On screen drama outshines off screen soap opera
Much has been made in the press already about Blue is the Warmest Color, the three-hour French film that won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year. The film gained notice immediately when, in an unprecedented move, the festival’s highest award was bestowed not just on the film’s writer/director, Abdellatif Kechiche, but also its two lead actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. Since that time, the film has made headlines for its plot – a lesbian romance between two young women (one of whom is a high school student when the film begins) containing a lengthy and explicit sex scene between the two, as well as for its off-screen melodrama. That drama has included a very public war of words between the actresses and their director, and a promise by several New York City theaters to admit teenagers of all ages, despite the film’s NC-17 rating, a decision that has irked several conservative organizations.
If you want to read more on any of these issues, a quick Google search will yield material to keep you occupied for days. Such controversy will no doubt help Blue’s box office receipts in this country; after all, as they say, all publicity is good publicity. But despite the fuss, the obvious and real question remains: how does the film hold up as entertainment? As art? Ultimately, is the film worth seeing? The answer is a resounding yes.
The film is based on a French graphic novel, and traces the passionate and often volatile relationship of 15-year-old Adèle (Exachopoulos, who was 19 when the film was made) and the slightly older and more sophisticated university art student Emma (Seydoux). The two meet when Adèle is still in high school in Lille, and Emma becomes Adèle’s best friend, confidant, mentor, and lover. In that regard, the film is similar to others like Shop Girl, An Education, and the recent Don Jon, that feature younger characters discovering themselves and growing up with the help of an older, wiser companion who is intrigued by, attracted to, and yet often frustrated by the other character’s youth and inexperience.
Indeed, the film explores the conflict and distance that grows between Adèle and Emma, as Adèle graduates high school and becomes a primary school teacher, while Emma’s career as an artist takes off. Adèle remains shy and reserved, happy to stay in the background, while Emma surrounds herself with outgoing, intellectual, artist types who are complete opposites of Adèle. Both actresses do an absolutely amazing job of conveying the myriad of emotions experienced during their shifting relationship; Exarchopoulos especially says more with her expressive eyes than with any words, and watching her portray the transition from naïve teenager to mature young woman is worth the film’s price of admission alone.
And what of the infamous sex scene? Is it gratuitous, or necessary to the story? For that matter, what of the film’s length? Does it need to be three hours? I’m going to defend both here. First, the sex scene actually comprises only about seven minutes of the three-hour film, so it seems a bit ridiculous that it has become such a focus. American film audiences have always been a little Puritanical about sex scenes (somehow violence in our films has become much more acceptable than sex), and the French director and cast have shrugged off questions about the scene as a non-issue. Second, the scene is beautifully shot, and serves to convey to the audience the tremendous depth of feeling between the characters, in a realistic, non-verbal way that allows us to actually witness Adèle and Emma’s overwhelming passion for each other. Instead of simply being told, “They like each other,” we can actually see their delight in each other, and, more importantly, feel it. When, later in the film, we watch a fight between the two, we thus feel its weight even more, because we have witnessed their passion and fierce desire for each other; the contrast between the two scenes becomes greater, and we better understand what is at stake.
Similarly, the three-hour running time allows us to fully engage in the arc of Emma and Adèle’s relationship in a way that a 90-minute film would not have. Relationships take time to develop, and constantly ebb and flow, and this film’s strength is that it enables us to effectively experience those nuances and the slow, sometimes imperceptible changes in intimacy right along with the characters. When the film ended, I didn’t even realize three hours had gone by; it’s a testament to the story and the performances that you remain absolutely engaged throughout. You are given enough time to get to know the characters and to care about them, and, in the end, you actually wish you could follow each of them more to see what happens after the last frame fades.
Go see this film, then, and not of out prurient curiosity or because of the behind-the-scenes melodrama; see it because it’s a brilliant, raw, honest love story, the type of which is rarely seen in American cinema. Yes, the characters are lesbians, but the picture’s themes are universal. As a coming of age story, an examination of the highs and lows of romantic relationships, and an exploration of art and passion and their role in our lives, this film has earned its accolades, and is well worth watching.
Blue is the Warmest Color opens in Bay Area theaters today.