A young woman shocks Adèle when she matter-of-factly talks about other women in a sexual way. Adèle tries to play it cool – we know she’s into girls – but there is a tiny flare of excitement on her face. The conversation could be banal, but it plays out with aching tension, and the young woman’s subsequent rejection of Adèle is heartbreaking precisely because it’s all-too-true. Blue Is the Warmest Color, the Palme d’Or winning drama about Adèle and the woman she meets next, brims with honesty and affection for its subject. This long romance is affecting in spite of Abdellatif Kechiche’s direction, not because of it, and that’s never more apparent than during its much-discussed explicit sex scene.
We spend a long time with fifteen-year old Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) before she falls in love. Her life is typical: she has a nice family, loves to read, and gossips with her classmates. They encourage her to date a cute boy, and they have sex even though (or perhaps because) they don’t have much to talk about. Adèle ends the courtship when, well, she cannot stop thinking about that blue-haired woman she saw on the street.
It takes a big risk to meet this mystery woman: Adèle accompanies her gay best friend to a gay nightclub, and then wanders toward the lesbian bar down the road. There Adèle meets Emma (Léa Seydoux), the blue-haired woman who has all the sexual confidence Adèle does not. They talk during their first date – Emma is an art student, and there is a tender scene where she draws Adèle’s portrait – then they have sex and fall in love.
Time passes invisibly in Blue Is the Warmest Color. Adèle and Emma stay together for years, but there are no title cards explaining just how long. We must rely on context clues – Emma changes her hair color, and Adèle gets a teaching job – and this decision gives the film a somewhat languid pace. It also invites us to see what works and doesn’t about the relationship between them: in terms of experience, sexual or otherwise, Emma has way more than Adèle, and it never quite evens out although they spend so much time together.
There is a long party sequence where all of Emma’s friends arrive, and while everyone is warm to Adèle, she does not quite belong. Kechiche suggests this with glances and moments of affection (or lack thereof), and there is never a moment where he’s direct in what his characters are thinking. This is a series of small, observant moments, and the cumulative effect is devastating. Sexuality aside, anyone who’s been in a relationship knows what it’s like when they’re the powerless one.
Adèle and Emma share one moment of true equality, and that’s when they first have sex. I’m not sure exactly how long it lasts – one critic said it’s 10 minutes, and I thought it was shorter – but there’s no denying that it’s excessive. Kechiche films the scene like a straight man who’s curious about lesbians in the basest way: the camera lingers like a voyeur when Emma shoves her face into Adèle’s ass, or when Adèle goes down on Emma (presumably for the first time). There’s a point where their sex transitions from passionate discovery toward nude calisthenics. I’m not sure where it happens, exactly, but I can’t help but wonder whether we’re watching Kechiche get his jollies. For a movie that purports to film blossoming romance with uncommon honesty, this feels relatively exploitive.
Even though the sex scene lasts longer than it should, it does serve a purpose. It’s the catalyst for the rest of the time Adèle and Emma spend together. Later they share a wistful, desperate moment where they acknowledge their physical connection, and it’s plain to see why it has such power over them. Kechiche’s style is to show, not to explain, so passionate sex is necessary for this conversation to make sense (I get the impression the filmmaker thinks it would be cheap or easy to have one of his young women say something akin to, “That was amazing”).
Kechiche’s filmmaking style requires a great deal from his actors. Parts of Blue Is the Warmest Color feel claustrophobic because we almost entirely see Emma and Adèle in a shot that’s somewhere between a medium-shot (i.e. from the waist up) and a close-up. That means there’s nowhere for the actors to hide, and there are dozens of long takes where the camera forces the actors to perform in delicate, painful ways. Just from the filmmaking alone I can see why Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are in an ongoing controversy with Kechiche: his approach feels like a violation of privacy, and unsurprisingly the performances are all the stronger for it. Whenever he eases a scene with a wider establishing shot, it’s a relief because his probing curiosity about his actors is borderline cruel.
There was a minor controversy last week when The IFC Center in New York announced it would allow teenagers into screenings of Blue Is the Warmest Color. This is a terrific move on the theater’s part: angst-leaden kids with raging hormones will relate to the depth of feeling between Adèle and Emma. And besides, teenagers can have access to all manner of smut with just a few mouse clicks. Kechiche documents all the details of young love, the gritty and the sublime, and gives it the epic treatment with an intimidating three hour run time. His film is personal and political, sleazy and romantic, sophisticated and pornographic. The best and worst thing about Blue Is the Warmest Color is how its flaws are strangely lifelike.