“Blue Is the Warmest Color” arrives with plenty of controversy—poor working conditions alleged by cast and crew, production overruns in both budget and schedule, and varied reactions over graphic sex scenes resulting in an NC-17 rating. Whether writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche has ethical lapses or poor people/management skills and whether he joins the ranks of artists who aren’t wonderful people, his film, which won the top prize at Cannes this year, is nevertheless a remarkable achievement, matching his last film, the great Secret of the Grain.
Essentially a coming-of-age and coming-out film, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” is an adaptation of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel. In its three-hour running time, the movie follows Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) from age 15 to her mid-20s, and if anything, it feels too short. The story starts in high school. Adèle is an avid reader who attracts the attention of a handsome boy named Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte). Adèle is certainly beautiful as one of her fellow classmates takes note of, but she’s not a conventional beauty. She dresses frumpily. Her hair is disheveled, strands often dangling down her face. Her body language displays the insecure awkwardness of adolescence.
One day, Adèle passes blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux) on the street and can’t take her eyes off her, and Emma haunts Adèle’s erotic imagination. After Adèle and Thomas finally have sex, Adèle reveals to her gay best friend Valentin (Sundor Funtek) that something felt missing, and shortly after, Adèle and Thomas break up. Kechiche captures this efficiently in a scene basically embodied by a single tear rolling down Thomas’ face. One night, Adèle aimlessly wanders into a lesbian bar and once more bumps into Emma, who turns out to be a college art student. Emma recognizes that Adèle is trying to come to terms with her sexuality and she wants to help.
When they first meet, Adèle is culturally naïve. She is unaware of the connotation among lesbians of the beer she drinks. Her attraction to Emma’s blue hair makes her guess Emma is a hairdresser. She can only name Picasso from the art world. She doesn’t understand Sartre. Emma is the opposite—knowledgeable, confident, and self-assured. “I’m the weird and imposing type,” she says. They are opposites in other ways, neither liking food the other does. They reside in different social classes. Emma’s eyes are an icy blue while Adèle’s are a warm brown. These opposites attract and their subsequent meetings spiral into a sweltering love affair. The rest of the film is devoted to the affair’s course and fate.
The affair’s consummation is an already famous extended graphic sex scene. In the recently released “Don Jon”, the characters talk about the difference between pornography and making love being that porn is essentially selfish while making love is about people becoming one. That may not be the most sophisticated or nuanced distinction, but in “Blue Is the Warmest Color”, despite the near pornographic detail, Adèle and Emma are clearly making love. The entire film up to this point has been building up to the release of Adèle’s passion and Kechiche indulges it and makes it sprawl. Kechiche wants the sex to be vivid, ecstatic, and he absolutely does not shy away from the beauty of young supple bodies.
There have been many films about the confusion of adolescence and the difficulty of coming out and Kechiche covers many of the common tropes, but he makes the material fresh by understating the subtext while concentrating on the immediate experiences of the characters. Aside from the sex scenes where the point is to present the pinnacle of the characters’ passion, he doesn’t overdramatize. He keeps things in the moment, grounded, natural. He shows instead of tells.
For example, the point of a scene of Emma introducing Adèle to her parents at their relatively luxurious home with oysters for dinner and conversation about art and wine only becomes pointed with the introduction of a later mirror scene of Adèle introducing Emma as a friend, not a lover, to her parents in their relatively drab home for a spaghetti dinner. Their respective social class allows Emma the psychological freedom to reveal and even flaunt her sexuality while Adèle represses hers to everyone but Emma. This social pressure, among other things, eventually drives a wedge between the them.
Kechiche trains his camera on Adèle almost constantly with enormous portions of the film devoted to close-ups of her face, often with an emphasis on her mouth, and the soundtrack concentrates on capturing her breathing, bringing Adèle’s corporeal form to the forefront of our attention. Rarely has a film created such intimacy with a character. We come close to inhabiting her body and her soul. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux both give their all and end up with possibly career peak performances. They don’t have to like Kechiche, but they should be proud of their contribution to their craft and their enduring work here.