On the one hand, Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film Blue is the Warmest Color is a simple coming-of-age story with the same structural backbone as countless other stories of first love and heartbreak. On the other hand, this Palme d’Or–winning, three-hour film that never leaves its main character’s side is completely unlike any love story you’ve ever seen. I’m not talking about the fact that it concerns a lesbian relationship, or about the much-discussed nearly-10-minute-long sex scenes between its two lead characters; I’m talking about basically everything else.
The film starts and ends with Adèle Exarchopoulos’s frankly incredible performance. Exarchopoulos plays an average and reasonably popular high school student, also named Adèle. A nice-enough boy courts her and briefly becomes her boyfriend. But while crossing the street on the way to their first date, steel drum music playing (the film’s score consists only of source music, with brilliant effects), Adèle catches the eye of a denim-clad, blue-haired woman, who has her arm around another woman. After breaking up with the boy, Adèle encounters the same woman at a lesbian bar, claiming that she “came [t]here by chance.” Léa Seydoux plays the blue-haired woman, an artist named Emma. The two begin to talk and then to spend time together; the camera jump-cuts and hovers close, and the effect is immersive.
Immediately we become disarmingly close to Adèle, who is almost always on screen and almost always shot in close-up. When she eats, we see the food that gets on her face. When she cries, we see the snot running down her nose. She does a lot of eating and crying, not to mention having sex, dancing, drinking, marching in parades, posing for paintings, cooking, and sitting in the sun. The three hours we spend in close proximity to her give the impression of a lived-in, authentic portion of a person’s life, something I can’t recall having ever experienced with such vividness at the cinema. This would not be possible if the young Exarchopoulos were not such a committed, emotionally raw, heart-stoppingly beautiful lead.
Nor would it be possible, for that matter, without Kechiche’s revelatory directing. The film’s cinematography is at once naturalistic and vividly stylized in the way it fixates on Adèle’s face, swirls about her as she moves, and locates bright washes of color and light in the frame. Kechiche’s camera loves Adèle, the way Godard’s loved Karina, and you feel it in every frame she occupies. In one scene, the lovers kiss by a river, and a symmetrical two-shot with the sky in the background makes it appear as if they are about to be swallowed by light. Scenes are allowed to stretch well beyond the point most directors would allow, which is part of what makes this emotionally draining film go by so quickly. Time passes, but we never really know how much, because the film doesn’t step back from its relentless intimacy. Much has been made of the length of the sex scenes, but some moments of dialogue, dancing, and fighting are no less extended. We live with these characters, which gives the plot shape beyond its predictable structure.
Seydoux, while not allowed as much play as her counterpart, is tremendous in her own way. Emma is more experienced—a proudly out, artistically ambitious lover and mentor to Adèle’s heroine. This dynamic chafes them. When Emma talks to Adèle, somewhat patronizingly, about Sartre, and Adèle naively compares him to Bob Marley, it is clear how their relationship will eventually play out. There are also class and value differences between them (Emma wants to be a famous artist, while Adèle aspires to be an elementary school teacher) that make their connection untenable. Seydoux removes any hint of the predatory from her character, emphasizing the sadness that comes with the couple’s imbalance in wisdom. There are times when it seems that Emma wants to be Adèle as much as she wants to be with her, and her inability to do so is what dooms them.
But at the relationship’s peak—the film’s middle third—it sings. Here are the infamous sex scenes, and they go as far as any film without an XXX rating is likely to go. They make you feel the physical reality of this couple’s feelings for each other. They don’t feel exploitative, but rather like an extension of the intimate atmosphere that has already been created. They are an integral part of the couple’s relationship and are treated as such.
When the inevitable falling out comes, the emotional aftermath for Adèle is as painful as the rest of the film is rapturous. She continues to show an incredible naturalism, a full inhabitation of the character, and as she breaks down in the wake of the breakup, we feel bruised and battered. The brutal scene in which the ex-lovers meet—months or years later—in a bar, and in which Adèle professes her hurt, is one of the most emotionally scalding things I have ever seen.
Steven Spielberg’s Cannes jury made the unprecedented move of awarding the Palm d’Or both to the director and to the two lead actresses. However, the actresses, especially Seydoux, have been vocal about the grueling difficulty of the six-month shoot, speaking candidly about Kechiche’s bullying demeanor and indicating that they would not want to work with him again. The director, in turn, has talked about his displeasure with the actresses. Polanski, Kubrick, Herzog, Fincher: The list of demanding directors who have had miserable relationships with their lead actors is long. All I can do is recommend the movie. Works this formally innovative, visually rich, and emotionally bruising don’t come out easily. It is to the credit of everyone involved that this thoroughly beautiful film exists.
Blue is the Warmest Color, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, is playing at AMC River East.