At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” not only became the first same-sex romance to receive the Palme d’Or top prize, but it also unleashed a torrent of controversy.  With explicit sex and breakout performances, the plot unveils the emotional love affair between two young women.  At 15, the life of Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is changed when she meets Emma (Lea Seydoux) an older student.  Adéle loses her virginity after a brief heterosexual relationship and then somewhat naïvely falls hard for the chic art undergraduate Emma,  Directed and co-written by France’s Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche, the film is loosely based on the graphic novel Le Bleu Est Une Couleur Chaude.

There’s boldness to Exarchopoulos’ interpretative acting, a thoroughly credible breakthrough performance at the movie’s center, portraying her character as a woman trapped by the mixed messages around her. At school, her peers encourage her to date a male classmate who has his eye on her, but balk when they figure out she’s dating a woman. Seydoux, barely recognizable during the first half under a mop of blue-dyed hair, perfectly embodies the freewheeling mentality that offers Adéle an escape from her staid existence. Their commitments to these characters carry the narrative.

The first sex scene in this coming-of-age drama lasts longer than any other sequence in the movie. Further passionate lovemaking follows and all are extremely graphic, yet set in the intensity of a deeply emotional attraction the sex isn’t gratuitous. Dwelling on the film’s three-hour length shortchanges the plot’s tender relevance to heartbreak which follows a doomed relationship.  The intensity of Adele and Emma’s physical bond later enhances the fractured feelings caused by watching it fall apart.

Kechiche’s screenplay, spread over time-passing sequences, draws on Julie Maroh’s graphic novel to convey the depth of feeling shared by the couple. The soft-spoken Adele meets Emma in a gay bar and gradually develops a bond with her, fascinated by the slightly older woman’s sly gaze and philosophical insights. As time passes and Adéle starts her professional life and her interests mature, the relationship starts to strain for the usual reasons. It’s not exactly a surprise when things go awry, but by the time the arguments begin, director Kechiche has crafted such a believable world that it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the unfolding events.  Really, sex is less the main ingredient than the overall ways that physicality impacts romantic attraction. Kechiche depicts the sensuality of his dual heroines with the same compassion visible in other scenes. There’s a crucial moment when tensions come to the fore with one woman in tears and the other screeching in anger, which provides an extraordinary counterpoint to the eroticism earlier in the narrative.  Even though the explicit sexuality goes beyond what seems acceptable in films these days, I view the sensual love-making as a natural manifestation of deep physical feelings.

Much of the movie is concerned with the slow, hesitant means by which Adéle comes out of her shell, particularly whether she needs Emma’s help to do it or must she take on the task solo. Their faces are crucial to deepening the plot. In one remarkable scene shortly after they start sleeping together; Emma and Adéle attend a gay pride parade, sticking close together while registering vastly different responses to their surroundings: As Emma giddily dances around, Adéle appears intensely shy. Yet later in the narrative, she’s seen rocking the dance floor with an alluring swagger.  Kechiche excels at capturing his protagonist’s emergence in the world.

Novelist Maroh has criticized the movie for being pornographic and for not having any lesbians in the cast. The two stars proclaimed they would never work with the director again, calling the experience “horrible.” Kechiche responded with his own complaints, calling Seydoux “an arrogant, spoiled child” and at one point even threatening to yank the film from release altogether.  While scandal has bolstered the box office, it negatively unleashes voyeuristic appeal for the masses with pornographic interests rather than artistic admiration.  What’s apparent about “Blue Is the Warmest Color” is that all the gossip about the daring nature of the film immediately disappears when the movie starts.

With a three hour running time, some scenes (support characters, other potential love interests, parents and co-workers), may feel less developed than the focus on the two leads, but this doesn’t diminish the overall appeal of the narrative. Relative newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos fleshes out a strong performance as the conflicted teenager facing her hidden homosexual desires opposite Lea Seydoux.  Together they are a formidable team which swayed the Cannes Festival jury, led by Steven Spielberg to award the Palme d’Or not just to director Abdellatif Kechiche, but to the two starlets; a first for the festival.

The film grips, growing in intensity at two young maturing women who realize the world is bigger, and its possibilities far more attainable than they earlier believed.  As the movie starts, the scandalous atmosphere is replaced by warm compassion as stirring emotions and unexpected beauty flow from the heart.

“Blue Is the Warmest Color” is playing in selected markets.

By: Alex Reynolds

Providing a Fresh Perspective for Burlington and Hamilton.

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