma. Finally Emma follows her to the sea, where Maroh gives us shades of green for the first time, echoing the colour scheme of Valentin’s apartment. It’s a neutral color, and he’s a neutral figure. They meet on this neutral ground and their passions erupt. Once again, this could easily have been the end of the story. Cut to black on a kiss: a perfect ending.
Maroh doesn’t have a happy ending in mind. In a tragic but poetic echo of their first scene together, Clem’s heart, at the moment of climax right there on the beach, literally breaks. Maroh shows it breaking, seizing up and stopping as she experiences pulmonary hypertension. In the hospital (another green, neutral place), Emma weeps over her dying lover. All through this book, when characters cry, Maroh writes that dialogue into the panel itself, with “bouhouhou” written in cartoonish block letters. It’s the sort of operatic emotion that this story demands, and Emma can certainly be excused for feeling it at this juncture. Clem dies, but not before writing a heartbreaking final message for Emma that gives her some comfort in the final scene, as she looks out onto the sea, all the colours now in use at once. “Beyond death, the love that we shared continues to live.”
Through her use of art, color and thematic boldness, Blue is the Warmest Color announces a major voice in comics. If Maroh can follow this book up with another that demonstrates her complete command of the unique and powerful vocabulary of comic books, she’ll be one of this century’s most important creators. To take universal themes and express them in an emotionalism that has just the right amount of intensity, and yet feels utterly artistically free, is a significant achievement. I can image the film (which, I repeat, I have not seen) putting some of these elements to use very well, but Maroh is a comics creator, and the way she tells this story here can only be matched and not surpassed. It’s every bit as haunting and moving as any film.