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|Blue Is the Warmest Color
by Peter Sobczynski
The epic-length French drama "Blue is the Warmest Color" arrives in town amidst a ton of hype and controversy, mostly involving the extended lesbian sex scenes involving its two stars, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux that won the film an NC-17 rating in the U.S. and sparked a bizarre feud between the two actresses and director Abdellatif Kechiche that continued on even after the film was awarded the coveted Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Although such talk will no doubt give the film a higher profile than most three-hour-long French-language dramas are usually afforded in the U.S., it would be a shame if the hoopla wound up overshadowing the movie by making it sound like another dull European import that has nothing to go for it other than a little bit of skin and an exploitative ad campaign. In fact, the film is a total knockout from start to finish and one of the most stirring, powerful and devastating coming-of-age sagas that I have ever seen in all my years of moviegoing.As the film opens, Adele (Exarchopoulos) is a typical 17-year-old working-class girl who is trying to figure out who she is while struggling with questions about subjects ranging from the mysteries of Marivaux's "The Life of Marianne" to the even more unfathomable subject of boys. One day, after a classroom discussion on concept of love at first sight, she sees a slightly older girl with a distinctive shock of blue hair and cannot get her out of her mind, even during certain intimate moments. She tries acting like her classmate and starts dating one of her classmates--even giving up her virginity to him--and while he is nice enough to her, she is still somehow unsatisfied and eventually breaks up with him.
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One night, she finds herself in a lesbian bar and winds up meeting the blue-haired girl, who turns out to be a slightly older art student named Emma (Seydoux). Over the course of the next few weeks, the two become fast friends--much to the suspicion of Adele's classmates, who assume that the two are lovers--and eventually, after a dinner with Emma's liberated parents that includes Adele's first sampling of oysters (a bit of clunky symbolism that may be the film's only real misstep), the two make love in an extended sequence that may not be as long as the rumors have suggested (despite some initial claims that it last upwards of fifteen minutes, it actually clocks in at maybe 5 or 6) but is certainly as powerful, both in terms of erotic heat and dramatic power. For Adele, this is what she has been looking for her entire life--a way of explaining and defining who she really is to the world. Emma is a little more circumspect at first--she has presumably seen any number of girls who have mistaken brief experimentations for life-changing epiphanies--but she too eventually succumbs to the romance.
Over the next decade or so, the film charts the path of their evolving relationship. Emma's art career begins to take off and while Adele is happy with her success (and even serves as a model for some of her pieces), she can't help but feel out of place when they are having parties with Emma's friends and everyone else is intensely discussing art, truth and the philosophy of the orgasm while she is essentially relegated to serving the food. As for Adele, she goes into teaching and while she loves the kids that she is working with, she once again begins to feel as though something is missing. Before long, there is an indiscretion that causes a seismic shift in the relationship between Adele and Emma with consequences that are both devastating and potentially liberating for the two of them.
"Blue is the Warmest Color" is based on an acclaimed graphic novel by Julie Maroh that co-writers Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix have fiddled with considerably in the course of bringing it to the screen. The book is quite good, to be sure, but I have to say that of the two, I actually prefer the film in large part because of the changes that Kechiche and Lacroix have brought to the material. I don't know what it was about the material that initially struck them but it must have been something significant because even though the film is an adaptation, what we see is so deeply felt that it almost feels autobiographical in nature. While the book is conceived in large part as a memory piece in which the key events have already occurred and are being recalled by the characters, the film unfolds in the present tense and an additional intensity is gained as a result of this shift.
More significantly, the entire story is seen entirely through Adele's eyes and the film does an incredible job of getting into her head and conveying her emotional upheaval into cinematic terms, particularly in the decision to present what is essentially an intimate story on such an epic scale--as anyone in the throes of first love can attest, every aspect of life seems to be magnified and Kechiche cleverly catches this feeling by presenting his story in such a lengthy manner. To some viewers, it may seem as if the story has been somewhat overinflated but I must confess that I have watch all 176 minutes of the film twice now and I have yet to be anything but absolutely mesmerized by it.
A large part of the credit for the success of "Blue is the Warmest Color" also goes to the stunning efforts of the two lead actresses--certainly the jury at Cannes felt so as they named them co-winners of the Palme d'Or along with Kechiche, the first time that such an honor has been accorded to any actor. Seydoux has been an actress on the rise in the last few years thanks to homegrown successes like "Farewell My Queen" and international successes like "Midnight in Paris" (she was the record dealer who eventually caught Owen Wilson's eye) and "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" (where she was the ass-kicking bad girl of note) and her work as Emma is a revelation in the way that she takes a character that good have just been depicted as some kind of walking erotic fantasy and makes her into a real person with her own set of emotional hurts that her lover has never bothered to consider--she has an angry confrontation with Adele at one point that is so raw and wounding to behold that you almost want to turn away from the screen because of the sense that you are witnessing something too private and painful to behold.
Although she has been in a couple of movies prior to her work her, Exarchopoulos is essentially making her big splash before our eyes with one of the most overwhelming performances by any actress that I can immediately recall. Between the emotions she is required to bear and the maturation of her character over the course of a decade, this is an enormously tricky part and she pulls it off so beautifully that you never for an instant see her "acting"--she just completely disappears into the character in ways that reminded me of Isabelle Adjani's still-stunning and somewhat similar work in "The Story of Adele H." Together, the two actresses emit an intensity that is practically volcanic in nature and if there was any justice in the world, every year-end award for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress would be theirs for the taking.
I suppose that I should say a word or two about the sex scenes that have inspired so much controversy (including a bizarre ban of the film from the one theater in Idaho that would have played it under the guise that showing it would violate local liquor laws--don't ask) and which appear to be at the heart of the friction between the director and the two actresses. There are maybe three such scenes on display and they run for a total of perhaps ten minutes or so. Yes, they are quite sexy but the reason that they have such an impact is not simply because of the amount of flesh on display nor the various gyrations that Exarchopoulos and Seydoux engage in during them. If that was all they had to offer viewers, there would be little difference between those scenes and the stuff that one can catch on Cinemax on any given night around 1:00 AM.
No, the reason why they are so powerful is that we have gotten to know the two characters so intimately from an emotional perspective that when they do finally go to bed, their actions really do mean something both to them and us--this is pretty much the complete antithesis of the typical gratuitous sex scene. Some might argue that 10 minutes of such graphic sexuality might seem a little too much--the kind of excess that comes from having a male director presenting such material--but in the context of the film, it does make sense. As I mentioned before, the entire film is told through Adele's eyes and she is the kind of person who would latch on to every possible sensation--the film is merely conveying those powerful feelings into purely cinematic terms that just would not have been as effective had they been presented at a more conventional length."Blue is the Warmest Color" is one of the very best films of 2013, a work so stirring and powerful that it will leave most viewers enthralled and devastated in equal measure. Although it will no doubt be labeled a "gay" movie by many observers, its observations regarding love, passion and heartache are of the sort that can be readily understood and embraced by audiences of all orientations. It is a shame, therefore, that its triumph is threatened with being overshadowed by the disagreements that have developed between Kechiche, Exarchopoulos and Seydoux. I can only hope that the three can somehow find a way to bury the hatchet and allow themselves to bask in the knowledge that together, they have created a flat-out cinematic masterpiece.
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originally posted: 11/01/13 08:40:42
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