Hype – I’ve talked about this slippery slope before, but for Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film Blue is the Warmest Color it is both a gift and a curse. There are a number of things that set this film’s overwhelming buzz apart from the rest for reasons within the movie and without. It could be the film’s extremely explicit lesbian sex scenes between the two leads—Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopolous—and it could be the recent controversial public spat between Seydoux and Kechiche about the director’s alleged megalomaniacal style on set, or it could be the film’s abnormal-for-American-audiences runtime clocking in at just a minute under three hours. Surprisingly though it is the film’s Palme d’Or win from a jury led by director Steven Spielberg at this year’s Cannes Film Festival that got most people to notice, the first such prize from the fest to include both the director and the film’s stars. Awards are all well and good, and if they get more people to see particular films then good on them, but to me all the noise surrounding the film couldn’t help but take away something from a movie that lends itself to be discovered naturally. When asked about the jury’s reasoning for giving the Palme d’Or to the film Spielberg said, “We listened to our hearts and listened for which piece of art produced an echo,” and that’s exactly what Kechiche’s film does free from any extraneous baggage. Blue is the Warmest Color echoes in your mind because it is a brutally honest—perhaps the most brutally honest—coming-of-age portrayal of a woman trying to find herself in life and love. The film may be over-hyped, yet for what it accomplishes it’s just right.
Adèle (Exarchopolous) is a lower-middle class high school teenager who lives in suburban Lille with her mom and dad. She’s abnormally bright in her literature class and eventually wants to become a teacher, but soon all the normal flighty teen preoccupations arise and she’s peer-pressured by her friends into addressing the advances of the cute guy in her class, Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte). They strike up a little fling and eventually have sex, but there’s a strange distance between them mostly caused by Adèle’s inexplicable detachment. Her distance only becomes clearer when she spots a glimpse of a blue-haired woman walking across the street that she can’t get her out of her head, and eventually we find that she is Emma (Léa Seydoux), an art college student that soon takes more than just a liking to the younger Adèle. Thus begins Adèle’s sexual awakening and a striking example of the simply complex nature of the ups and downs of love, in this case a genuine and refreshingly vibrant homosexual relationship between two women who are initially head over heals for each other. Kechiche allows their connection to play out organically over the film’s three hours, and thus we are cued into the unrefined passionate rhythm of their relationship.
Both actresses carry the film with astonishingly straightforward performances, with their behavior balancing their actions in a way that makes their characters’ love a beautifully sincere and tangible onscreen romance. Seydoux, playing the mysterious blue-tinged ideal, hooks us with her abstract charm as the stereotypical French snob who debates existentialism and art while stealing glances at her partner and taking a drag on her cigarette. Seydoux’s type of effortlessly carefree bohemian behavior—that later further defines itself via the fractured class struggles between the two lovers—cleverly contrasts the early curiosity found in budding relationships but anticipates the inevitably rocky feelings at the tail end once individuality sets in. The truly brilliant star here is Exarchopolous, who by the end of the film is able to age a couple decades before our eyes while maintaining a fully formed and emotionally distinct character. With this one raw and utterly fearless performance she separates herself from a similar group of French actresses—including people like Lola Créton, Mélanie Laurent, and even Seydoux—into a whole new stratosphere. Her character lends itself to Kechiche’s unadorned style as he sets the camera on her for long takes at a time, discreetly observing her conflicted manner and letting Exarchopolous almost sculpt her performance internally and then outward for us.
And then there were the sex scenes, a gripe made almost exclusively for the prudish American audiences that will watch the film. Yes they are very explicit, but like the characters’ relationship itself the scenes are starkly honest in their implication of a human being’s emotionally mutual yearning for physical connection. We can’t be so presumptuous as to assume that leaving them out would make no difference to the overall film since the ability to simply see breaks American cinematic barriers that make them too often mislabeled as obscene. The scenes aren’t merely for titillation, but rather for a non-judgmental extension of the emotional bond formed between two people engaging in a fundamentally natural act on their own. Kechiche wisely equates the naked body with classical art, eventually filtered through Emma’s own art that uses Adèle as its muse. His focal point are each of the lovers’ lips, a reoccurring theme whether he uses a close-up of the characters eating dinner or whether locked in a moment of passion, but his infatuation points towards an interesting overall theme that the lips are the focus of not only their sexual identities but also nourishment and the linguistic center of human nature. The scenes are quite simply an important and indelible part of the film.
All the talk surrounding Blue is the Warmest Color provided the perfect platform for hyperbole. Given a more levelheaded approach viewers will find a truly special film about honest relationships and of the implications of true love. A lot of people will be put off by Kechiche’s approach if not for the controversial subject matter, while others will miss the point of the film’s straightforward narrative. If, however, audiences are able to take it for what it is then this beautifully direct work of art will echo for them as it did in Cannes and all over. As for me, it’s echoing with me still.