I miss the America we used to be

Blue-Is-The-Warmest-Color-2-350x196How the French film “Blue is the Warmest Colour” reminded me of the pleasure of learning, and the joy of being human.

The French film “Blue is the Warmest Color” has gotten a lot of media attention recently.  Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche and winner of the Palme D’ Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, the film has garnered attention for several scenes that focus on two women making love to one another. The film, in my view, is certainly not about female love making that is, in any case, highly stylized and choreographed in the scenes where it appears.  Rather, it speaks to the way we used to live—loving learning, interacting, and being present.

For those who have not seen the film, it is the romantic drama of Emma and Adele. They meet when Adele is 15 and Emma is slightly older. They move in together, but Adele does not divulge the nature of their relationship to family and friends. The film charts the next few years in their life together, and, without divulging the ending, when the relationship is challenged the outcome leaves a deep impact on both women.

What impressed me in this movie is the opportunity it gave to witness a way of civilized contemporary life that contrasts pointedly with our current American culture, especially in our sophisticated big cities. For example, in the movie we spend quite a lot of time with Adele’s high school literature class. The teacher and students talk in depth about the meaning of passion, beauty and personal gesture. The teacher, who has the manner of a literature professor from the U.S. in the 1970’s, asks probing questions and his students try to answer. They pay attention. They search through the text they are reading. Adele cares deeply what the text is saying and also ponders the ways she thinks about love, work, and art. AND, she is a lower middle class girl!

Her lover, Emma, is drawn as a contrast: a young woman who is an aspiring artist at the Academy of Fine Arts whose parents are aesthetically refined and sophisticated– different from Adele’s pragmatic and literal-minded folks. Emma is meant to typify the values and ideas of the upper class, more educated and affluent.

A major impact of the movie then, subtly expressed, is the tension that comes from having different intellectual and aesthetic orientations to daily life while having a passionate love affair. We also spend time in the elementary school where Adele is a teaching intern. She wants the kids to learn the basics and she is dedicated to returning the favor of the education she received: it changed her ways of thinking and she wants to change theirs. There is not a sign of a computer or digital display in any classroom we see. The kids read and recite and Adele asks them to write on the blackboard in chalk to show the others whether they know correct spelling and penmanship. Wow. All the kids in the elementary school and the high school seem to understand that learning is a process and they appear to want to learn. We don’t see or hear anything about their “genius” or “creativity.” They are learning how to read, write and think, not to “become themselves.” But the movie is about the tension of becoming ourselves as it is influenced by our families, values, love affairs, and chance meetings.

Everywhere we go in the movie, we find people engaged with one another and their activities, not with machines and devices. In the parties, clubs and living rooms we visit, there is no sign of a cellphone, a digital tablet or the famous problems of attentional distractions that are prevalent in American schools, streets, shops, restaurants. I kept wondering if we are meant to be in another era in the movie, a more innocent one, before students and lovers became distracted by social media and selfies. But no, the fashions and the cars would say we are in the present time.

And so, I found myself wondering, as I stepped outside the movie theater, if this is actually the way France is now. I visited Paris last December. As I think back, I don’t recall hearing cellphones ringing or seeing a lot of people staring at devices held in their palms. Yes, I was bothered by the cigarette smoke in public places and lots of people smoke a lot in the movie, too. But, in fact, I did see a lot of people talking over coffees or wine in the cafes, pondering and arguing their various points.

The movie also reminded me of a time from my own early adulthood when it was possible to contemplate existential topics, spend hours in deep conversations over a mug of coffee or a glass of wine, and feel the joy of being human, being cultural, being engaged with my own species.

I really mourn the loss of these ways of being in America now, especially in our cities. Writing this on my new iPad while having a piece of cheese pizza in my sweet little city of Montpelier, Vermont, I realize how much I long for a different America. I recommend the movie to those people who can’t quite imagine or remember what it’s like to love being human.