“I have nothing but infinite tenderness for you.”
Love is impossible to feign. People surely pretend they’re in love or have sought means to justify their deep attraction to another human being, but unequivocal love – the sensation, action, and psychological repercussions of it – is far too abstract to fabricate. Therefore, conveying true love on screen, from any of its beauty to its potential destructiveness, is constantly a challenge for actors, directors and editors. A powerful synergy must be present amidst these positions for love to be authentically emoted and absorbed by the audience. The Palme d’Or winning French import, Blue is the Warmest Color, is potentially the first film I have ever seen to display not only an accurate and empathetic depiction of love itself but also the fantastical ideal of ‘love at first sight.’ It’s a visceral film in the emotional sense; each peak and valley that appears in the on-screen relationship is felt with equal amounts of joy and pain in the viewer as if he/she were a part of the relationship him/herself.
Adelé (Adelé Exarchopoulous) is a shy high school junior; she’s smart, cute, and a huge fan of art and literature. A handsome classmate asks her to start going out with him and she agrees at the insistence of her rude and insensitive ‘friends,’ but for some reason she can’t find any feelings for this guy. She dates him for a little bit but breaks it off when she comes to the realization she’s putting on a fake self every time she’s with him. While walking to meet him one day, she brushes by a young woman with striking blue hair. Their eyes meet and Adelé is left practically star struck. When she encounters this woman later on in a lesbian bar (which Adelé entered through sheer curiosity), she finds herself attracted to this luminous artist, named Emma (Léa Seydoux). They cultivate a friendship but it soon moves around the bases and Emma ends her previous relationship to begin one with Adelé. Their partnership is highly physical, though it soon becomes magically emotional. These two women have fallen in love and are finding themselves in one another. With the passing of time, Adelé goes through a marathon of self-discovery that is equal parts wondrous and heartbreaking.
Self-discovery is centric to every coming-of-age tale, and in essence, that is just what Blue is the Warmest Color is: a very mature coming-of-age movie. Sure, it’s a romance too – one of the very best, I assure you – but because of its protagonist’s age and her developmental progression over a long period of time, it resonates much more as a character study. In France, actress Léa Seydoux is of the A-list and it’s her name that headlines the poster even though it’s Exarchopoulous’ Adelé whose point of view we share. While Seydoux is wonderful as Emma, the movie wouldn’t be what it is without the inspired casting of Adelé Exarchopoulous. The stunning young actress goes through a whirlwind of characterization and she expresses every experiential change and momentary reaction with seasoned ease. The original title of the film is La vie d’Adèle and it couldn’t be more apt as it’s unquestionably Adelé’s story above everybody elses. At 180 minutes – yes, the film is three hours – there’s a ton of emotional weight to hold and convey and Exarchopoulous is simply astounding. Should the planets align, she’s the only actress who I can see rivaling the front-running Sandra Bullock for Best Actress this year. While acting amidst non-existing sets supports much of Bullock’s career-best work in Gravity, Exarchopoulous makes us believe that we’ve gazed upon close to a decade of a growing person’s life, who comes to terms with her own sexuality through a romance that most of us can only imagine experiencing, and then deals with the psychological effects of what happens when it comes to a screeching halt.
Co-writer and director Abdellatif Kechiche should be heralded for his bold work as well. Something like 98% of the movie is filmed entirely in close ups, basking in the humanistic moments that most films jump at the opportunity to cut out. Ironically, because of Kechiche’s affinity for keeping these extended moments, the movie flies by. We have enough time to come to terms with everything that is happening before us and before long we’re living in the story ourselves. It’s that involving, that emotionally rich, and that real. Come the credits, it doesn’t feel like you’ve run the gamut or put yourself through an exhausting, voyeuristic hardship, instead you feel wholly fulfilled. From start to finish, everything paces itself as it should, each action and reaction feels justified and natural, and where it finally concludes is as even more appropriate than it is surely expected. Kechiche confidently constructs a time-lapsing amour, never stating how much time elapses between cuts. We may find ourselves watching a scene that takes place a day after the last or maybe even a year or two later. It never feels cheap; it feels like a scrapbook of memories. We see how it begins, where it goes, how it progresses, where it breaks, and how it’s ultimately resolved, but before long a decade within the cinescape has passed and we’ve only provided three hours of our own time in return. Somebody do the math, three hours to ten years…it’s a miraculous work or pacing and progression.
Yet, that synergy that I mentioned before comes to the forefront the most during the film’s very explicit sex scenes. Controversy has abounded because of the NC-17-level lesbian sex, but for those of us that have grown up and can look past the ambitious absence of censorship, there’s a narrative and developmental purpose to these lengthy and somewhat shocking sexual sequences. The reason why so many romantic films fail to connect is because of how poorly the physical part of the relationship is handled. Many filmmakers must feel that it isn’t their place to exploit his or her actors, or maybe they feel that their film doesn’t lend itself to powerful sex scenes, but Blue is the Warmest Color would be a lesser film without them. Go ahead and harp on one of the earlier sex scenes that lasts ten full minutes, but when you search for a reasoning behind the strong catharsis that gestates at the end of the feature, you’ll realize it’s because of the sex scenes – the ten minute one included – that brought you to such an emotional finality. They’re not as gratuitous as they are passionate; the love between these two characters is justified by these extended sequences. There’s no watering down, and there’s no pornographic amateurism, these are some of the most convincing and purposeful sex scenes in cinematic history.
Blue is the Warmest Color has been banned in certain countries and even in parts of the United States because of the strong, erotic sexual content. One arthouse theater in Idaho even promised compensation to its patrons who decided to venture via public transportation to a larger city, like Los Angeles, so that they could see the film in theaters. While this is partly comedic, it’s also reassuring in that some people within the film distribution business understand the importance of this film, even if they’re forced to keep it off of their screens. Packed underneath its gorgeous cinematography, expert directing, and A-plus acting is a tenderly amorous piece of art, unpretentious and unafraid to meet breathtaking heights in order to deliver authenticity and affecting verism.
Love is for the patient and love is for the open, and whether your desires are met by a man or a woman, sometimes all it takes is a pixie cut of striking blue hair to bring one struggling introvert into adulthood. What a masterpiece this provocative coming of age story is. Go see it.
Review by Mike Murphy