I always enjoy seeking out any film that garners a significant reputation. Be it achieving critical acclaim, artistic prestige, infamy, underground cult status or – of course – any sort of controversy. Blue Is The Warmest Color is successfully qualifying in each of those categories. In an unprecedented move, the film was awarded the 2013 Palme d'Or at Cannes by Steven Spielberg's jury to not only the film's director, Abdellatif Kechiche, but also it's two leading starlets, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos (the award has always previously been awarded to just the director of the best film in the official competition). It's been lauded for its artistry and attacked for its sexual content. And it all surrounds a film that is a three-hour, graphically NC-17 epic love drama between two young French ladies. So while it's not surprising that waves are being made and audiences are being divided, the question remains: is it any good?
Titled in French as La Vie d'Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2 (The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 & 2), this follows the story of Adèle (Exarchopoulos), an introspective high school student who is fascinated by literature and confused and frustrated when it comes to matters of the heart. She crosses paths with blue-haired, free-spirited Emma (Seydoux). Erotic dreams about Emma happen and Adèle attempts a forced relationship with a boy from school. After the fling leaves her unfulfilled, she realizes she prefers Emma. The two encounter each other again one night at a bar and from there the film sets in on a slow-burning track that charts the course of their life together over the next several years, examining all the heartache and difficulty that tends to accompany most all young, passionate love.
Blue is as much a coming-of-age exposé specifically about Adèle as it is a love story between her and Emma. We are privy to all of their thoughts, conversations and intimate moments. And the film shies away from nothing, effortlessly juggling Adèle's immersion into a world that Emma (being several years older) has been calling home for some time now, their fiery relationship and Adèle's gradual learning of the woman she will become.
Kechiche's direction is razor sharp, and he manages to infuse his film with a brutally mesmerizing sense of pathos, empathy and honesty. The story feels relatable, in that it actually could be directly translated to most any relationship. I don't see it so much as a story about two women in love, but rather just an exposé of love in general (particularly that young, tragic, I-haven't-grown-up-yet kind). The later scenes where Adèle and Emma discuss their shifting views on happiness are captivating. As Emma's art career begins to take off and she laments how she wishes Adèle had something passionate to focus her creativity on, Adèle responds that her idea of happiness is simply being with Emma. These drops of rain before the oncoming storm sting. And when the flood hits, it's a veritable hurricane. Wounds are opened, salt is poured in and no one in this tale will ever be the same. I don't really think it's spoilerish to say so, but the scene in the coffee shop towards the end of the film broke every damn piece of my heart. This is a film that hurts.
The cinematography is gorgeous, and Kechiche often prefers to linger on extreme close ups. Virtually every conversation is filmed tight on the actor's faces. It drifts amidst subjects' bodies and interactions (whether making love, eating dinner, scratching an itch) with an almost omnipresent dreamlike quality. He frames tight on not just the beautiful moments, but the miserable ones. When someone is crying, snot running down their face and they're too distraught to bother wiping it away – you're going to see that, too, unflinchingly, up close and personal. Most everything is handheld, giving the image a raw instability. And for a film clocking in at exactly three hours, the editing somehow makes this tale feel succinct. I was amazed that the film never felt cumbersome, and it never overstayed its welcome.
I absolutely understand why Spielberg allowed the Palme d'Or to be shared with these ladies. They are absolutely fearless on screen. Their emotional turmoil is so raw and unprotected on screen that it feels almost wrong to be viewing the film, as if the audience is an invisible guest that is allowed to witness all the ups and downs and the dynamic nuances between this couple that only they themselves should be privy to. It's not unlike Blue Valentine, which elicited the same response from me (although that film is far more emotionally devastating). Seydoux plays Emma with such an honest, vibrant and charismatic energy that it's easy to see how Adèle becomes captivated with her. But for me, Exarchopoulos is the true standout, exuding a sultry eroticism and a stalwart confidence that yield a maturity well beyond her years (that she is this strong of a talent at just 19 is something of a revelation). Her Adèle makes a blisteringly uncompromising metamorphosis on screen, evolving from curious, waifish nymph to heartbroken and assured woman before our very eyes. The kind of transformation that can only come from a deep, cataclysmic relationship that extinguishes as violently as it ignites. Each actress finds countless layers to peel back in their character. In the hands of a lesser director and cast, this could've been a trite, indulgent affair carried by two pretty faces. But their performances are raw, uncompromising and heartbreaking. They are as emotionally naked for the audience as they are physically.
Which brings us to the sex. I didn't want to overtly focus on this element, as I think the repeated latching on to this part of the film's content cheapens what it's achieving as a whole. But it is a significant element so it's worth discussing. Being as the film never ducks any aspect of this love story, it wholeheartedly embraces that Adèle and Emma have sex. A lot. Explicitly and at length. Can I understand that people are put off by it? Yes, absolutely. But it's not really about that. Everything that is depicted on screen feels necessary and serves to enhance the characters' relationship and emotional connection. They show a real connection between Adèle and Emma. There is genuine performance in these scenes that serve the film's overall power. When these two collide there's electricity, and sex is a part of it. Yes, the film is unflinching and utterly raw. But it needs to be that way, in this particular tale. So I commend Kechiche for remaining so uncompromising.
On a lighter note, an early encounter between the two characters culminates in a long buildup to a potential first kiss that is, quite frankly, one of the most nerve-shredding emotional moments I've seen in a film in years. And it's purely because of the hesitation. It feels real.
I'll freely admit that this film isn't for everyone. Many will be put off by either the graphic content (and make no mistake: it is extremely, unwaveringly explicit), the runtime or the fact that it's subtitled. And it's completely fine that this is a polarizing experience. But Blue Is The Warmest Color is a fully fleshed, raw, powerful, seductively erotic, vibrant and exciting work of art and a film that I happen to think is utterly beautiful and intensely hypnotic. To attempt condensing that hyperbolic string of adjectives: it's a powerhouse. I have heard Kechiche might recut a longer version of the film down the road, and I'd love to revisit that. After three hours, I still didn't feel I'd spent enough time with these characters. One of the best films of the year, it comes with one of my highest (however cautious) recommendations.
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
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