In the days following its Cannes premiere, where it also took home the prestigious Palm d'Or, Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color was unjustly labeled the "3-hour lesbian sex film". It was an unfair reduction of an emotional tale of love and heartbreak, just as similar turns of phrase were used to diminish Brokeback Mountain into the "gay cowboy movie". But at the same time, Kechiche invites such simple criticisms and undermines two magnetic lead performances by being obvious and even reductive when it comes to fleshing out the details of a very complicated relationship.
Very loosely based on the French graphic novel Blue Angel, the film is mostly seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Adèle (Adèle Exarchopolous) as she's on the cusp of realizing her sexual identity. This isn't one of those movies where homosexuality is something to be contended with; actually Adele doesn't struggle with it much at all. She's a bright girl who adores books and hangs out with her friends, who speak frankly and openly about sex, like most teens tend to do. She's also quite heterosexual, at least initially, and develops a crush on a boy in her grade. After a literature class on fate, love at first sight, and fulfilling what the heart requires, Adèle catches only the slightest glimpse of the blue-haired Emma (Lea Seydoux), and with an audible gasp her life is altered forever. That guy she was with becomes a distant memory as she can't get Emma out of her mind. The film doesn't dwell too long on the usual struggles of "coming out" or the realization that one is gay. In the case of the former we don't really see it at all, while the latter is a brief obstacle at best. Other than some teasing by her friends, which is admittedly quite cruel, Adèle seems to know what her heart truly wants.
A twist of fate brings the two girls together again, and soon they are inseparable. Emma is older, more experienced and confident in a way Adèle has yet to grow into, and initially it's very clear who holds the power in this relationship. Adèle is more than just smitten, she's hopelessly in love, and the way she navigates what turns out to be a roller coaster of emotions is the film's driving force. While the two are obviously lesbians, one of the best things about the movie is that neither is defined by their sexuality. This is about one girl's cautious steps into first love, and how she deals with the joys, pains, comforts, and insecurities that come with being in an adult relationship. At the same time, Adèle is very much still a girl; let's not forget that she's only meant to be around 15 in the beginning; and it takes some time getting over the age difference. Sure, the French may be a little more lenient on these things but here it still looks a tad creepy.
And speaking of creepy, let's just go ahead and talk about what most people are really interested in anyway: the sex. Let's just say there is a very good reason the film was saddled with an NC-17 rating. There are three notable sexual encounters, and all are quite explicit and extremely graphic. That's not the issue, really, as frank portrayals of sex have their place, especially in a film that is as open and emotionally raw as this one is. The problem, besides the fact that the scenes are uncomfortably long, is that you can almost feel Kechiche's lecherous eye leering over every shot. Make no mistake; this was a movie you can tell was shot by a man. The first time Adèle and Emma make love it should be about the experience of it, the passion of losing oneself in the moment; especially for Adèle who has been dreaming of this encounter with this particular partner. But Kechiche shoots the sex like he was stringing together porn clips, focusing on how many positions he can get these women in rather than on the emotions behind the acts. They're intense, absolutely, but passionate and revelatory they are not.
While Kekiche's script occasionally stumbles to sound natural, such as when it indulges in weak double entendres about clams (really dude?), at others it's strikingly personal and startlingly powerful. Following them over the course of years, we're given the sort of insightful, in-depth look at an evolving relationship that it's almost like you're eavesdropping. There are ups and downs, of course, as their careers, personal viewpoints, and complacency complicate matters. Yet throughout it all we see how Adèle and Emma complement one another, fulfilling that need they've both been searching for. We're thrust so deep into their lives that the things we don't see are distracting. Other than a couple of dinner scenes we don't learn much about Adèle's family. Nor do we know if she's come out to them or if they know about how close she is with Emma. It's suggested that Adèle has kept her sexuality to herself, as she does in the novel, but as more characters emerge one can't help but wonder where she stands. The film treads much of the same emotional territory as last year's terrific gay drama Keep the Lights On (review here), really digging into the desperate lengths people will go to hold on to love.
Cannes may have felt the need to give the Palm d'Or to both actresses but this is truly Exarchopolous's film. Her Adèle is such a fully-realized creation that it's impossible to tell there's any acting going on. She's practically in every scene, commanding them all with her innocence that grows naturally into maturity and self-assuredness. Seydoux sheds much of the supermodel look we're accustomed to, donning a tough exterior as Emma, whose harsh features and attitude mask her true kindness. Together the two make a combustible pair, and it's because of them that Blue is the Warmest Color is such a vivid experience despite Kekiche's missteps.