When one hears that Julie Maroh's new book is titled Body Music (Corps Sonores), it is perhaps inevitable to move from the suggestion of rhythmically moving flesh to thoughts of her debut work, the sexually frank romance-tragedy Blue is the Warmest Color (Le bleu est une coleur chaude). Specifically, one might think of the Palm D'Or-winning film adaptation of the same name*, which secured fifteen minutes of infamy for containing a long sex scene in which the lesbian lovemaking of Maroh's book is revisualized through a heavy screen of heterosexual pornographic conventions. The phrase "Body Music" would seem to promise further ventures into the sensual. After reading the book, however, the title takes on the character of a sly joke on the prurient interest that her earlier work is now inescapably saddled with. Though Maroh returns to the themes of sex, love, and LGBTQ representation, her latest work is a very different kind of book from Blue is the Warmest Color -- in some ways, it is a book that seems to be trying to be different, to break away.
A young artist trying to escape the gravitational pull of an early success, especially one anchored to another artist's partially incongruous adaptation, is not so unusual a phenomenon. During the wave of hot takes following the movie's release, Maroh felt compelled to release a statement that both supported the film as a whole (calling it a "master stroke") and criticized the handling of the sex scenes (writing that "what was missing on the set" was actual lesbians.) Maroh now seems understandably weary and/or wary of discussing the film, and her website's standing FAQ preemptively directs the reader to her 2013 statement as her final word on the subject, with thanks in advance for not contacting her about it further. Her follow-up work, Skandalon, was pointedly marketed as "a startling change of pace," a slogan which may well be code for "don't pigeonhole me." The changes evident in Maroh's second and third books, however, are not merely reactive, but progressive as well. They are signs of an artist who is growing and developing, and whose style is shifting not for the sake of novelty, but to reflect deepening interests, rising confidence, and more complex powers of observation.
Body Music is an exploration of romantic love, set in present-day Montreal, and told through twenty-one vignettes. The stories contain a diverse spread of types of people (across ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, physical abilities) and types of relationships (from committed monogamy to one-night stands to various polyamories). Body Music has an obvious political project of representation. Such projects, while almost always well intentioned (though occasionally baldly cynical), can often become cloying or suffocating, a work bending over backwards to show you its politically correct bona fides while neglecting to do the work of storytelling, reflection, or imagination. Such is not the case here, or at least, very rarely the case. Maroh’s commitment to the individuality of her characters as physical beings precludes her from treating any of them as representatives of their particular identity group, even when they are directly (sometimes didactically) discussing that identity with others. Her growing powers of observation and expression keep her scenes, for the most part, rooted in behavior and emotion, and though some scenes burn hotter than others, there is an emotional intelligence to the work as a whole that can only be described as mature.
Blue is the Warmest Color, though accomplished, was very much the work of a young, unformed artist. Maroh reportedly started work on it at the age of nineteen. She was well into her twenties by the time the book was finished and published, but there is a certain blunt sentimentality to the work that shows the teenaged emotional understandings still coursing through its DNA. The book also rests on a pair of artistic crutches -- the narrative structure of young adult romance, and the visual qualities of shojo manga -- which, while serviceable, are also a limit on Maroh's ability to manifest her own voice (and eye). Skandalon was, as advertised, a change of pace, telling the story of a male rock-n-roll superstar approaching self-destruction, and adopting a thicker, heavier art style, more robustly colored, shaded, and shaped, reminiscent at times of the painter Gauguin. If her first two books saw an artist growing and experimenting with influences, he third book shows her hitting on something closer to being her own.
The visual style in Body Music is an assured synthesis of a fine arts attention to line and texture, and a cartoonist's vocabulary of caricature and iconic shorthand. The title calls attention to one of Maroh's major aesthetic preoccupations: body language. All of Maroh's work shows an interest in the expressive capacities of everyday body movements, and her characters have always been excellent "actors" on the page, but Body Music displays a higher facility with the human form and its behaviors, surely the fruits of a continued focus on life drawing, of attention paid to how human bodies actually move and think and feel as opposed to how they tend to perform in more clichéd drawings. Her firmer grasp on naturalistic figures also makes it so that when she does shift into a “cartoony” register, the tones meld and complement one another, as she knows just what parts of the body to deform for what expressive purposes, and how much transformation the verisimilitude of the figure can withstand.
Maroh’s development is not merely technical. Her greater powers of physical observation are reflected in the emotional nuance and complexity she crafts throughout Body Music. Here, the structure of the narrative may be to her advantage. Whereas her first two books were single, sweeping stories with central figures who become to some degree larger than life, in Body Music the narrative is fragmented into vignettes, most of which turn on small moments, some climactic, some elliptic, some triumphant, tragic, or comic. The dispersion of narrative emphasis among almost two dozen characters and situations allows Maroh to select scenes for the particular emotional ideas they explore, and to explore a wide variety of such ideas, without getting bogged down into the kind of ornate or overwrought plot that would likely result from exploring all of these ideas in one story.
This is not to say that a work could not explore as many, if not more, emotional ideas in one plot, but it would require a more deft touch than Maroh currently possesses. Though she has developed, she is not completely removed from the overly earnest emotional vibrato of her earlier works, and it is likely the episodic nature of Body Music that prevents that quality from congealing and choking the book. Though it is worth noting that “earnestness” becomes somewhat difficult to judge when one factors in translation – perhaps some of her dialogue is more subtle or poetic in the original French? And Maroh does not seem completely unaware of her penchant for bluntness: one story in Body Music depicts a group of twenty-somethings having a rather didactic back-and-forth about polyamory that recalls other equally blunt or didactic conversations about various romantic or social issues in other stories. Here, however, as the argument continues, Maroh depicts the participants as various historical figures engaged in debate or combat – Roman senators, medieval knights, Enlightenment revolutionaries – and moreover, the friends in the group who have not joined into the argument are depicted in these scenes too, made up to look as if they belong to the tableau, but their faces and bodies betraying their total boredom or disengagement from the conversation. The witty self-mockery suggests Maroh understands that she comes across as perhaps strident at times, but is willing to court ridiculousness for the sake of expressing her ideas, and is also willing to laugh at herself for doing so.
What’s more, it is possible that Maroh is more than merely aware of an occasional failing on her part; rather, the blunt or impersonal nature her dialogue assumes at times could be a part of the overall pattern of meaning in the book. The prologue to the book offers up, as metaphor for the universal and repetitious nature of romance, a mass transit map – a visual route that everyone might take, visiting the same stops at different times, with different partners. This may ultimately be the lesson in the tension between Maroh’s blunt dialogue and her nuanced, expressive bodies: That there is individuality, and individual value, in how we move and speak in the world, even if there is not so much in what it is we do or say.