The world is an entirely different place when love is involved—whether its for better or for worse, nothing is ever the same. And when the joy and pleasure of love gives over to the hellish sorrows of heartbreak, you begin to long for the future like never before. If you can’t reawaken the past, you think: oh, if time would only speed itself up six months or a year from now when I’m free from this oppressive feeling then everything would be fine. But sometimes it not. Sometimes its’ never fine and the mark left by a truly life-altering love stings us forever and we’re never free from its grasp.
And throughout cinema’s history, we’ve seen various tales of first love that lasts well beyond its expiration date, stories of youthful passion that transpose themselves into adult ache. And with his endlessly controversial and Palme d’Or wining latest feature Blue is the Warmest Color, director Abdellatif Kechiche explores near-decade spanning relationship between two women, exposing their potent emotional arc from the initial spark of obsession and desire to absolute grief and desolation. Adapted by Kechiche from the 2010 French graphic novel Blue Angel by Julie Maroh the film is dramatically different rendering of the story, chronologically retelling the lovelorn tale of Adèle and Emma, played by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux.
But for the incessant chatter about the film’s sex scenes, the onset behavior of the director, and the supposed tensions between he and the film’s stars, its the strength of the performances and the fearlessness of its leading women that should be at the forefront of the film’s discussion. As the film’s main focus, Exarchopoulos takes on the role of Adèle with ferocity and strength, tracking her journey from withdrawn high school student questioning her sexual identity to the maturity that comes with love as she begins her vocation and finds her place in adulthood.
Last week, I got the chance to sit down with Exarchopoulos to discuss the “huge human adventure” that was the making of Blue is the Warmest Color, growing close with her co-star, and assimilating to the spotlight.
How did you first become involved with the film? Was it a rigorous audition process?
I did a casting with a lot of different people, and we had to do a lot of improvisation. They gave me the comics just to know what we’re talking about. After the first casting, I remember we were supposed to play a scene—an improvisation—where I have to tell to my best friend that I’d seen a woman and that she’d obsessed me, but I had to be ashamed, it had to be more complex. So after a lot of auditions someone called me and told me Abdellatif wanted to meet me, so I met him at a cafe in Paris. We really stayed in silence for a while and he asked me to talk about myself. I was 18 and thought it was going to be boring, so I said maybe it’s more cool if you asked me some questions. We stayed in silence for a little bit after and I thought I messed up, and then they called me and said that he wanted to see me again. So we had a lot of meetings in two months and he asked me to do some sports, he told me he wanted an energetic body, and I think it was a way for testing me. And just before celebrating the New Year he told me, “It’s you.”
Did reading the graphic novel help to inform the way you approach Adele or did you take it very loosely?
It was just for inspiration, and after he picked me he told me he made a really free adaptation. I want to build this relationship, the three of us. Lea had already been picked, so he gave me the script and he told me to really forget it, don’t stick to the script.
How did you explain the film to you in those initial meetings?
He didn’t tell me a summary like, “This is a film about a female…” He had something very spiritual, where he fills you with every other experience, and when you’re with him you feel an understanding. It’s rare when you speak to someone that really understands you, but he explained that it was just like a common story when you meet someone and it crushes your life and changes your life forever. That was just the beginning.
Did you find a lot of similarities between Adele and yourself, being quite young and sensitive to the nature of love. Was she someone that you felt you were really able to get under your skin?
Yeah, for me, the most important thing when I have to play someone is to understand my character—because if not, it’s impossible for me to act. It really helped me that we shot chronologically. We shot a lot of things, and the shoot was really intense and long and really not conventional. It was like, okay today we’re going to shoot an improvisation or today we’re going to hit a mark and cry—he tried to capture everything and from the beginning. I’m thought, I know I’m young and I know how much this age could be really important in your own construction, and when you’re pure and you have all your first experience– it could be with your friends or in love—when you don’t know how to protect yourself and when you’re really pure and virginal of your experiences, you have to let it go. And really, the other actors helped me a lot.
Shooting chronologically, did you see yourself mirroring your characters journey and transformation? She’s so young and inexperienced in the beginning and by the end so tattered but there’s strength in her experience—did you feel that way yourself as well?
