Written and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
Simultaneously distant and distinct, unfamiliar and knowing, Blue is the Warmest Color is an emotionally raw yet mildly troublesome epic drama. This year’s winner of the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival is but two chapters in the life of its lead character, Adèle, spanning years, houses, life changes, and relationships, all of which pile up like cigarettes worn down to the nub. We are in her volatile, free-floating headspace from the first shot and leave it well after the credits roll; the metaphorical scars she receives from the harsh world around her are transferred outward, not so easy to shake off while exiting the theater. As emotionally raw as the two lead performances at the heart of this film are, though, the story suffers from a deliberate unwillingness to offer clarity and context.
Adèle Exarchopoulos is Adèle, a French high school student who goes to class, smokes outside with her snippy flock of friends, shyly flirts with boys, goes home to eat quietly with her parents, and sleeps. Lather, rinse, repeat. One day, not long after her literature teacher foreshadows, in the assigned reading, a random encounter between strangers that signifies love at first sight, Adèle walks past a blue-haired young woman with piercing blue eyes (Léa Seydoux) and is immediately entranced, even though she’s ostensibly heterosexual. What is ostensible, though, runs against what is desired: after a failed tryst with a boy at her school, Adèle finds her way to a gay bar and spots the blue-haired girl, Emma, across the room. An offhand glance extends to an introductory chat, which extends to further intimate discussions.
What comes after has been hotly debated since Blue is the Warmest Color premiered in the French Riviera this past May. For good or ill, the film’s centerpiece is a lengthy and graphic sex scene between Adèle and Emma. (Though the MPAA rating system is arguably screwed-up and illogical, this film’s not rated NC-17 for nothing.) In spite of all the pre-wide release chatter and awareness, the sequence manages to be gratuitous. An important distinction, though: the scene is not gratuitous primarily because writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche, adapting from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, lingers unhealthily on these women’s writhing, naked, moaning bodies. The scene is gratuitous because, although it serves an important function in the story and in Adèle’s physical evolution, the point it makes is achieved within a few minutes. But the scene runs roughly 10 minutes, so what is initially sensual becomes mildly exhausting. Both Exarchopoulos and Seydoux fit the part in these scenes, performing as if they’re adequately aroused. The issue is simply that the sex causes a rift between the story and the audience, achieving a distancing effect instead of spreading Adèle and Emma’s passion outward.
What’s more, Blue is the Warmest Color runs quite long, just barely under 3 hours. It is, mostly, a pleasant surprise that the story doesn’t wear out its welcome. It’s a testament to Exarchopoulos’ determination and skill as a performer—and at such a young age; she’s turning 20 later this month—that Adèle is a captivating and engaging character. She’s shy, reserved, desperately lonely and needy, awkward, while being so winsome and attractive that her very presence causes one of her classmates to kiss her out of the blue. Also, Exarchopoulos, per the story’s requirements, is prone to breaking down in tears every few scenes or so, and each time is more gutting than the last. Most importantly, the chemistry that she and Seydoux have is electric. From moment to moment, her work is the foundation of the film.
Kechiche’s script is fine and paced well enough that no scene with dialogue feels as if it wears out its welcome—though a late party sequence where the main dish is spaghetti is odd only because it’s the last of many, many scenes in which the characters gorge themselves on the pasta. Still, his greatest achievement is casting his leads, who possess an innate talent and a mostly silent, telepathic form of communication and interaction. However, as much as Kechiche’s screenplay never drags too much in spite of the length, it does inexplicably get sloppy in the second half. Once Adèle turns 18, her life moves extremely fast, all the more so because the story never grounds the audience with any clarity about how much time has passed from one event to the next. In one scene, we see Adèle and Emma interacting with one of Emma’s artist friends, who’s very pregnant. A few minutes later, the two leads are catching up, and Emma informs Adèle that said expectant mother had the child, who is now 3 years old. Though Exarchopoulos, as the film progresses, looks older than her real age, it’s hard to imagine that Adèle, as a character, has aged nearly a decade from beginning to end. (Even “a decade” is a presumption, as we don’t know exactly how old Adèle is when the film starts, and certainly don’t get a clear idea of her age at the end.) There’s quite a bit of plot in the final hour, much of which relies on a couple of key events that happen off-screen and are only confirmed via dialogue. When that confirmation happens, it’s genuinely shocking, but why keep the audience in the dark after such a long time inside our protagonist’s head?
By now, the conversation surrounding Blue is the Warmest Color has become dominated with debates about its representation of lesbian sex as well as whether or not the production of the film was led by a potentially harassing director. Whether that’s true, the look at the life of a lonely girl attempting to reach out and grab love is, at times, engrossing and emotionally raw, entirely thanks to the performances from Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. Abdellatif Kechiche’s direction is hyper-focused on handheld camerawork, which, as the film progresses, feels more claustrophobic. Strangely, though, the closer we get to the lead, the less we know about her. She drifts through her own life; for a while, Blue is the Warmest Color pulls that effect off well enough, but eventually, it’s all too clear that this film is less of a long straight line, and more a series of short, dotted lines. The gaps will never close; though this frustrating lack of closure may be true to life, in film, that’s a maddening, frustrating effect.
— Josh Spiegel