Generally speaking, I don’t follow film festival coverage very closely, in part because hearing about movies months before their release just makes me jealous of all the “real critics” who get to attend them. The one exception to this is the Cannes Film Festival. I devour almost every inch of coverage that that festival receives, eagerly await every last decision made by its juries, and almost always make a point of seeing whatever ends up winning the Palme d’Or. Part of the reason Cannes is different from other festivals is of course the caliber of filmmaking on display, but really, it has more to do with the fact that their awards seem to matter more than at other festivals and they just tend to work better as a horserace than most. I especially like it when films that had been more or less under the radar emerge as big winners, which is more or less what happened this year with the film Blue is the Warmest Color. That film’s director, Abdellatif Kechiche, was most famous for the charming but somewhat predictable ethnic family saga The Secret in the Grain. He was certainly an interesting filmmaker, but not really one I’d peg as the kind of masterful auteur that is normally awarded at Cannes. And yet, his film won over the Steven Spielberg led jury to become the only the second French film (depending on whether or not you count The Pianist as a French film) to win the Palme D’or in the last twenty five years. Now that the film is available to be seen in American theaters, I can see why the choice was made.
The film focuses in on a girl named Adèle (played by an actress named Adèle Exarchopoulos) who is in high school when the film begins. She lives a fairly typical middle class life, but feels distant from her friends largely because she lacks their interest in boys. She experiments with a young man named Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte) but is left unsatisfied by him. Slowly she comes to realize that she is in fact a lesbian and during an exploratory visit to a gay bar she meets a young art student named Emma (Léa Seydoux) and after a while they start and maintain a relationship.
In France the film has the more direct title of “La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2” which of course translates to “The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 and 2.” I obviously prefer the film’s international title, which is plainly more tantalizing and also points out the color blue, which is a motif throughout the film which marks the points of the story in which a given character is comfortable in their own skin. Still, it is worth noting that the film is in two chapters, albeit chapters that are not marked by title cards and whose transition can only be easily be spotted if one is paying attention to Emma’s hair color. The duality of these two chapters is important because they are essentially the bookends of Emma and Adèle’s tumultuous relationship. The first chapter shows them falling in love and the second half shows them coming apart. It is not dissimilar from the structure that Derek Cianfrance’s similarly excellent film Blue Valentine would have taken if it had played out in a linear fashion.
The difference of course is in the details, and there are a lot more of them in Blue is the Warmest Color which runs a full 179 minutes. Don’t be intimidated by that run time, firstly because the film moves really fast and secondly because the extra time the film takes is sort of what makes it special. The film really allows you to understand what these characters see in each other and how their relationship evolves as Emma becomes more and more successful as an artist and Adèle becomes increasingly isolated from Emma’s world. It starts to become increasingly clear to the viewer that these two people don’t really have as much in common as they once thought and that their relationship was largely founded on blind passion.
That’s where the film’s infamous sex scenes come in. I’m hesitant to even bring them up because this movie deserves more than to be known as “that one with all the girl on girl scenes,” but they’re in there for a reason. Any serious and in depth exploration of a relationship like this is going to have to explore the characters’ sex lives and given how much detail we get about everything else between them, why not go into detail on this subject too? As for the scenes themselves, well, I don’t think they’re executed perfectly. The first one in particular seems flawed to me because it’s supposed to be Adèle’s first time with another woman and yet she seems awfully comfortable in the various positions on display. Still, I think the scenes have a legitimate function in the film, and I’m also glad that a film with a sex positive message actually had the courage to “go there.” More often than not, films that feature graphic sex, even great ones like Shame and Requiem for a Dream, are so scared of being labeled pornography that they go out of their way to feature some of the most grim and unpleasant sex scenes they can. Kechiche might go a little too far here but I’m okay with that if it keeps him from falling to that oddly puritanical trap.
Blue is the Warmest Color is not a radically original film, but it makes up for it in its execution. It’s a hypnotic film that grabs your interest and makes you really care about its characters. The performances by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux both feel very authentic and the film’s dialogue also really seems to flow naturally. There were probably bolder choices available to the Jury at Cannes this year, but I’d be surprised if there were choices there which offered an overall package as entrancing as this one.
**** out of Four