All this talk about epic narrative is making me hungry

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Blue Is the Warmest Color
  • Blue Is the Warmest Color
In yesterday's post, I briefly compared the pleasure of delving into an epic narrative to that of preparing an elaborate meal. I could have noted that these pleasures often overlap. Two of the examples I cited yesterday—Thomas Mann's novel Buddenbrooks (1901) and Abdellatif Kechiche's recent film Blue Is the Warmest Color—feature lengthy scenes of meals being prepared and eaten. In both, these scenes deepen our understanding of the characters' domestic lives—and, by implication, the social traditions they inherit. The banquets that punctuate Mann's novel are highly ordered events, signaling the industrialist family's control over business and public affairs. As the family slides from power, these meals become shorter and less celebratory—yet Mann achieves a poignant effect by having the characters continue certain rituals that remind them (and us) of better days.

The first two dinner scenes of Blue are looser in nature than those in Mann's novel (there are no servants or numbered courses), but they're just as ritualized in their way. For the families of both teenaged Adèle (Adèle Excharpoulos) and her older girlfriend Emma (Léa Seydoux), having a guest over for dinner provides an opportunity for parents to discuss important subjects with their kids. Emma's parents are the more liberal—not just in their attitude towards their daughter's sexual orientation, but in the playful manner in which their dinner comes together. Hosts and guests alike are involved in the cooking, and everyone's encouraged to share what they feel about each ingredient (in Adèle's home, the roles of host and guest are more rigidly defined). Yet the conversation takes a similar course in both homes, growing more serious once the food's been eaten. Dinner conversation at Adèle's climaxes with a hard talk about earning a living; at Emma's it takes a more cerebral direction. In both cases, though, we're seeing the passing down of values from generation to another.

These scenes, which chart in detail the progression of fairly ordinary events, would be hard to imagine in a shorter film about the same characters set over the same period of time. To return to the cooking analogy, one benefit of the epic structure is that it allows us to watch things simmer, to note how individual flavors get absorbed into the whole. Kechiche could have arrived at the same conclusions about these families by showing only their after-dinner conversations. Instead, he shows us the little bits of action that individuate the meals, so we see how each family's values are bound up in their routines. This fusion of thought and deed might help explain why it's so difficult to break free of one's roots. Rejecting your family's values often means having to reject their behaviors, which give shape to our lives in more ways than we realize.

Kechiche realizes his own poignant dinner scene in the second half of Blue, which takes place several years after the first, when Adèle and Emma host a party for the latter's completion of graduate school. The scene feels like a larger version of the dinner we observed in the home of Emma's parents—the mood is convivial, the conversation free-flowing, and most of the guests seem to be creative types. Over the course of this sequence, it becomes clear that Adèle feels excluded from the party, even though she's slaved over the food all by herself. Perhaps that's the root of her frustration. Without realizing it, Adèle has retained her parents' habit of separating work and pleasure—and this doesn't fit in with her lover's social scene. It's only a matter of time before their romance dissolves.

How unexpected that a movie about young lesbians in the early 21st century would adopt the loping structure (and thematic emphasis on tradition) of epic family chronicles from the 19th and early 20th centuries. I wonder if the Oscar committee passed over Blue for a best foreign-language film nomination because, in spite of all the controversy it inspired upon release, it ultimately proved too old-fashioned.

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