Sunday, December 15, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color

Grade: 86/A-

Ah, what I’d give for a world where Blue is the Warmest Color wasn’t tainted with extratextual information. Abdellatif Kechiche’s film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year to some of the best reviews in recent festival history before winning the Palme D’Or. Since then, however, the film has been plagued with controversy: over its long, explicit sex scenes and the accompanying NC-17 rating, over author Julie Maroh’s charges comparisons of the sex scenes to porn and straight-male fantasy, and the knowledge that Kechiche bullied his stars on and off set. It’s a damn shame: Blue is the Warmest Color isn’t perfect, but it’s one of the most powerful coming-of-age stories and romantic dramas in recent memory.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a 15-year-old secondary-school student. She’s had a romance with a boy her age, but she’s not satisfied, and she finds herself more interested in women. One day she passes by Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue-haired art student whom she becomes fascinated by. The two meet again in a lesbian bar, where they first become friends and then fall in love. The two move in together for a few years, but at a key moment their relationship is tested.

For a three-hour movie, Blue is the Warmest Color doesn't have the most complicated plot. Instead, it charts the ups and downs of a relationship in great detail. What would be banal in two hours feels bracingly intimate in three hours, as Kechiche takes his time to map out Adèle’s first sexual experiments before she finally meets Emma roughly forty minutes into the film, then lets the romance play out naturally.

That feeling of intimacy is well-served by Kechiche’s decision to shoot most of the film in close-up, as if we’re a party to their romance, overhearing the most important details of their life. Whether we’re hearing their first flirtations, their most heated arguments, or their teary-eyed reconciliations, it’s an extraordinary, evocative relationship.

That feeling that carries over to the two lengthy sex scenes. Some detractors have commented how over-the-top and unrealistic the scenes feel. It’s a fair argument (although I feel it assumes everyone has sex the same way, which no), but the main point of the scenes is not their sexual intensity, but their emotional intensity. When taken in consideration to Adèle’s disappointing encounter with a boy her age earlier in the film, they serve to show how present these two are with each other, and how desperately they want to please each other.

That’s not to say that the charge of the male gaze isn’t without merit. There’s an inevitable feeling of voyeurism here, but there’s a few shots in particular that stick out: scenes of a sleeping Adèle, and one that follows her into the shower. These shots aren’t connected to the characters’ emotions and feel a bit, well, icky because of it.

These are minor complaints, however, and they’re more than compensated for with how sensitively Kechiche and his actors handle the characters. Seydoux, best known for minor roles in Midnight in Paris and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, is a truly magnetic presence as Emma, funny, articulate, and talented; it’s easy to see why Adèle might fall so easily for her. And every superlative thrown at Exarchopoulos is warranted: she’s an absolute natural, at once intelligent but naïve, happy to be in love but confused about how to handle it. We’re with her every step of the way as she winds up sadder but a little bit wiser, maybe recalling our own formative experiences along the way.

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  1. I couldn't agree with you more that if I could have one movie without its extratextual content it would be this one. The first thing I heard about it before I even knew the details of the story was that the sex scenes felt like they were obviously heterosexual actors and that the movie felt like a male sexual fantasy. Which is too bad, because it sounds like it's a great story that warrants my attention. Hopefully it will at least be in contention for Best Foreign Film. Thanks for the great review!

    1. Thanks! It was disqualified for the Oscars, though, by a stupid technicality: a foreign film candidate has to play commercially in its home country by a certain date, which "Blue is the Warmest Color" didn't apparently because releasing it too early wouldn't have benefited it. It's one of the archaic Academy rules that needs to be thrown out.