Yeah, because this shoot was really like a first experience too, and I learned a lot. It was like a huge human adventure. It was up and down, and so that helped me in my character. You build yourself with things that you learn, that you discover and it’s true that at the end of the movie I felt the evolution.
Reading the script at first, did you have any concerns going into it? Not only in regards to the sexuality of the film but because it really is such an emotional endurance test and very intense to play this role.
For me the most challenging thing was to be constant in the evolution—to start from high school and to finish as a teacher was really hard for me to project. I mean, it’s hard to play a teacher because you have to find a good place where you can be authoritative and also close. You are with 20 children who are not actors, so they are so natural. For example, the sex scene did not fear me because Abdellatif really told me from the beginning that he wanted to treat this scene like the other ones—and for me it was a part of the game.
What’s interesting is that for months leading up to seeing the film, everything I heard focused so heavily on the fact that this was a love story between two women. But watching the film, it really could have been any two people because the story was universally about the pain of relationships and that kind of love transcends any gender. Is that how you went about looking at Adele and Emma?
Never in my head or ever on the shoot were we debating about homosexuality—never. We never said the words like “lesbian” or “homosexual,” it was just a love story. We tried to make people forget that this is two women because it could happen between anyone. When you fall in love with someone you can’t control it.
Right, it’s purely your feelings over any sort of rational thought or understanding and sometimes that can be completely paralyzing.
It’s just your feelings. But it was weird because at Cannes we realized our movie was followed by a wonderful coincidence that at the same moment, all the debates about homosexuality in France were going on. And the day when all won the Palm d’Or, it was the day gay marriage was legalized. So everyone’s speaking about this, and it’s the most beautiful coincidence. But it’s wonderful because we really don’t control it. It’s a movie about circumstances too but it was not controlled.
Especially then, did you take a lot of pride in being a part of a film that addressed those issues so candidly and naturally?
Yes, because I myself go to the cinema to ask questions and not to just forget things. I want to learn things and walk out of the theater and feel a kind of change in your mind. So for me, my engagement is not just to be an actress, it’s to be involved in a movie and in a story I believe in and live a character and give justice to this character.
So do you look for roles that will make you ask yourself those questions as well? And to that end, is the process of undergoing a transformation into a character and the process something that’s very important to you?
Yeah, but it also depends. I also like to have fun and I like comedy—like Judd Apatow, for me he has the best dialogue. So yeah, there are a lot of reasons but I like being able to just live a million lives between these characters. For me it’s like a game really—sometimes I’m really conscious and sometimes I’m natural.
And you and Lea didn’t spend time together prior to shooting the film, Did your closeness feel completely natural and immediate or was that something you had to warm up to?
We just met on the shoot. I was telling myself: it doesn’t have to be forced, it will come up and if it doesn’t, we’re working so we will see what happens, but it will not be good if we try too hard for it to be fun. The first scene we shot was the sex scene—the dream scene—and it came so naturally. It was like we knew each other for ten years, and we naturally built a full friendship. She was like my sister to me on this movie and now also in life. I never thought about meeting such a friend on a movie.
I’m sure also going through the making of this film together brought you two closer and allowed you to form something that really only you two can understand.
Yeah, I know how much she can understand me and I always feel close to her, and I think I always will because I will never forget this experience. It brought so many change in me.
What was the biggest way in which the film changed you as a person?
There are so many things, you know? Things you can really not express to yourself because they’re human things. It’s taught me maturity, liberty…too many things.
Was there anything that you found the most challenging about the role and the experience in general?
Really the hardest thing was to make this evolution for Adele and to be closer to the reality of the story, to be right on everything from the beginning of the meeting, to the end—and to never fall down.
Were you nervous about the reaction you were going to get going into the festivals?
