Blue is the Warmest Color (Sundance Selects, NC-17)

Blue-is-the-Warmest-Color 75I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the hardest-core softcore sex you’ve ever seen.

Blue-is-the-Warmest-Color 500

I say this about a couple of films a year, but man, has it been fun to keep up with all of the hubbub regarding Blue is the Warmest Color! Of course we’re talking about the Palme d’Or (i.e. highest honor) winner at this past May’s Cannes Film Festival, which film is French, three hours long, and, as reports from Cannes were quick to alert us all to, contains quite a few pretty explicit sex scenes between the two leads, who portray young women in a homosexual relationship. The Palme d’Or was awarded by a jury headed by Steven Spielberg, which gives the film some mainstream credibility, but meanwhile the two lead actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, have said that they feel exploited by the film, the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, has expressed that he isn’t entirely satisfied with the film, and a whole lot of people, not least of which being Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel of the same name that this film is based in part on, have said that the film represents a prurient straight male’s perspective of what lesbian sex is like, and is not an accurate depiction of the real thing. (Despite all this, at least one prominent feminist film critic, B. Ruby Rich, has been vocal about how much she likes the film). And then there’s the whole stink about how the IFC Center in New York is advertising that they will let anyone high school-aged into the movie, despite its NC-17 rating.

But how is the movie? Um, pretty good. Perhaps not great. And most things you’ve heard about it are probably true.

Our main character is Adèle (played by Ms. Exarchopoulos), who at the beginning of the film is a junior in high school. She’s less interested in boys than most of her gossipy friends, but she gives them a so-called day in court. That doesn’t last long when Adèle runs into the 5 +/- years older, blue-haired Emma (Ms. Seydoux) on the street, and who starts to occupy her fantasies. It isn’t made clear at first if any of the handy descriptors of sexual orientation fit Adèle: straight, gay, bi, bi-curious. She’s young, and trying to work this stuff out herself.

A little later Adèle runs into Emma again while she (Adèle) is alone at a gay bar, which she goes to mostly by chance. From this point, Blue is the Warmest Color charts the relationship between Adèle and Emma, and its highs and lows are what make up the remainder of the film’s (long) running time.

First of all, that epic-length runtime never bothered me; I was never bored, never squirmy, never wishing it was over. While many people may argue that the film leaves a whole lot of threads left hanging loose, there aren’t really any scenes that feel extraneous. For example, Adèle’s friends at school interrogate her about why she’s been ditching them to hang out with a girl who looks like a lesbian; it’s an ugly scene and is never really returned to. The film shoots through time in a strange way, to where you never know how much of it is passing, and scenes like the above mentioned serve to color Adèle’s world and not really to provide major plot points nor really even dramatic tension.

Regarding the sex scenes, yes, there are a lot of them, and yes, they are often quite long and graphic. At the press screening I attended, it was nearly a full house in the Tivoli’s 450-seat main auditorium, and it was fun to watch people react to them. It clearly made a lot of people uncomfortable, and awkward, low-level talking tended to peak when Adèle and Emma were exploring each other’s bodies. At least one guy, sitting near the front of the theatre, was groaning pretty loudly; come to think of it, maybe that’s why people seemed uncomfortable, and not because of the content of the film. And while the actresses have said in interviews that they were wearing some type of guard over their genitals, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the hardest-core softcore sex you’ve ever seen.

But really, the sex isn’t the most interesting thing about the film; the acting is. Not for nothing, when the film was awarded the Palme d’Or Spielberg and the jury gave it not only to Kechiche, as is the norm, but also to Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, in an unprecedented move. The bottom line is that the acting is completely stunning, to the end that it’s so good it exposes how artificial almost all other acting you’ve ever seen is. The commitment to character by both leads, Exarchopoulos in particular, is a marvel. You know how when a character cries in a movie, generally their eyes well up, and one tear will eventually elegantly fall from the middle of their eye? But then, if you watch someone cry in real life, it isn’t really anything like that; their face will turn splotchy, and their nose will start to run, and tears dump out of both eyes, at the corners. That’s how crying is in this movie; so real it hurts to watch. That’s how everything is in this movie. When the characters cry they really cry, when they eat they really eat, when they kiss they really kiss, when they have sex they really have sex (okay, maybe not really really, but you know what I mean). The acting here is a huge achievement, and I’m sure I won’t see a better performance this year than Exarchopoulos’s. All the same, I’d be hugely surprised if she gets much in the way of year-end awards for it, if only because people will take the sex as an excuse to write off the film. This would be a huge mistake, and it’s very likely to happen.

So, yes, Blue is the Warmest Color is definitely worth seeing, and generally speaking, lives up to the hype. The film as a whole is strong, but not without its flaws, but the acting should and will justify the fuss being made. | Pete Timmermann

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