The release history of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color has been a miniseries-length drama of its own, culminating most recently in the director’s implied threat to sue his lead actress, Léa Seydoux, for slander after she gave a series of interviews detailing his alleged bullying on set. Ever since the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes (and the breathless acclaim of most, if not all, who saw it there), harsh words have been flying among Kechiche, his crew (who released a statement accusing the director of exploitive labor practices and general abuse of power), and the film’s leads, Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos.
I tried to keep the volume turned down on all this noise until I’d had a chance to see the film, which on paper sounded right up my alley. (A three-hour-long romantic drama about French lesbians? Eh oui.) Still, Blue Is The Warmest Color’s drama-queen back story was omnipresent enough that by the time it finally opened in the U.S. this week, I went in half-expecting it to somehow resemble the saga its creators have been enacting before the press, with bitchy, backbiting characters and graphic sex scenes leered over by a voyeuristic camera. Instead Blue Is the Warmest Color is just the opposite: a gentle, wistful coming-of-age (and coming-out) story with some of the most intimate love scenes I can remember in any recent romance, gay or straight.
Notice I said love scenes, not sex scenes. I’ll get to those—including the much-discussed 10-minute-long one that earned the film its NC-17 rating—further on. (Can you at least buy me a drink first?) But what’s most memorable about Blue Is the Warmest Color is the emotional openness with which it tracks the expressive young faces of its two heroines as they discover, exult in, change, betray, and eventually damage one another. Kechiche (who, along with Ghalia Lacroix, adapted the screenplay from a French graphic novel by Julie Maroh) may not get everything about lesbian sex right, but he understands something important about the way people fall in and out love.
Blue Is the Warmest Color can be exquisitely tender at moments, but it’s also undisciplined and messy, always on the verge of flying apart. In that respect, it’s like Adèle, whom we first meet as a working-class high school student in the city of Lille, clomping glumly to the bus stop, her permanently unruly hair bunched into a hasty ponytail. Adèle doesn’t quite fit in with her group of girlfriends as they sit and strategize about boys; a cute guy (Jérémie Laheurte) likes her, but she submits to his physical attentions with an absent gaze that makes her indifference plain to us, if not him. Adèle perks up when a female classmate plants an experimental kiss on her (only to reject any possibility of reciprocation down the line). But she doesn’t really know what she wants until she locks eyes in the street with Emma, an out lesbian in her early 20s who runs with a more educated, artier crowd than Adèle is used to (and who, for the film’s first half at least, dyes her hair a fetching shade of the titular color). A couple of flirtatious conversations later and the two young women are at Emma’s place, eagerly pulling off each other’s clothes.
The sex scene that follows is nothing like what I expected from the description of the author of the graphic novel on which the movie is based, who called the depiction of sex between the two women “a brutal and surgical display” akin to pornography. (Seydoux herself has said that filming these scenes made her feel like a prostitute.) Emma and Adèle appear to be doing consensual, harmless, and mutually highly enjoyable things—even if they do proceed from one sculpturally perfect position to the next with the precision of figure drawings in a how-to-please-your-lover manual. And of course, unlike all but a small slice of real-life women, they are both movie-star hot, with creamy skin and slim, toned bodies. (The camera unquestionably lingers on their curves and surfaces, but if liking to look at beautiful young women naked is a crime, we’re all in trouble.) The question of whether the scenes of these two in bed together are realistic depictions of lesbian sex (however that might be defined), is not in my ken to answer. I can only say that the scenes of Emma and Adèle in bed, overlong and arguably cheesecakey as they were, captured for me the intensity of that stage of a love affair when the boundaries of your entire world end and begin with your lover’s body.
Later on in a love affair, of course, those boundaries shift—a phenomenon explored in the second half of the film, which takes place a few years later, after Adèle has moved in with the no-longer-blue-haired Emma and taken a job as a primary school teacher. Emma is struggling to launch a career as a painter, and starting to be just a little ashamed of her girlfriend’s lack of intellectual ambition; she encourages Adèle to develop her talent for writing, but Adèle insists she’s happy with things just the way they are. Predictably enough—but still heartbreakingly—the two begin to drift apart in the way young people often do, almost accidentally, through a combination of inertia and free-floating lust.
What makes this melancholy relationship drama play out as more than a hot lesbian remake of Annie Hall is the vibrant connection between the two gifted actresses at its center. Exarchopoulos, in particular, gives a torrential performance as the naive, passionate, emotionally expansive Adèle, whose discovery of Emma is also a discovery of her own seemingly limitless desire. Exarchopoulos has a big, luscious mouth that’s perpetually slightly open—Adèle jokes early on with Emma that she’s never not hungry, and we’re always watching that mobile mouth in close-up, eating, drinking, kissing, talking. Adèle’s ravenous neediness (but also her emotional openness) stands in contrast to the self-possession of Emma, a cooler customer who’s not above taking advantage of her younger girlfriend’s abject adoration. Seydoux has a mysterious, feline face and a powerful aura of self-confidence—it’s easy to see how she could become a slightly younger woman’s personification of cool, and also to see what a trap such a role could become.
Did Kechiche browbeat these two young women into giving the raw, open, complexly intertwined performances they did? If so, they’d be justified in calling attention to that mistreatment and never working for him again. But somehow the three of them managed to make Blue Is the Warmest Color—a stroke of luck for which we can all be grateful.