Closer Review: ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’

Blue Is The Warmest Color (or La Vie d’Adele, Chapitres 1 & 2) comes with its fair share of baggage. It won the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes, where—for the first time—the top prize was awarded to its two lead actresses, as well as its director. The film has been the subject of much controversy due to its lengthy, explicit lesbian sex scenes, and the very public war of words between the actresses and the director—regarding Abdellatif Kechiche’s borderline abusive methods on set (both actresses stated they would never work with him again, despite being very proud of the film). It’s also attracted the ire of conservative watchdog groups, in response to certain US cinemas allowing teenagers to see it despite its NC-17 rating, and re-igniting the age old is-it-art-or-is-it-pornography debate concerning depictions of sex on screen.

So—is it art? Absolutely. This is an epic, startlingly intimate study of a girl’s awakening to her own sexual identity, and to the glorious, messy, painful world of lust, love, and relationship. Is it exploitative? Well…a little. Over its three hour length, there are a number of moments where the director’s male gaze becomes impossible to ignore. Lingering shots that climb up Adele’s body as she sleeps, a completely unnecessary shower scene, and the elephant in the room: the now infamous 10-minute scene where the two leads first consummate their relationship.

It’s an important moment, because it shows the powerful erotic core of a relationship that will last five years. It also shows the protagonist Adele having her sexuality completely, reciprocally met for the first time. Part of me applauds Abdellatif Kechiche for showing sex between loving partners as hungry, sensual and passionate—and by the time it occurs, we are fully invested in Adele and Emma as flesh-and-blood characters.  Yet I found it difficult to justify the scene’s length—which, for me, crossed the line into voyeuristic indulgence and created a brief disconnect from the identification the film so gracefully achieves, before and after.

To be fair, Kechiche applies the same sensual, almost mystical fascination to every facet of Adele’s existence,  whether she’s eating, dancing, sleeping or simply observing—and the incredible intimacy this creates is part of the film’s accumulative strength, reflecting Adele’s desperate need to fill the void within with whatever her voracious appetite grasps onto. But none of this would work if it wasn’t for Adele Exarchopolous’s extraordinary, one-of-a-kind performance. She possesses such a natural, un-self conscious presence—her eyes registering every confused, conflicted and subtle emotion without ever hitting a forced or false note, that we truly feel we are living her life with her, moment-to-moment as the film plays out.

The journey she makes, from naive 15-year-old student to fully fledged adult, almost takes you by surprise. It reminded me of the way we don’t notice people change when we see them every day. There’s no Hollywood moment when a sudden shift happens, just a gradual accumulation of experience that eventually makes her who she is. I’ve seen few performances, if any, quite like it, and she is ably matched by Lea Seydoux as the slightly older, more self-assured object of her affection. In light of their deeply raw, courageous and vulnerable work (apparently pushed to their emotional limits by Kechiche), and the fact that almost all the dialogue is improvised, it’s little wonder that the Cannes jury chose to reward them as equal co-creators.

Regardless of the debate around its sex scenes, or the questionable methods of its director, Blue is the Warmest Color captures a very specific, yet universal yearning for connection with genuine, truth-seeking empathy. Scene after scene is electrifying in its attention to emotional detail, creating a sense of authentic, spontaneous discovery that gets under your skin in a way that few films do.  And perhaps that’s the key: that Kechiche and his actresses treat every single moment with an achingly alive sensibility, telling what is ultimately the oldest story there is—of the waxing, waning relationship between two people—as though it’s never been told before. To my mind, it joins the ranks of In the Mood for LoveBrokeback Mountain, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as one of the most affecting love stories I’ve seen.

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