Lea Seydoux has been one of the toasts of the Cannes Film Festival this year, what with her stellar work opposite Tahir Rahim in Un Certain Regard entry Grand Central, and now, In Competition, she delivers the stronger of her two performances in the sweeping, epic, sexy romance Blue is the Warmest Color. The bigger story here, however, might just be the coming out party for newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos, who is sure to become an in-demand young actress overnight.
Adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel, Blue follows a young high school student, Adele (Exarchopolous), through the passage of adulthood as she attempts to come to terms with her sexuality. After a failed relationship with a classmate, Thomas (Jeremie Laheurte), Adele seems to find that which was missing in her heart with Emma (Seydoux), a blue-haired, older art student who she chances upon at a lesbian bar after an initial sighting.
Director Abdellatif Kechiche (Black Venus) uses his opening scene – a literature discussion about love at first sight – to foreground one of the key themes of the film. We see Adele meeting up with Thomas, craftily implying that it is these two who will be the romantic focus of the thesis, yet once Adele catches sight of Emma while walking down the street one day, we see that Thomas was merely an act of misdirection. Adele cannot shake Emma from her mind, making way for a complicated love story that spans a decade and is unexpectedly universal in its depiction.
Little of the film would garner much interest beyond its racy sex scenes if we didn’t connect with protagonist Adele at the outset. She’s a likeable, confident girl who loses her self-assurance as she discovers a new facet of her sexual identity — and then regains it as she embarks upon a relationship with the considerably more experienced Emma. The success and believability of these characters is a sure testament to the central performers. If Seydoux has earned a reputation over the last few years as a reliably brilliant young actress, more attention will likely be pointed towards Exarchopoulos, whose outstanding, vanity-free performance here is sure to lead to more high-profile work.
As raw physically as it is emotionally, Blue features graphic sex scenes both with Adele and Thomas early on, and then with Adele and Emma thereafter. The focal lovemaking scene, a roughly 15-minute document of the lesbian couple performing a multitude of sexual acts upon one another amid largely unbroken takes, underlines the brave commitment of the young actresses, and they are never anything less than totally convincing. The sensual approach by Kechiche helps to avoid charges of overt exploitation, even though it is undeniably titillating, and also convey the intimacy of a relationship’s honeymoon period, driven by overwhelming sexual attraction above all else.
There is a stereotype that used to exist in America that European (and especially French) films were all full of gratuitous sex. Back before the internet, VHS tapes, and days of easy access pornography, young boys would sneak into art house cinemas to get a look at those lovely bare bodies from across the Atlantic. Whether any of this is accurate, the stereotype made its cultural impact and somehow extremely graphic sex scenes in French films are greeted with slightly less shock by the typically more puritanical American public. Well, dust off those old theater blueprints, boys and girls, Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is The Warmest Color (aka La Vie D'Adele) is one of the most shockingly explicit features to cross the pond in quite some time. Oh, and it's also one of the best films of the year.
First things first, don't allow yourself to be discouraged by the film's daunting 187-minute runtime. This is a story that spans a number of years in a young girl's life and it earns its length by drawing you into the character early. That character is Adele and she is played exquisitely by Adele Exarchopoulos. Starting out in high school, we get to know Adele as her character is built through a series of mundane morsels: Adele is quiet but well liked; she is always running late; she loves to eat and does so boorishly, therefore she has never quite shed those extra few pounds from adolescence. Kechiche puts his camera right in Adele's face. This, paired with Exarchopoulos's perfectly subtle gestures, leaves us soon thinking, feeling, and reacting right alongside Adele. Therefore, when the real drama starts to build, the ramifications are intensely personal.
This drama takes the shape of a love story, only this love story isn't the kind we've so often seen between teens. After an encounter with a goateed classmate who all her friends think is handsome, Adele starts to realize that something might be wrong. She struggles with why she doesn't like this guy as much as she should, dancing around the truth as she simultaneously ignores a sexual attraction towards one of her female friends. This treatment of identity, confusion, and denial is some of the best and most personal storytelling that can be found. Adele doesn't know if she is gay. She doesn't even know what it means to be gay. But she can tell that something inside her is different -- and as it evolves, we go right along for the ride of its powerful manifestation.
The manifestation comes to its full fruition when Adele meets Emma. This titular blue-haired girl is played with equal accomplishment by Lea Seydoux. More comfortable with her sexual identity than Adele, Emma recognizes in the younger girl a budding maturity whose petals are just beginning to separate. She is immediately and powerfully drawn to Adele. This is magical coming-of-age movie romance at its best and the scenes when Adele and Emma first start to fall are some of the film's best.
At the start of Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche's three hour long Cannes Palme d'Or winner Adele (Greek actress Adele Exarchopoulis) is 15. At the end she is 10 years older, and substantially wiser.
But this, says the director, who has adapted his film freely from a novel by Julie March, is not the end of the story. He would, he says, like to know how Adele's life develops further.
If there is more to come of this love story between two women, Kechiche, the award-winning director of Couscous and Black Venus, is certainly the man to complete it. He has made a film that may have some of the most graphic lesbian sex scenes outside the genre of pornography, but it is also a very real and truthful-looking portrait of two human beings in a passionate relationship.
