By Tahneer Oksman
“Teen problems seem trivial to other people. But when you’re alone and smack in the middle of one, how are you supposed to know what to do?” So writes Clémentine, the protagonist of Julie Maroh’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, in her teenage diary. This coming-of-age graphic novel, originally published in France in 2010 as Le Bleu Est Un Couleur Chaude, was recently translated into English and released by Arsenal Pulp Press in September of 2013. The story has received added attention lately because of its adaptation into a film of the same title, directed by Tunisian-French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche. He was the recipient — along with actresses Léa Seydoux and Adéle Exarchopoulos — of an esteemed Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year and has been criticized since then for, among other things, his unconventional working methods as well as his problematic depiction of women’s bodies and sexual proclivities in the movie. As critic Manohla Dargis wrote in October in a New York Times review, the movie “rais[ed] questions about pleasure and a director whose desire felt more at stake than that of his characters.” Dargis nevertheless concluded that, despite the limitations of the film, ultimately “we need more women on screen…to get this conversation really started.”
The afterlife of Maroh’s book — while bringing attention to the continued scarcity of thoughtful and realistic artworks about relationships between women and while prompting such urgent conversations — has also served to erase much of what makes the graphic novel such a powerful depiction of youthful awakenings, sexual and otherwise. As the opening quote attests, Blue Is the Warmest Color is a book that is perhaps most centrally about the creation and development of self-knowledge, the ways that we come to think and talk about what we want and who we are, or at least who we hope to become.
The link between girlhood musings and the diary form has been established in numerous acclaimed fictional and non-fictional works, from Anne Frank’s diary to Tavi Gevinson’s creative applications of the diary form on her popular website, Rookie, to Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s compelling narrative of adolescence, Skim. There seems to be something particularly appealing about the visual aspect of journaling — as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home perhaps makes most strikingly clear when a young Alison depicts the slow shift of her diary as a vehicle for mechanical recording to an elliptical text suggesting a world of anxiety, ambiguity, and desire just off the page. Other powerful graphic narratives trading in this mode include Ariel Schrag’s Potential and Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
What is perhaps most evocative of the youthful diary made visible is the way that questions and reflections — about sexuality or identity or friendship or family or love — can accordingly be exposed for their exaggerated larger-than-lifeness, or the ways that such intensity can transform and even die out over time. In Maroh’s fictional universe, the inexperienced naiveté of the diary writer is matched by the expressive manga-like faces accompanying the boxed-in and cursive diary entries. When we see the characters at an older age — in their thirties — and looking back, although the pages are drawn in full-color (as opposed to the mostly black-and-white depictions of the time of the diary), the world seems somehow duller, grayer, and more emotionally restrained.
But the visual rendering of the narrative-as-diary doesn’t just expose the differences between how we experience ourselves in the world when we are young and how time and knowledge change us. Perhaps more importantly, through the graphic narrative form we are also made aware of the threads that sustain over time and the connections between the ways we remember ourselves and the ways others remember us. The story in Blue Is the Warmest Color might be told through the narrative voice of Clémentine, but it is her lover, Emma, who is reading and remembering. The juxtaposition of words — thought, spoken, and written — and the visual memories that accompany them are united on the page as a single, coherent narrative that unsettles even as it seamlessly and often painfully unfolds. Emma’s memories of Clémentine — accented at times with tints of blue — are triggered as she reads the diary, and they become part of that narrative, collapsing the distance between women and between the past and the painful, lonely present.
“There’s no clear boundary between friendship and love,” says Valentin, another central character in Clémentine’s story whose search for self unfolds alongside hers. Maroh’s graphic novel subtly but powerfully both highlights and blurs the boundaries that we continually establish, from childhood on. Though the narratives we create about our lives can never perfectly match what we want to show or say or believe — though ambiguities are always part of the picture — certain emotional hues ultimately persist.
Check out Blue Is the Warmest Color as well as other titles mentioned in this review: