Only the French love love enough to devote a three-hour film to a young woman’s sexual and romantic awakening.
Were “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” which follows teenager Adèle’s (Adèle Exarchopoulos) romance with an older artist (Léa Seydoux), made by Hollywood, Adèle would discover superpowers or a government conspiracy along with the revelations and insecurities attached to first love.
But “Blue,” which is paced like, and feels like, real life, convinces us a young woman’s entry into a state of intense desire and overwhelming emotion offers enough story on its own.
Virtually nothing happens in “Blue” beside Adèle and Emma, the artist, falling in love. Yet everything happens. Life and its possibilities open up for Adèle through the attentions of a blue-haired girl.
Winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or for Abdellatif Kechiche’s direction and his two leads’ acting, “Blue” arrives in Sacramento carrying controversy. Its frank sexual content drew a NC-17 rating, and Seydoux’s complaints about too many takes and an altogether exhausting film shoot sparked a war of words in the press with her director.
It’s best to let the hubbub surrounding the release of “Blue,” written for the screen by Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel, fall away. Kind of how Kechiche removes all that’s ancillary from “Blue” to focus on Adèle’s goal: attaining and then maintaining a relationship with the alluring Emma.
That relationship, all-consuming in its power, will shape Adèle’s life for the several years “Blue” covers. In its aching authenticity, it will evoke in the viewer that time in life and romance before one’s self-protective instincts kicked in.
Adèle’s ardor is unrestrained, and Exarchopoulos, just 18 when the film was shot, appears utterly free of guile as well. There’s no filter between what her character experiences and what plays on the actress’s face.
Exarchopoulos looks stunned when Adèle spots a blue-haired stranger walking down the street, arm in arm with another woman. It’s the kind of love-at-first-sight experience Adèle’s high school literature teacher was just describing in class, though factors beyond simple attraction facilitate Adèle’s and Emma’s exchange of glances.
Emma is striking but also obviously gay, appealing to Adèle’s own burgeoning feelings for women. Emma notices Adèle because Adèle is beautiful but also because she’s staring.
They will get far beyond the passing-glance-in-a-crosswalk stage, but only after Adèle dates Thomas (Jeremie Laheurie, highly sympathetic), a handsome classmate as incapable as Adèle of masking his emotions.
Sex with Thomas makes Adèle feel lonely. Exarchopoulos’ disconsolate expression tells us Adèle now recognizes that life will not be as simple as falling for the first cute guy who likes her.
“Blue” is a coming-of-age story that’s only partly a coming-out story. Adèle clearly is more attracted to girls than boys, and faces the fallout of this attraction when her female high-school friends (the easy-going Adèle rather incongruously hangs out with harridans) loudly and publicly reject her for it.
Ultimately, the film keeps questions of Adèle’s sexual orientation ambiguous, and so very French. Regardless, Adèle’s resilience in a pursuing her own path, and a relationship with Emma, will appeal to young viewers questioning their own sexuality (at least those 18 or older and thus able to see this film).
Adèle might be label-averse, but she’s strenuously gay for Emma, whom she runs into at a lesbian bar. Seydoux (“Farewell My Queen”), who moves with grace and resembles Kate Moss, could make a lot of people gawk in a crosswalk.
Emma is probably in her early 20s and knows her way around the bar. Seydoux gives her a knowingness that contrasts to the budding-lady-lover-in-the-headlights expression Exarchopoulos adopts when Adèle enters the club. When Adèle spots Emma, about whom she has fantasized since the crosswalk, you can practically feel her stomach drop.
Yet Adèle holds her own during a bar conversation that highlights Emma’s and Adèle’s differences in age and education, and Kechiche’s flair for naturalistic dialogue. After Emma informs her she is an art student, Adèle acknowledges, with admirable candor, that she knows little about art. Impressed by this lack of artifice, Emma inquires about the name of Adèle’s high school before Emma’s friends pull her out of the bar.
That’s right. She’s planning to loiter outside Adèle’s high school. But the film and the romance encompass so many years – and Adèle’s career as a kindergarten teacher – that concerns about the age difference abate.
Seydoux’s performance treads a fine and necessary line. Her eyes shine with desire and sometimes even reverence in scenes with Exarchopoulos. But she also maintains an air of mystery necessary for a character whose purpose is to be the subject of the protagonist’s fierce desire.
“Blue” would not have drawn the attention it has without its highly intimate love scenes, one of which, depicting Emma and Adèle’s first time, lasts several minutes. Though it starts out passionate and looks like a believable expression of Adèle‘s pent-up desire for Emma and women in general, the scene goes on too long and produces some false moments in an otherwise realism-rooted film.
Far more evocative is a scene in which Adèle uses her sexual pull with Emma to try to persuade her she’s the key to Emma’s happiness. The scene believably mixes physical desire, emotional desperation and the loss of one’s sense of propriety to the conviction love conquers all.
Such faith exists only in the young, the foolhardy and the very lucky. Each of us has been one of those, which is why this NC-17-rated, subtitled French lesbian romance carries universal appeal.
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR
* * * 1/2
Cast: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Salim Kechiouche
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Rated NC-17 (explicit sexual content)