It's great virtue is that it shows us homosexuality in an entirely natural way, incorporating two performances that ring true throughout. Exarchopoulis is matched throughout by Lea Seydoux as Emma, the blue-haired instigator of the romance.
“I have infinite tenderness for you,” one woman tells another in “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” and it’s a sentiment that also describes director Abdellatif Kechiche’s attitude toward his characters in this searingly intimate, daringly attenuated portrait of a French teenager and her passionate relationship with another femme. Post-screening chatter will inevitably swirl around not only the galvanizing performances of Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, but also the fact that they spend much of this three-hour emotional epic enacting the most explosively graphic lesbian sex scenes in recent memory. The result is certain to stir excitement and controversy on the fest circuit while limiting the film’s arthouse potential, barring significant trims for length and content.
Still, it’s a measure of the honesty and generosity of Kechiche’s storytelling that the picture’s explicit sexuality and extreme running time feel consistent with his raw, sensual embrace of all aspects of life, an approach also apparent in the writer-director’s masterful 2007 drama “The Secret of the Grain.” Indeed, it would be reductive to slap an exclusive gay-interest label on “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” a bildungsroman and first-love story whose deep and abiding fascination with life’s great shared pleasures — food, sex, art, literature, music, conversation — encourages the viewer to consider the commonality as well as the vast complexity of human experience.
Having previously examined the lives of artistically inclined youth in 2004′s “Games of Love and Chance,” Kechiche and co-writer Ghalya Lacroix (who also served as one of four editors) have narrowed their focus yet deepened their emotional palette with this very loose adaptation of Julie Maroh’s 2010 graphic novel, “Le Bleu est une couleur chaude.” Fittingly for a story about a girl’s sentimental education, the film’s French title, “La Vie d’Adele: Chapitres 1 et 2,” is a nod to Pierre de Marivaux’s unfinished 18th-century novel “La Vie de Marianne” — an assigned text at the Lille high school where we first meet Adele (Exarchopoulos), a sensitive, unassuming 15-year-old with a passion for literature.
As the film soon makes clear, following a brief romance with cute classmate Thomas (Jeremie Laheurte), Adele also harbors feelings for women — specifically, for a university fine-arts student named Emma (Seydoux), a pale beauty whose short blonde hair is streaked an alluring, rebellious blue. After an encounter at a lesbian bar followed by a series of meetings, during which the older, worldlier Emma gently puts the nervous, inexperienced Adele at ease, the two eventually become lovers.
Three-hour movies usually are the terrain of Westerns, period epics or sweeping, tragic romances. They don’t tend to be intimate character pieces, but Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie D’Adèle Chapitres 1 et 2) more than justifies its length. A beautiful, wise, erotic, devastating love story, this tale of a young lesbian couple’s beginning, middle and possible end utilizes its running time to give us a full sense of two individuals growing together and apart over the course of years. It hurts like real life, yet leaves you enraptured by its power.
Blue Is the Warmest Color is a loose adaptation of a graphic novel by Julie Maroh. The filmmaker is Abdellatif Kechiche, who a few years ago produced The Secret of the Grain, one of the best recent foreign-language films. Blue is even better, tracing the maturation process of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a high school girl who’s starting to have hormonal stirrings. But for whom? A male classmate seems to take an interest in her, but she doesn’t feel much of a connection. Then one day, while walking down the street, she passes a captivating woman with blue hair. They share a look but nothing more—until their paths cross again and Adèle learns that her name is Emma (Léa Seydoux). In college and more worldly and sophisticated than Adèle, Emma is gay and in a two-year relationship, which soon ends once Adèle and Emma begin a courtship.
Often incorporating a handheld, seemingly improvisational flair, Kechiche doesn’t try to elevate the importance of Adèle and Emma’s relationship. If the movie’s length is epic, Blue’s feel is modest but serious, the filmmaker laying out all the important moments in a love affair so that we feel like we really understand these two people. As its French title suggests, the movie is told from Adèle’s perspective, and much of the first hour is devoted to her slowly coming to terms with her attraction for a woman, a decision that’s not easy considering some of the bigots at her school and her possibly unsupportive parents who have no idea about her sexual questioning. All these scenes matter so that Kechiche can firmly establish who Adèle is—anxious, sensitive, sweet—before she enters Emma’s gravitational orbit. Otherwise, the impact wouldn’t be so great once we witness how Adèle changes thanks to falling in love with Emma.
The initial buzz around Blue Is the Warmest Color concerned not its love story but, rather, its explicit sex scenes. They do exist and are indeed explicit, but like everything else in this film, they’re incredibly intimate, revealing and essential to the overall tapestry that Kechiche is constructing. Perhaps not since Y Tu Mamá También has a movie’s sex scenes been so integral to story and character development. Charmed but also intimidated by Emma’s maturity and confidence, Adèle enters the relationship at something of a disadvantage, but the sex scenes allow them to gain an equal foothold, their bodies joined together in shared ecstasy. (There’s a reason why they need to be so explicit: We have to believe fully in these two people’s erotic connection, which is palatable, convincing and utterly unadorned.)