Blue is the Warmest Color (France, 2013)October 30, 2013
It's difficult to overstate what director Abdellatif Kechiche has achieved with Blue is the Warmest Color, his powerful (if controversial) look into the life of a young girl as she experiences the highs and lows of first love. This may seem like a trite subject but, as brought to the screen by Kechiche and actress Adele Exarchopoulos, it's an almost overpowering experience - a movie that transcends voyeurism and invites empathy. We don't simply watch as Adele lives her life; we become a part of it, sharing her emotions and becoming complicit in her decisions. This is no romantic fantasy; every note is credible. The narrative doesn't reek of artifice. It doesn't seek facile resolutions and doesn't demand a happy ending where closure is a driving force. Watching Blue is the Warmest Color provides viewers with that rarest of motion picture opportunities: the ability to lose oneself in the life of another for three hours and to emerge having felt something.
When we first meet Adele, she's a junior in high school. Kechiche doesn't rush the introduction. In a collage of scenes, we come to understand her position in school and at home. We watch her sleep. The camera affords her little privacy, coming in far closer than we're used to. Kechiche relies on close-ups and extended cuts. He focuses on eyes, lips, and teeth. Early in the proceedings, this technique may be distracting but its strengths quickly become clear; Kechiche forges an unbreakable intimacy between audience and character that nothing in the rest of the film will break.
Adele is a virgin. Her "condition" is viewed by her friends as undesirable, so she does something with a boy to alleviate it. She finds the relationship fundamentally unsatisfying and ends it. Likewise, she gains little satisfaction from a dalliance with a lesbian school friend. One day on the street, her attention is galvanized by a passerby with blue hair. Although she doesn't know it at the time, Emma (Lea Seydoux) will become an important part of her life. The older girl worms her way into Adele's subconscious. When she masturbates that night, it's thinking of Emma.
An unspecified amount of time later, they meet at a club and strike up a conversation. This leads to a friendship and, eventually, a torrid love affair. The movie jumps forward in time, providing us with glimpses of key events in Adele's life. After finishing school, she moves in with Emma. Once the honeymoon period is over, however, they encounter the choppy waters that await any long-term relationship. Adele, still fragile and in many ways immature, makes a mistake and learns that some wounds can't be healed by apologies.
There are two things many potential viewers will know about Blue is the Warmest Color going in. First, it won the 2013 Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Second, it has some of the most explicit non-hardcore lesbian sex scenes ever committed to film. There are three of them and, while they are undeniably hot, they run a little longer than is probably necessary (the same could be said about the movie as a whole). Kechiche doesn't flinch from showing the characters' bedroom activities any more than he avoids other parts of their daily interaction. It's important to him to present the totality of their life together.
Words fail to describe how good the acting is and how shameful it will be when neither Exarchopoulos nor Seydoux is accorded Oscar recognition. (The film is ineligible for Best Foreign Film because its release date in France missed the Academy-imposed cutoff.) Seydoux, who may be recognizable to some Americans from her appearances in Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Inglourious Basterds, gives a superior performance that revels in Emma's confidence as an artist and a person while still showing an underlying vulnerability. Exarchopoulos is mesmerizing; her emotional nakedness is more potent than that of her body. There's never a moment in the whole of Blue is the Warmest Color's running length when one even momentarily doubts the honesty of the portrayal; this is easily among the best performances of the year.
As often as the sex is mentioned in discussions about Blue is the Warmest Color, this movie isn't really about nudity and orgasms. It's about life - Adele's life in particular - and sex is a part of life. The lesbian relationship comprises only about half the running time. There's more to Adele than the time when she's with Emma, although the intensity of their scenes together almost makes one wish the director had spent a little more time with them. The film's two most powerful scenes are emotionally wrenching exchanges between the two - one occurs when Emma confronts Adele about her mistakes and the other transpires several years later.
Controversy has followed this film, which may be a good thing since it raises awareness. Exiting Cannes, much was written about the sex scenes and these became a point of contention among (mostly) female reviewers who split over whether they're gratuitous and exploitative. Then, in interviews, the actresses (Seydoux in particular) lashed out at Kechiche for his exhausting filmmaking methods (every scene required a multitude of takes - some as many and one hundred). When the film showed at the New York Film Festival, Kechiche and Exarchopoulos were there but Seydoux was tellingly absent. Considering the results, however, it's hard to dismiss the director's methods.
Blue is the Warmest Color requires patience. The viewer has to be willing to invest three hours and to allow events to develop at their own pace. It's at times slow but the vividness of the characters, especially Adele, makes it worthwhile. Those who don't like character-based, dialogue-driven motion pictures aren't likely to be converted by this movie, even with all the flesh. But for those who are willing to downshift and drift away on Kechiche's currents, this is time well spent.
Blue is the Warmest Color (France, 2013)
Cast: Adele Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux
Screenplay: Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix, based on the graphic novel by Julie Maroh
Cinematography: Sofian El Fani
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films