Review: BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR

Blue is the Warmest Color will be an impossible sell for some audiences, but there’s real beauty here, and a lot more than just what you’ve heard about.

But I have infinite tenderness for you. I always will. All my life long.

-Emma

Let’s get this out of the way from the start: Blue is the Warmest Color is not for everybody. There are some very big obstacles that some viewers just won’t be able to look past. The film has a 3-hour run time, centers on a lesbian relationship, and is entirely in French (plus, there are those scenes, but we’ll get to those later…). But if you’re willing to accept those terms, Blue is the Warmest Color is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s a daring film that shows the full progression of a relationship, highs and lows.

The film tells the story of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopolous), a French teenager in high school whose life is irrevocably changed one day when she notices a blue-haired stranger as they pass on the street. Adèle is struck numb in the middle of the crosswalk as the viewer is left to reflect upon a classroom conversation in the film’s opening scenes: What are love and passion? And is there such a thing as love at first sight?

This isn’t Adèle’s first exposure to what might be love. Her friends encourage her to pursue a male classmate, Thomas, (Jérémie Laheurte) who’s obviously smitten with her. They hit it off on the bus one morning and begin to meet in cafes to talk and flirt. They even get physical, and Adèle’s gossipy friends beg her for all the details. But something isn’t right. Adèle can’t find physical or emotional satisfaction in the relationship, and when she’s alone at night her thoughts are drawn not to Thomas, but to the blue haired stranger from the street.

While skipping class one afternoon, Adèle is harmlessly flirted with and kissed by a female friend. When Adèle pursues this is as a real relationship she is turned down, but an unexpected fire within her has been lit. She slips into a lesbian bar one night and is aggressively hit on by several women before being rescued by Emma (Léa Seydoux), the blue haired woman from the street and a university art student several years Adèle’s senior. Over the next few weeks the two will begin the relationship that makes up the bulk of the film. It’s a relationship built over philosophy discussions, sketches in the park, deep conversations, and, yes, eventually sex.

Blue isn’t a movie about plot. It’s built on emotions, conversations, and small moments supported on the shoulders of its two main actresses, Exarchopolous and Seydoux. Both women are up to the task with deep, complex, great performances. Seydoux might be the more familiar of the two to American audiences having had small roles in Inglourious Basterds, Robin Hood, Midnight in Paris, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.

Her Emma is an enigma in the first half of the film, presented as the free spirited object of Adèle’s affections, but she explodes onto the screen in the film’s second act.  She brings vibrancy to the mature and more experienced Emma and her struggle as a Parisian artist working for recognition. She’s the more mature half of the relationship, and Seydoux plays her with a wisdom contrasting Adèle’s inexperience.

But the less esoteric French title of the film is “The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 & 2” (La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2), and, appropriately, the film completely belongs to Exarchopolous. A newcomer to American audiences, the nineteen year-old gives, quite simply, the best performance I’ve seen this year. She shows the distinction between impersonation and truly embodying a character, and she displays an enormous range of emotions in the role. Through her we see Adèle’s uncertainty, passions, jealousy, regret, and eventually, her loss.

The film’s second half, set several years later, finds Emma constantly pushing Adèle to pursue artistic endeavors of her own, but Adèle is content in her calling to be an early education teacher. The early emotional highs of their relationship have mellowed with time, and Adèle in now beset with feelings of loneliness and jealousy as Emma works longs hours and gains recognition for her art. When continued lonely nights lead to an encounter with a male colleague, Adèle makes a choice with disastrous consequences for her life with Emma.

When Emma meets Adèle at a café months after their relationship’s ultimate end, Exarchopolous personifies Adèle’s continued yearning and regret. As Adèle comes to understand that all her longing and tears cannot resurrect the relationship they once had, and crushingly realizes that Emma is willing to live without wild passion in return for stability, we can see the pain in Exarchopolous’s face. Adèle balances her job teaching with distraught sobs that she hides from her students. She feels it, and she makes us feel it too.

It’s worth noting that Exarchopolus is not simply playing herself. The actress is straight, and the character is named Clementine in Julie Maroh’s source novel. The character’s name was converted to Adèle when the other actors accidentally kept calling her that during filming.

Kechiche worked to draw naturalistic performances out of the actresses, and each was allowed to read the script only once. From there Kechiche would let the actresses improvise most of their dialogue with only end points for the scenes mapped out. The result is a film that is as much theirs as it is his. In recognition of their work, Steven Spielberg’s Cannes Film Festival jury made the unprecedented decision to award the Palme d’Or jointly to Kechiche and both of the actresses.

However, Kechiche’s method and months of bringing raw nerves to the surface took their toll. Exarchopolus and Seydroux have both vowed to never work with the director again. By all accounts it was a difficult shoot, but the fruits of their efforts are evident on screen. He won’t win any humanitarian awards, but he might gain an Oscar nomination.

Among the difficulties were the film’s controversial and much talked about love scenes. Kechiche takes the idea of sex at midpoint to a new exteme with two scenes at the film’s center. Both are undeniably graphic, long, and they were among the first scenes shot while the actresses were still relative strangers. The longest lasts 7 minutes and took 10 days to film.

Here is my one disagreement with Kechiche’s film: As they exist, these scenes are unnecessary, and they invite unneeded controversy. His third person perspective combined with the scenes’ length and explicitness invite unwanted comparisons to porn. His intention is to show passion as openly as he has every other emotion in the film, but the scenes just end up feeling voyeuristic. It’s worse considering that Kechiche and both actresses are straight. He opens the door to questions about his understanding of a real lesbian relationship versus just shooting eroticism. The resulting NC-17 rating will also keep the film out of many US theaters and away from teens that may have otherwise benefited from the story’s down-to-earth depiction of young existence.

But It’s unfair to judge the film on just these scenes, and Blue is about so much more than sex. At its core, the film is about Adèle’s experiences with young love and young life, and it spends much more time in parks, protest crowds, cafes, dining rooms, and classrooms than in the bedroom.

Ultimately, it’s a film about finding love, accepting loss, and, eventually finding yourself. Kechiche’s film dares to unveil young life as it is: complex, emotional, and full of ups and downs. Maturing is hard, and Blue is the Warmest Color makes that painfully, beautifully clear.

Grade: A

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