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There are two things on the surface of Abdellatif Kechiche’s three hour coming-of-age romance Blue is the Warmest Color: the first is how disarmingly often Kechiche and cinematographer Sofian El Fani put the camera as close as possible to their subjects, and the second is how much Kechiche seems to enjoy lesbian sex. The second thing, of course, has become to the dominant story surrounding the film in America, which should surprise exactly no one, considering this society’s lingering paradoxical puritanism. This controversy has been exacerbated by comments made by the cast, director and writer of its graphic novel source material after the film won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival. It’s a lot of bluster over a film that likely never would have been a true success stateside anyway (three hour French language lesbian romance films aren’t exactly The Avengers), and much of it seems overblown. The mythical 12-15 minute explicit lesbian sex scene certainly fits the explicit bill, but is more like 7 minutes than 12 and doesn’t seem nearly as overlong as the coverage would make you believe. Indeed, the sum total of various nude and sex scenes in the film doesn’t account for more than twenty minutes of screen time at the most, and probably closer to 15-18. In a 179 minute film, it is barely a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. This outrage reminds me quite a bit of the silliness surrounding Zero Dark Thirty and torture, with congressmen and conservative pundits spitting bile about a film they hadn’t even seen. In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, that became the story above the quality of the film itself. I hope the same fate does not befall Blue is the Warmest Color, as it just as undeserving of such surface level base complaints.
We spend nearly every frame following Adele (played by unknown-to-Americans Adele Exarchopoulos), a Junior in High School at the film’s opening, and her journey through her young adult life, sexual awakening and first real love. The camera is an unrelenting and uncompromising series of close-ups that hide nothing and yet still allow for a modicum of detachment. Exarchopoulos has a vivid and highly emotive face, a necessity for a film designed in the way it is. Adele (the character) flits through her life at school, through school work and social circles, dating a young man early on, but nothing seems to fulfill her (mirroring the main character in the book she is reading for her French Literature class). That is, until she spots the striking blue-haired bohemian artist Emma (Lea Seydoux) on the street and feels that piece that is missing could be found after all. A chance encounter at a lesbian bar begets a fiery and passionate romance that opens Adele up in the adult world and teaches Emma a few things along the way as well. This first chapter (the original French title is La Vie d’Adele – Chapitres 1&2, or The Life of Adele-Chapters 1&2) shows us the power and the magnetism of first love without too many of its pitfalls. It is clear that Adele and Emma come from different backgrounds, as two wonderfully contrasted dinner scenes with the two young lovers and their respective families dictate, but nothing can hold them back. Their love and their lust is eternal.
The second chapter is a more sobering affair. A few years in the future, Adele is working as a teacher, and Emma a burgeoning artist, her titular blue hair replaced with a drab, natural color and suddenly all has changed. Adele cannot truly meld with Emma’s bohemian friends and lifestyle, and has nowhere to turn (her own friends disowned her when they discovered her sexual proclivities in a particularly brutal chapter 1 scene) in order to vent her frustrations. You know, of course, that they will drift apart (this is a movie, after all), but will they find themselves again? The second chapter is much more difficult to watch, as it is clear that Adele is still somewhat stunted in her development, having relied so much on the older and more experienced Emma for love, strength and guidance that when she loses her, she has no rudder to right herself from a life suddenly out of control. The second chapter, free of any lingering queasiness revolving around the film’s sex scenes, is the stronger of the two, as watching the real world come crashing in around Adele is a heartbreaking experience, aided by two knockout scenes in their apartment and a café that ratchet the tension into the stratosphere. The second chapter also features one of my favorite single shots in any film in recent memory, a lovingly composed wide shot (one of the few, which draws the attention itself) of Adele in an art gallery, caught in the background between her idyllic past with Emma, and Emma’s idyllic present/future that speaks volumes and gave me chills in the theater.
Another way Blue is the Warmest Color made news was the way it received the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The Palme is historically a director’s award, but this year’s jury (led by Steven Spielberg) split the award among not only Kechiche, but with his actresses as well, an unprecedented move. You can understand why; Exarchopoulos thoroughly and entirely owns the screen, unleashing a commanding and unflinching performance that captivates you at every turn. The extreme close-ups that constantly fill the screen (Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables direction could learn a few things) work to her favor, as she has such a singular face, with big round baby cheeks and plump lips that are naturally parted in just such a way that her two front teeth are almost always visible, which serves to reinforce her youthful appearance. Kechiche’s camera never cuts away, catching every tear dribbling down those incredible cheeks, every glob of spit during a moment of passion, every particle of spaghetti sauce that doesn’t quite make it into her mouth, every rivulet of snot flowing from her nose during some of her more emotional scenes (Exarchopoulos is an amazing and powerful crier, which is a very strange sentence to write). She is voracious in every way, from how she eats to how she reads, how she kisses and makes love. Her youth and placement as an ingénue belies the torrent of passion raging beneath the surface. Her passions betray her, further complicating her place in a world where she is already arguably out of her element in the first place. You believe for every second that this is happening to her. No false moments or wrong moves. It is all flawless performance. I do not want to diminish the work of Seydoux in my effusive praise of Exarchopoulos, who offers a different sort of allure in her distance, but this is unquestionably Adele’s film, and one of the strongest and most fearless performances of by any actor male or female we’ve seen all year.
There is much more going on here, from the importance of the color palette (specifically, and unsurprisingly the color blue) and how it reflects the disposition of the characters, to the dichotomies in class and culture seen between Adele and Emma, to Adele’s status as a lesbian outsider who is unable to feel at home even in the lesbian community itself, to a more legitimate explication of the sex scenes in the film (I do feel that they deserve critical discussion, just not in the dismissive way they have been in the mainstream media). Indeed, these thoughts merely scratch the surface of this remarkable and emotionally complex cinematic experience. Don’t be scared off by the news and sensationalism surrounding Blue is the Warmest Color’s sex scenes that represent barely one-tenth of its run time. Doing so would deprive you of one of the most singular film experiences of 2013.