When Clementine first passes Emma on a crowded French street, she is immediately drawn to Emma’s warm blue hair --- as well as the threat of the forbidden love that she embodies.
Far different from the story that unfolds in its movie adaptation, the graphic novel BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR is a passionate look at young, immature love amid self-doubt and uncertainty. Clementine doesn’t want to be a lesbian, doesn’t want the judgmental looks from friends and family that come with it. At the same time, Clementine --- “Clem” --- is young and headstrong and unsure of where her life is heading. She’s a high school student in the 1990s when we first meet her (Emma, an art student in college, is a few years older), and she doesn’t know how to handle the onslaught of emotions she’s facing. Clem pull Emma in (not that Emma resists strongly), and then pushes her away…repeatedly. For her part, Emma tries to prevent their desire for each other from turning physical. Emma has a longtime partner, Sabine, for one thing. For another, Emma believes Clem is straight at heart and that Clem will eventually settle down with a man.
There’s wonderful familiarity in this push-pull, as well as powerful storytelling. But BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR is also, at its heart, an overwrought drama, and that weakens the story in its later pages. Clem is already dead as the graphic novel begins (that’s really not a spoiler; Clem’s death is revealed on the very first page of the book), which shows that this is going to be one of “those” types of gay-love books, the kind where one of the protagonists has to die because that’s the only way a tale this passionate can be resolved. And while that overused device is a flaw, the rest of the story --- told in flashbacks courtesy of Clem’s well-kept journals --- capitalizes on great strengths and insights into the sexual politics of coming out so young and dealing with the fallout. “For Emma,” Clem writes in her journal, “her sexuality is something that draws her to others, a social and political thing. For me, it’s the most intimate thing there is.”
Intimacy is what Clem is truly looking for, what she most greatly desires. Or at least it’s what she believes she most desires. But how well does she truly know herself at the age of 17, when Emma finally lets down her barriers and allows her relationship with Clem to be consummated? Clem is still 17 when she disastrously brings Emma home to meet her parents, and when she hears Emma say, for the first time, “I love you.”
Interestingly, in its last act, the novel jumps from 1997 to 2008, skipping over pivotal years of the two heroines’ lives and romance. It’s here where BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR changes focus from sexual politics to the overly sentimental. That’s a shame, because the book has, up to that point, managed to shine a white-hot spotlight on the overwhelming power of young, immature desire. All those silly, lovely things we do for love at that age are delightfully mingled with scenes of intense eroticism, and that’s where BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR hits its highest notes.
Reviewed by John Hogan on January 11, 2014