Editor’s Note: Our review of Blue Is the Warmest Color originally ran during this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release.
Lea Seydoux has been one of the toasts of the Cannes Film Festival this year, what with her stellar work opposite Tahir Rahim in Un Certain Regard entry Grand Central, and now, In Competition, she delivers the stronger of her two performances in the sweeping, epic, sexy romance Blue is the Warmest Color. The bigger story here, however, might just be the coming out party for newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos, who is sure to become an in-demand young actress overnight.
Adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel, Blue follows a young high school student, Adele (Exarchopolous), through the passage of adulthood as she attempts to come to terms with her sexuality. After a failed relationship with a classmate, Thomas (Jeremie Laheurte), Adele seems to find that which was missing in her heart with Emma (Seydoux), a blue-haired, older art student who she chances upon at a lesbian bar after an initial sighting.
Director Abdellatif Kechiche (Black Venus) uses his opening scene – a literature discussion about love at first sight – to foreground one of the key themes of the film. We see Adele meeting up with Thomas, craftily implying that it is these two who will be the romantic focus of the thesis, yet once Adele catches sight of Emma while walking down the street one day, we see that Thomas was merely an act of misdirection. Adele cannot shake Emma from her mind, making way for a complicated love story that spans a decade and is unexpectedly universal in its depiction.
Little of the film would garner much interest beyond its racy sex scenes if we didn’t connect with protagonist Adele at the outset. She’s a likeable, confident girl who loses her self-assurance as she discovers a new facet of her sexual identity — and then regains it as she embarks upon a relationship with the considerably more experienced Emma. The success and believability of these characters is a sure testament to the central performers. If Seydoux has earned a reputation over the last few years as a reliably brilliant young actress, more attention will likely be pointed towards Exarchopoulos, whose outstanding, vanity-free performance here is sure to lead to more high-profile work.
As raw physically as it is emotionally, Blue features graphic sex scenes both with Adele and Thomas early on, and then with Adele and Emma thereafter. The focal lovemaking scene, a roughly 15-minute document of the lesbian couple performing a multitude of sexual acts upon one another amid largely unbroken takes, underlines the brave commitment of the young actresses, and they are never anything less than totally convincing. The sensual approach by Kechiche helps to avoid charges of overt exploitation, even though it is undeniably titillating, and also convey the intimacy of a relationship’s honeymoon period, driven by overwhelming sexual attraction above all else.
From here, Blue leaps off to examine a wide gamut of emotional and social issues that define relationships, such as the problem that age differences can create, the fallacy of basing all your happiness on the partner you’re with and Adele’s complicated placement on the sexual spectrum — is she a lesbian or bisexual? Also, Kechiche broaches the perception of lesbian relationships among youngsters – the gay panic among Adele’s friends once they suspect her orientation is startling – and the inevitable awkwardness of deciding whether or not to come out to one’s parents, making for a hilariously awkward dinner scene at Adele’s home.
All of this is told over a considerable period of time – both in terms of years and the film’s length – though the director manages to keep the passage agreeably subtle. Perhaps most telling of all, however, is the manner in which the film implies the weight of our romantic encounters throughout our lives, and how they shape us as people. When Adele’s relationship with Emma isn’t going so well, for instance, she’s a stern, serious teacher completely lacking a sense of humor.
The chemistry between the actresses, namely the sexual tension in the early stages of their courting, is beautifully filmed to accentuate this longing. Later on, when things inevitably aren’t quite as idyllic, the two are no less brilliant; a late-day argument scene between Adele and Emma is jaw-droppingly explosive yet manages to completely avoid histrionics. The nature of this friction extends far beyond merely dictating the travails of a lesbian couple and has sure relatability for just about anyone watching.
Granted, the blue color motif is overplayed throughout the film to the point of distraction, and some of the later sex scenes might seem a tad unnecessary once that lustful drive has been established – not to mention they eat considerably into the run-time – though each does at least give us a glimpse into the raw, animalistic attraction between these two souls. Moreover, as a depiction of first love, cinema doesn’t get a whole lot more frank. Kechiche captures the ecstatic highs and punishing lows of matters of the heart with piercing proficiency. Switching effortlessly between riotous humor and dark, even bleak drama, this is a film sure to play well across sexuality and gender.
The Upside: Central performances are virtually faultless; the graphic sex scenes are both enjoyable to watch and psychologically potent; the tale is more broadly relatable than you might think.
The Downside: The three-hour running time will prove punishing for some; the color blue is overused; some of the later sex scenes are arguably excessive.
On the Side: It required four editors to bring Kechiche’s vision to the screen, which given the epic scope shouldn’t be all that surprising.