Before I even committed myself to reading it, I was intrigued by the TONE of Blue Is The Warmest Color, an excellent graphic novel by Julie Maroh, originally written in French. It is a difficult thing to decide whether to begin a book or not. We look for whatever clues we can find. Contrary to the popular saying, the COVER of a book really is often helpful, but obviously far from fool-proof.
With Blue Is The Warmest Color, I skimmed a few pages and found the artwork inside to be inspired and beautiful and perfectly appropriate for the text (which I also skimmed). The story itself, I could tell right away, was going to be a deep and serious one. I also saw that it would be a love story, which is normally not a genre I gravitate toward, but the panels which I looked over only made me want to read more about these two main characters, Clem (or Clementine) and Emma.
So I checked the book out from the library, and I was not disappointed. It turned out to be one of most moving love stories I have ever read, in any genre– and easily the most moving love story I have read in graphic novel form. I have put the movie version on my must-see list (which is already grotesquely long).
The main character, Clementine, we meet when she is fifteen, and we follow her life for about a decade and a half. She is not a perfect person (she plays the part of both a liar and a cheater at different times in the story), but she not only obtained and kept my sympathy, I found her absolutely lovable. Since many of the vignettes within the larger story are set-up by Clem’s diary entries, we get to know her very intimately. She has no secrets from us, the readers.
This intimate, from the inside-out portrait makes Clem very endearing and sympathetic, even when she makes a bad decision or shows herself to be terribly insecure, confused– and thus– clingy and obsessive when she finally finds someone to care about and who just might care about her, too.
This relationship dynamic (obsessive and insecure)– all too common– can lead to unhealthy situations. The person fixated upon can feel horribly burdened by the constant bombardment of need from his or her partner. Furthermore, to be one person’s total hope and source of happiness and pleasure gives one a terrifying tyranny of power– a power the receiver many not want, may squirm under– or may, even subconsciously, take advantage of… and as a relationship is the sum-total of all its habits and interactions, all these unhealthy conditions, together with all their ripple effects, can snowball over time into some pretty twisted relationships.
In the graphic novel, Blue Is The Warmest Color, Emma is given that kind of power over Clem, but she does not allow it to turn her into a selfish or abusive partner. That is NOT what this story is about– although it does touch upon it. I only bring it up to express the undercurrent of concern that ran for me (bringing my baggage to the reading?) throughout the story.
There is, however, plenty of insecurity in this tale. Yes, come to think of it, among other descriptions, one could call this a story of insecurity. And loneliness… Oh so much, really… love, sexuality, peer pressure, morality, parental relationships… it’s all there, wrapped up in a tear-jerking love story. Finishing reading Blue Is The Warmest Color, I felt like I was setting down a novel, not just a “cartoon book.”
The basic love story is somewhat of a Romeo and Juliet, forbidden love tale, but with a modern sensibility. I will warn you… there are a few pages of outright pornography (in the old, artistic sense of the word once used by collectors and connoisseur of this subterranean artform). Personally, I found the sexy sheets not at all gratuitous considering the story and characters… that they also were hot was just a bonus. Let’s be clear… I’m talking about a few, artfully done pages out of a beautifully illustrated book of over a hundred and fifty pages. I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression here… this is a LOVE story first and foremost, and a coming of age story. It is about finding one’s self and having the courage to accept the self that one finds.
As far as the outstanding artwork goes, the most glaring artistic choice taken was to highlight the color blue in the story. This is the color that Emma, Clem’s love fixation, has dyed her hair. The blue thing is very tastefully done. Similar things have been done in other places, so it’s not an innovation, but it is agreeable.
More generally, there’s a lovely washed-out water-color palette to many of the pictures, although most of the book is told in grays and blacks (with splashes of blue)… The color treatment is saved for “present day” (or close to present day) moments, after the love story has ended (actually, in a sense, this love story doesn’t end, but that’s enough said about that).
In the beginning, there is nicely done reveal of our main character, Clementine… very cinematic. We first encounter her from the back, nearly silhouetted, and thus are basically instructed by the author to focus on her environment for a moment before we get rolling, see her friends and her family. Soon enough, Clem will be absorbing all our attention.
Repeatedly in the book, the artwork is so strong that it does the heavy-lifting of the narration, and the actual text can be used for other purposes– very economical, and one of the signs of someone operating at the height of graphic novel artistry. One of the main challenges of telling an adult story through the picture-book medium is how to balance the display of text with the display of artwork. It is a perfect balance here.
Another cinematic element to the artwork (well, I call it “cinematic” because I come at graphic novels from the point of view of cinephile), is the style of transitions utilized. We might move from past to present through a fogged pane of glass or through a cloud of cigarette smoke. There is much satisfaction in being in the hands of a great artist willing to caress you with these extra and higher levels of artistry.
Storywise, we know right up front that we are dealing with a long-term love story, told in flashbacks via the diary entries. We also know that it ends tragically. The book takes us on the journey to that tragedy, and I have to tell you, even for a non-love-story dude like me, it was heart-fracturing. There is so much loneliness, confusion, isolation, sadness, joy, elation, ecstasy in this book, it’s like taking a roller-coaster ride that you know will be leading you through several rings of fire before slamming you into a brick wall.
The talent of author and illustrator, Julie Maroh, allows us to experience the heart-aching and head-splitting emotional and physical turbulence that Clem undergoes as she begins to experience– and to partially repress– her first sexual stirrings.
One qualm I have with Maroh is her introduction of a major-secondary character, Valentin. He suddenly appears as a tight bud of our main character. My suspicion is that Maroh had some other scene at one time better introducing him, then later thought she could get away with cutting it. She couldn’t.
Throughout the story, stress is laid on the idea that we can’t really help who we fall in love with. Unfortunately for our darling Clementine, the person she happens to fall in love with is unacceptable to her parents and to many of her friends. However, at the same time, suffering this more difficult love forces her life to occupy a larger orbit than she may have otherwise moved through in life. It is a cruel joke of the universe that pleasure and happiness rarely force us to grow as fast and as much, spiritually and intellectually, as pain and suffering.
It is the pain-matured Clementine which has the wisdom to say so poetically to Emma, “Love catches fire, it trespasses, it breaks, we break, it comes back to life… we may come back to life. Love may not be eternal, but it can make us eternal… Beyond death, the love that we shared continues to live.”
Read this book.