Before we discuss the merits of Blue Is the Warmest Color, let’s talk briefly about the notoriety it’s already gotten in the US. It’s being publicized as a three-hour lesbian love story, in French, with unusually explicit sex scenes, directed by a man. With the possible exception of the drama’s 179-minute running time, most of the above descriptors count as positive selling points for modern, urban, art-film audiences. Certainly no one in the Bay Area should object to watching lycée student Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) fall madly in love with a slightly older fine-art painter named Emma (Léa Seydoux), even when their passionate lovemaking crosses over into NC-17 territory. After all, amour fou happens to adolescents as well as to people with bank accounts.
But then we get to filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche’s gender. The 52-year-old Tunisian-born French citizen is indeed a man, and all of a sudden we’re treated to worried critiques of the “male gaze,” especially as applied to Adèle and Emma’s adventures in bed — as if director/co-writer Kechiche is somehow disqualified from depicting their relationship because he’s not a woman. To which we can only say bollocks. Following that reasoning would mean dismissing the work of Kenji Mizoguchi (Life of Oharu), George Cukor (Camille), Alexander Payne (Election), G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box), François Ozon (8 Women), and Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures), to name a few talented filmmakers, because as men they dared to empathize with convention-defying female characters.
Both protagonists eagerly flout the rules. Literature major Adèle, who studies Marivaux and seems idly interested in the boys at school, is a normal-looking student with stray wisps of hair falling in her face, who nonetheless confesses about her life: “I feel like I’m faking it.” One night she goes to a gay bar with her gay best friend Valentin (Sandor Funtek), eventually ends up in a women’s bar, and locks gazes with a bright-blue-haired, late-twentyish punkette with worn-out eyes, Emma. Lightning strikes.
Later, after the more experienced woman picks up the teenager after school, a squabble breaks out between Adèle and her homophobic classmates — but she was ready for a change anyway. The two become inseparable, much to the puzzled dismay of Adèle’s parents and the obliging acquiescence of Emma’s. Adèle has her sights set on a career in elementary education; Emma is happy for now to have Adèle pose in the nude for her paintings. But nothing lasts forever. We’re not building up to the sweaty, graphic sex scenes, but to something else entirely.
Seydoux, who’s the granddaughter of the chairman of the giant Pathé film company, brings a practiced worldliness to the role of the slightly predatory Emma, who appears to derive perverse pleasure in taking the conversation over her lover’s head (as in the Schiele-Klimt exchange). It’s in the close-ups of Adèle that this film opens up and breathes. She’s the one we worry about, this child who always seems preoccupied, as if ready to burst into tears. Her affair with Emma is in fact the first love of her life, and that registers in every move she makes. Is she actually a lesbian? Does it really matter? Seydoux (Farewell, My Queen) projects a nervous vulnerability, but Exarchopoulos steals our hearts. She hasn’t finished growing up yet.
The period of time covered in Blue Is the Warmest Color takes us from Adèle’s school days into her career as a pre-school teacher. That’s one of the beauties of having three hours to work with — we almost feel as if we’ve grown with the characters, scene by careful scene, through exhilaration and deflation and everything in between. Filmmaker Kechiche, whose previous movie was Black Venus, the ironic cross-cultural story of an African woman abused in 19th-century Europe, is well aware of the pitfalls of “civilization.” In his portrait of Adèle and Emma — adapted with writer Ghalia Lacroix from a comic book by Julie Maroh — we get the sense that only in their feverish bumping and grinding is there any hope of innocence. The sex is specific; everything else the two young women do is utterly general. Hearts will break but life goes on. And besides, Adèle looks terrific in specs.