The romantic teenage drama Blue Is the Warmest Color is notable for a number of reasons. This unabashed look at homosexual teenage love and lust is based on an award-winning French comic book. That graphic novel has been turned into a three-hour explosion of sex, sadness, excitement, anger, expectation and dashed hopes by Tunisian-born, French-raised director Abdellatif Kechiche (The Secret of the Grain, Black Venus). The film’s lead actresses (Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos) turned in a couple of virtuoso performances and then turned around and slammed the director at the Telluride Film Festival for being manipulative and insensitive. The author of the original text, Julie Maroh, called the film’s depiction of lesbian intercourse unconvincing and pornographic. Oh, and it was awarded the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival by an esteemed jury that included Steven Spielberg, Christoph Waltz, Ang Lee and Nicole Kidman. So, depending on which way the wind blows, the film is either brilliant and groundbreaking or false and perverted. Honestly it’s all of that and more.
The film concentrates on Adèle (relative newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos), a high school junior living in the blue-collar, northern French city of Lille. Adèle is a seemingly average, pretty, slightly bookish student with an unremarkable family and a circle of chatty friends. Goaded as much by her adventurous pals as by her own curiosity, she starts dating Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), a handsome senior. Though she loses her virginity to Thomas, the relationship doesn’t really work out. Possibly because Adèle is an insecure teenager unsure of who she is and what she wants out of life. Or possibly because she’s been masturbating to the image of that tough, blue-haired chick who eyeballed her on the street a couple weeks back.
Eventually Adèle ventures out to a gay bar with her homosexual BFF and ends up crossing paths once again with neon-tressed Emma (Léa Seydoux from Inglourious Basterds and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol), a bold art school student. For whatever biological or emotional reason, Emma provides Adèle what she’s been missing. The two fall into bed and have the sort of Earth-shattering sex you don’t often see portrayed in movies. This is, as it turns out, the crux of Kechiche’s film. The sex here is blunt, unexpurgated and decidedly NC-17. One intense lovemaking session goes on for an unedited 8 or 9 minutes. That’s pretty damn long (for a movie, anyway). Of course, since Blue Is the Warmest Color runs for a 175 minutes, it’s a mere blip on the radar.
It’s for those graphic and (clearly) unsimulated sex acts that Blue has caught the most attention—both positive and negative. On the one hand, it’s remarkable to see such an unflinching look at non-hetero intercourse on screen. Kechiche has done a lovely and quite mesmerizing job of examining the intersection of love and sex. On the other hand, both lead actresses are admittedly heterosexual. And the director is both heterosexual and male. Does that disqualify him from attempting to document this kind of story? According to Maroh and several other outspoken lesbian critics, yes. Allegedly these actresses don’t make love like real lesbians. I wouldn’t really know. But to be fair, what 16-year-old (homosexual or otherwise) can sex it up like an experienced adult? Is Blue the watershed, Brokeback Mountain moment lesbian cinephiles have been waiting for? Probably not. Is it groundbreaking cinema anyway? Of course.
To be perfectly dispassionate about the whole thing, the sex on display is both heavily dramatized and highly eroticized. It’s not the raw, confrontational, unsimulated sex of, say, Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell or Virginie Despentes’ Baise-moi. It is, to put it simply, pretty and cinematic. Most people, even those interested in being confronted with “real” sex, still sort of prefer to have their (soft-to-mediumcore) pornography lensed with a certain visual aesthetic. Is Blue too glossy to be believed? Like the question of how “lesbian” this film really is, I’ll leave that up to the individual viewer to decide.
Sex aside, there’s plenty to savor in this film. Some might say too much. At the beginning our gal Adèle is in class listening to a teacher analyze the novel La Vie de Marianne by Pierre de Marivaux. It’s not a book well-known to anyone other than hardcore Western Lit students. But its narrative about the uncertainty of young love nicely mirrors that of Blue Is the Warmest Color. In fact, Kechiche—who also provides the screenplay adaptation—adds some nicely winking commentary with his characters’ frequent mentions of the book. Thomas, for example, is talked into reading it. He finds it pretentious and long-winded—what with its endless descriptions of day-to-day minutiae. That’s more or less the case with Blue itself.
After Adèle and Emma hook up, the film takes a major jump in time, checking in on them after they’ve moved in together and gotten jobs out in the real, post-high school world. Turns out sexual compatibility isn’t the only deciding factor in a couple’s longevity. All in all, we spend about 10 years looking in on these young ladies and their lives, which slowly transition from passionately sexual to comfortably domestic.
Exarchopoulos—a mere 19 years old at the time of filming—is the real find here. She does a superb job of expressing the emotional life of a teenager: joyous and hopeful one minute, sullen and heartbroken the next. In the later scenes, during which Adèle and Emma’s class differences become somewhat more evident, she’s called upon to plumb some real depths of heartsickness. She does so with revelatory skill.
By all rights Kechiche should have been able to bring this home at least an hour under its run time. Conversations, silent dinner scenes and even those infamous sex scenes run on a bit too long for comfort. Even so, the film has a passion and an intimacy that’s hard to shake.