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Blue is the Warmest Colour actresses on their lesbian sex scenes: 'We felt like prostitutes'

Lesbian romance Blue Is the Warmest Colour won the Palme d'Or. Now its lead actresses are the hottest property in film. Kaleem Aftab meets them

When it awarded the Palme d'Or to Blue Is the Warmest Colour, the Cannes Film Festival jury took the unusual step of sharing the prize between its director Abdellatif Kechiche, and its two principal actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. They happily posed for the cameras together when picking up the prize, but behind the scenes the three were at loggerheads. The actresses were apparently unhappy with the director's methods. And now Kechiche has said that his prize winner should not even be released. “The film is too sullied”, he told the French magazine Télérama. “The Palme d'Or win only gave me a brief moment of happiness. Since then I've felt humiliated, dishonoured, living with a curse...”

One thing is certain, ever since the Cannes premiere of Kechiche's loose adaptation of Julie Maroh's graphic novel about two young lovers, the actresses have been the most talked about couple in film. Not least because of a six-minute-sex scene, which left many critics wondering if the action was simulated or not. Off-screen, the actresses have clearly become firm friends. While waiting to interview Seydoux, 28 and Exarchopoulos, 19, I can see them locked arm-in-arm, sharing gossip and sniggering. They tell me that the acclaim for the film has calmed their nerves somewhat following a difficult and turbulent six-month shoot. Like David Fincher and Stanley Kubrick, Kechiche is a director who shoots hundreds of takes.

“In the scene where we meet for the first time, it lasts 20 seconds on screen,” says Seydoux. “We spent 10 hours working on this scene, I'm not joking. We did 100 takes, just of the moment that we crossed paths. In the end, I was just becoming crazy and just started looking at Adèle, bemused. And then he became crazy. He took the monitor, and was like, 'Oh my God! F*** it!' We just laughed.”

By now everyone who works with Kechiche – whose previous films include the excellent The Secret of the Grain – knows what to expect. “Sometimes [I hated him],” adds Seydoux, who was cast over a coffee with the director. “It was difficult and that is the way he is. When I decided to make the film, I knew that it was going to be hard. I think I wanted that. I wanted to see how it was to go this far.”

Those who have only seen Seydoux's turns in the American films Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Midnight in Paris are in for a great surprise, as she shows acting chops that were only briefly on display previously in Ursula Meier's Sister. In person, she is very shy, but there is no sign of that on screen, where she plays a powerful, blue-haired lesbian who becomes the object of affection for an innocent young student.

In real life, it's Exarchopoulos who is the more boisterous and outspoken. Having come out of nowhere, she is now being touted as an outside bet for an Oscar nomination. She had a minor role in Jane Birkin's Boxes, before gaining wider recognition in France in 2008 for Les Enfants de Timpelbach. None of the films where she has a prominent role have been widely released in the UK. She auditioned many times for this role, as the director tested out every budding actress in France.

Having won it, she inspired the French title of the film, La Vie d'Adèle: Chapitres 1 and 2. In the comic book, her character is called Clementine. “People were calling me by my real name when we were doing improvisations. So one day Abdellatif asked me if it would bother me to keep my own name for my character. In Arabic, Adèle means justice and there was a strong link with the character I play. So we just kept it.”

Seydoux, right, and Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour

The actresses didn't know each other before filming began. “The first time we filmed a sex scene, I was just laughing,” says Exarchopoulos. “I was supposed to touch myself and it was supposed to be my fantasy and then when I opened my eyes and saw her we laughed so much. We were embarrassed. And he shoots for such a long time, I was thinking, 'Man, you can stop there!'”

Was there anything that she refused to do? “Yes, cunnilingus!” Seydoux laughs. “We had fake pussies on. You have something to protect and tape it under. I don't make love on screen. We can fake these things, you can't fake feelings, but you can fake body language.” Did they ever worry they were merely playing out a male fantasy? “Yes. Of course it was kind of humiliating sometimes, I was feeling like a prostitute. Of course, he uses that sometimes. He was using three cameras, and when you have to fake your orgasm for six hours... I can't say that it was nothing. But for me it is more difficult to show my feelings than my body.”

It is this kind of statement that has left Kechiche fuming. He argues that it stops audiences going into the film with open hearts and that it paints a picture of him as a tyrant. “If Seydoux lived such a bad experience, why did she come to Cannes, try on robes and jewellery all day?” he said. “Is she an actress or an artist of the red carpet?”

Kechiche demanded a level of realism in every scene, clothed on or not. “I didn't use any tricks to make myself cry,” says Exarchopoulos. “Abdel would kill me, he hates fabrication. He wants us to really be smoking a joint and drinking beer. Sometimes too much. He wants to be close to the truth every time. We are drinking real wine. The man who plays the Emma's stepfather is one of the producers and he was so drunk in one scene. You just listened to his voice and you knew it wasn't useable – he was so drunk and saying things that weren't the subject of the film.”

And yet this is a film where it seems that the ends justified the means. “It's not because you do 300 takes you're a genius – that is just his method,” says Seydoux. “I, for example, don't like to do too many takes. If I do too many takes, I'm too self-conscious. I think I'm better in first scenes. With Abdellatif, I knew that he was going to film 100 takes. Sometimes I would come in and say, 'I don't give a shit' because I knew that he would get what he wanted. I think the result is what is important. I think it's a beautiful result and beautiful film, I want to do beautiful films and it's not about me.”

Despite this conciliatory statement from Seydoux, the war of words playing out in the media has demonstrated a breakdown in the relationship between actresses and director. In France, the film is subtitled “Chapters 1 and 2”. Seydoux claims not to know why and says that there will never be a second chapter. Still, her friendship with her co-star remains. “We have a very strong connection,” she says. “She has things that I really love. She's not looking at herself, she has a boyish side that I like and she is courageous and she is real. She is nature and beauty. I only have admiration for her.”

For her part, Exarchopoulos signs off by saying, “At the end of the film, I was very tired.”

'Blue Is the Warmest Colour' screens at the London Film Festival on 14 October (bfi.org.uk/lff) and goes on general release on 15 November

The actresses and director Kechiche pose with their Palme d'Or