It’s a great pleasure to watch Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color on a big screen, and to sink into the movie’s three hours. Can a movie be fluid and monumental at the same time? When it’s over, Blue Is the Warmest Color feels like a major work, yet it unfolds with such spontaneity and immediacy that the running time proves to be no hurdle at all, and there’s little sense of an auteur coming down from a mountaintop to lay a Master–like Masterpiece on the audience.
But don’t take my word for it. It’s possible no male film critics are to be trusted on the subject of Blue Is the Warmest Color. If you’ve heard anything about this love story between two young women, it’s undoubtedly that the movie features not one but three explicit sex scenes, the first of which runs a rather generous seven minutes.
As if those scenes haven’t set off enough blog posts typed with trembling fingers, after the film’s Palme d’Or triumph at Cannes came tales of how badly director Kechiche had treated his two stars during filming (this from the actresses themselves on the publicity circuit), followed in turn by Kechiche’s fiery replies and threats of lawsuits. This has all made for great copy, and a whiff of highbrow scandale to make an art-house film distributor rub his hands in delight.
All of which has tended to overshadow what a good movie Blue Is the Warmest Color is. The first, slightly stronger half of the film opens on 17-year-old Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) surviving everyday teenage trials as she accedes — prodded by her smirking, knowing friends — to a flirtation with a smitten boy. She goes to bed with him one afternoon, seemingly more to get the experience out of the way than out of any great desire on her part; their mundane coupling is bittersweet and unfulfilling for her.
Adèle’s world is not so much turned upside down as perhaps right side up when she finally meets Emma (Léa Seydoux, intensely charismatic here), an art student several years her senior and light years removed in terms of worldly self-confidence. With her strut and electric blue hair Emma seems almost outsized for this environment, a rock star dropped onto the quiet streets of Lille.
As soon as Emma strides into Adèle’s life, we discover that the kids in Adèle’s high school circle, for all the offhand sophistication they project, aren’t cosmopolitan where it counts. The film briefly becomes a wrenching study of adolescent homophobia; the harsh treatment Adèle endures may surprise American viewers who assume that the teenage sons and daughters of the European bourgeoisie are instinctively more tolerant than American kids.
It’s surprising how Adèle’s life at school then vanishes from the screen, as her affair with Emma catches fire — Kechiche’s way of showing how everything else in Adèle’s life is eclipsed by this all-consuming relationship. The dramatic ellipses keep the movie unpredictable; this isn’t a screenplay where the beats are obvious or telegraphed far in advance. If anything, the viewer is barely conscious of a script. The movie plays more like a camera chanced upon a stylishly tousled subject and simply continued following her indefinitely. One has the impression there could be hundreds more hours of footage of Adèle’s life unfolding beyond what we see here, and it never feels like the director is pushing his female protagonist toward a predetermined conclusion.
No aquarium shots or chilly detachment here; the filmmaking aims for the greatest emotional intimacy possible, with camerawork that is fluid rather than fixed. Despite how closely the camera hovers around Adèle, the movie never feels claustrophobic, nor like a TV show dependent on close-ups because there’s no time or budget for anything else.
The film’s French title gives a better sense of the narrative’s divided structure: La vie d’Adèle, Chapitres 1 & 2. The latter half, or chapter of the movie jumps ahead several years; Adèle is now a trainee schoolteacher and Emma’s career as a painter is already beginning to take off. But there are cracks running through the couple’s seeming domestic harmony. The earlier imbalance in the relationship — the older Emma seducing unsophisticated Adèle with her brazen self-confidence and talk of art and philosophy — now threatens to become a fault line. A dinner-party sequence shows how Emma is the star of this couple, and Adèle the well-intentioned helpmeet in her shadow.
The tension between Adèle and Emma eventually explodes in an argument that’s excruciating to watch. That painful scene is actually topped by a subsequent one where the two women reunite in a café, some time later. The film that in its first half captured the rush of discovery that comes with first love now evokes young-adult heartbreak with uncanny verisimilitude.
I would understand if some viewers grumble that the movie becomes overlong here. But the dying fall, to borrow a musical term, of the movie’s narrative captures the arc of a relationship with unsparing fidelity. The scene in the café is universal: I doubt there’s anyone of any age or sexual orientation who can’t identify with the emotions depicted here. Adèle is so pitiable in these moments that I had to marvel at how open and seemingly defenseless Adèle Exarchopoulos is on camera. (As she gains more professional experience as an actress, will she ever be so unguarded on screen again?)
A film student of my acquaintance said to me that he didn’t think Adèle was “exceptional enough” to be the subject of a three-hour movie. The comment left me nonplussed at first. It seemed to illustrate a distinction between blockbuster filmmaking, so overrun with “chosen one” saviors heeding the call of destiny and box-office formulae, and other types of cinema, which still communicate the experience of so-called ordinary lives.
Kechiche’s film allows us the privilege of inhabiting someone else’s world for three hours: we float along with Adèle’s flights of romantic euphoria and suffer her personal tragedy, too. Her life is every bit as exceptional as it needs to be. Call the movie an act of imaginative empathy — something our culture could use a lot more of, and not just in movie theaters.