Yeah, but the film exists as the most important thing. People will appropriate the movie for themselves as they want to. So we don’t have to put pressure on ourselves, because you can’t control these things. Before Cannes, I thought the reaction would be more of a divide—people wouldn’t love it because they’d feel too disturbed or too distant, or people would really love it. We saw a weird thing though when everyone loved it. How did it feel, after all of this to win the Palme d’Or? I’m sure it’s something you never even imagined. I never dared to have a world like that and be in that life. I’m lucky because I’m 19, so I ever really thought about it. To be in Cannes was already huge. When the three of us won, it was really strange; you’re in front of people that you grew up, with their cinema, and they impressed you and now they’re all here and they thank you and they give you so much recognition. For me the most important thing is when I realize that people really understand my work—like friends of mine tell me it made me think about me and my girl or me and my boy, and I’m like oh, people can really identify themselves in what we are doing. So it works.
Well it’s easy to identify because there’s a great authenticity and vulnerability in your performance. The film says a lot of the things that a person in a relationship often doesn’t like to admit to themselves or their partner, and also exposes you in a way that isn’t always flattering but is completely natural—was that important to you in order to convey the emotional weight of the story?
Yeah, because I love the fact that you know, for example, you don’t really see people moan or cry so much with snot dripping down their face. When you have a crying scene, people have their makeup on and look nice, but in life we are all ugly sometimes—whether you’re you’re making love or fighting, etc.—and what’s important is just the beauty of the situation and the act. Sometimes when you cry you can be dignified but it’s also just honest.
People talk endlessly about the sex scenes in the film but to see it, it felt so real that there wasn’t really anything erotic about it and it didn’t feel there to be sensational at all.
But that’s maybe why people are disturbed by it. I can see people are frustrated but also fascinated—like when you say to a child, don’t watch this movie it’s not for you, and then you watch it. For me it was clear from the beginning that we were going to treat this scene like an introspection in the room of these two girls, but for us it was important to see how it could be organic between two people and how much sex is important, like when you really offer yourself to someone and you really let it go.
Do you feel like people circling so much around that particular scene takes away from the film as a whole? I think the movie is much more than this. And people are reducing the movie to this scene and that’s not the point.
How has it been doing press for the film? Is it an emotionally grueling process to have to keep explaining an experience that was so personal and hard to describe?
It’s weird, I’m only 19, and it’s my first big promotion like this. What I love in about promoting it though, is really to see different public reactions in every country. But after, the press exercise is really new for me; I never practiced it and it’s more exhausting than a shoot and I take less pleasure. Sometimes you feel lost—you have to talk about something that happened one year before and it’s really personal and really hard to make people understand how it felt like a human adventure. It’s easy to say there was ups and downs it was really important, but every day was so special for me and so personal that it’s hard to explain. So doing press also feels like it makes your memories less sacred.
It’s a different kind of exposing yourself and not for the sake of a film this time.
You have to sell yourself, and you don’t even remember who is who because you’re introduced to so many people. You’re only 19 and they’re taking you in a space and saying, okay you have this dinner and you have to be pretty and make people happy and say how much you love working and always be positive. Sometimes I feel lost. It’s like when you’re 14 and you’re friends around you are meeting with a boy, it’s the same—”you should go, you should go”—and they try to make you connect and you are in front of the boy and you lost your words, because it’s not natural. And for me, it’s not natural and I admire people to can be. So honestly, I don’t really love it and I miss Lea a lot. I’d love to do promotion with her but she’s on a shoot. So it’s weird but I love the projection and the premiere.
I suppose this applies to that as well, but when you’re so deep into a character, how do you separate your own life from that? Do you go home and still carry this person around with you?
During the shoot it was hard to escape. Even on the weekends, you go and see people and you don’t want to speak about this because you know that you’re going to be in it again the next day. So you try to enjoy real life. But after the shoot I was thinking it would be really hard to forget this story, this human adventure. It’s so intense when you are with people for five months, from the morning to the night, and you don’t know these people at first and after it looks like you’re a family, and you feel so close to them, and then you cut and its finished. But I found a friend like Lea, and I learned to just keep memories with me for other adventures. This shoot was so intense that after it was violent because you get bored, you stay in Paris and you love to see your friends and your family, but after you’re like, I’m not really doing anything. I had been working 16 hours a day and here I have nothing to do. But it’s a strange world because you can eat pasta for six months and really luxuriate in things for six months, but you’re never secure and a that’s exciting to me.