Ever since it won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival this past Summer, much has been discussed about the explicit sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color (aka La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1&2). Featuring two young women writhing, grinding, exploring each other, the camera lingering over each curve of their bodies, the scenes and the discussion that has arisen surrounding them seem to have taken the focus away from the film itself. These scenes serve to punctuate the intimacy and passion of the relationship that develops at the center of this film, and also to explore the sexual awakening of our lead character. Thus, although they serve a strong thematic purpose, I am left wondering how the film might have been different without them. Are they necessary? Are they meant to titillate? Does it matter?
When we first meet Adèle she is a high school student, struggling with friendships, relationships, and identity issues. She is not unlike other young female protagonists depicted in coming of age films: popular but not overwhelmingly so, highly vulnerable, highly literate and with an appetite to explore the finer things in life. As portrayed by the sensational Adèle Exarchopoulos, a young actress remarkably without fear or modesty, Adèle very quickly becomes a forcefully alive character. Each facial expression, posture, and small physical affectation combine with a fully exposed window into the mind and the soul. Exarchopoulos allows the camera to get close, and she fully exposes herself, literally and figuratively. It is a performance of great passion and intimacy that makes Adèle a highly relatable character but also a fascinatingly special one to watch and connect with. As Adèle’s hopes and desires begin to reveal themselves, we are taken on an overwhelming journey of pain and love.
Director Abdellatif Kechiche’s approach to this material, which is based on a comic book by Julie Maroh, is undoubtedly excessive. The film clocks in at a robust 179 minutes, a length usually reserved for historical epics. Yet this excessiveness, and the passion and specificity that it allows, is the film’s greatest achievement. Were it not for this length, we would not get even close to as full and vigorous of a portrait of Adèle. Kechiche takes his time, allowing the film to linger on moments that are often overlooked or ignored. The inane normality of everyday life, the silly interactions, the quiet moments of introspection, the very things that assert our humanity, are given full breadth. Sofian El Fani’s beautiful, hypnotic photography mirrors this lingering approach. A conversation about a character in a novel or a meal spent enjoying a delicious plate of pasta form a portrait of a young woman that is truly naturalistic. I could very well see how some might find Kechiche’s deliberate and explicit (both sexual and otherwise) tactics overwhelming or off putting, but for me it allowed the rare opportunity to feel with the characters as opposed to feeling for them.
When Adèle meets Emma, an older and more experienced woman with shocking blue hair, played with strength and cool sophistication by Léa Seydoux, her life changes in an instant. Through Emma, Adèle finds a venue to explore her thirst for life and experience the power and ache of first love. As their relationship develops, first as lust, then as love, then as domestic banality, we chart the full course of shared human interaction. The length of the film, and the time-spanning structure (as the French title suggests, the film is very clearly split into two halves) lets us see not only how Adèle and Emma’s relationship develops, but how their individual careers and lives affect themselves and each other. It is clear very quickly that Exarchopoulous and Seydoux have palpable and heated chemistry, and they give themselves over to each other completely. Emotions run strong and deep in Blue is the Warmest Color, and I was taken over.
Blue is the Warmest Color is playing now in select cinemas.