It was very bold of the Cannes Jury headed by Steven Spielberg to give Blue Is the Warmest Colour the Palme D’Or. After all, this is a film featuring explicit lesbian sex and made by a middle-aged male film-maker.
It has been rated NC-17 in the US, a certificate that alarms and alienates mainstream American cinemas in equal measure. (ET this is not.) In its depiction of a young love affair, Blue Is the Warmest Colour is intimate to the point of being claustrophobic. Director Abdellatif Kechiche takes his audience oppressively close to his two protagonists, 15-year-old Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and her blue-haired lover Emma (Léa Seydoux.)
The film-maker approaches his two young female leads with an anthropologist’s relish. It’s as if he believes that by observing them as intently as possible, he will be able capture their innermost feelings. For all the queasiness his voyeuristic, hyper-realist approach induces along the way, Kechiche has delivered a film of extraordinary richness and emotional complexity.
There are constant huge close-ups of the women’s faces. Kechiche seems determined not to miss any tell-tale sign, whether a smile, a frown or a look of bemusement. We don’t have a sense of Exarchopoulos, in particular, “acting.” It’s a measure of her skill that she seems throughout to be behaving naturally and spontaneously. It is also indicative of the way the director moulded her performance. He reportedly shot hundreds of hours of material, pushing his cast and crew close to mutiny in the process, as he searched for emotional truthfulness.
The film is inordinately long, a full three hours. This is a chamber piece – a film with only two main characters – and yet it still has an epic quality that belies its origins. (It is adapted from a relatively short graphic novel by Julie Maroh.)
One of the surprises of Blue Is the Warmest Colour – given its notoriety – is the ordinariness of its settings. This isn’t a film that takes place in Amélie’s Montmartre or the fashionable Left Bank of Midnight in Paris (in which Seydoux also appeared). Instead, it unfolds against everyday backdrops in Lille. Made as a drama, Blue Is the Warmest Colour nonetheless has the same relentless focus on its subjects that you find in fly-on-the-wall documentaries.
The sex scenes are very frankly shot but almost every other scene in the film has the same level of detail and nuance. This is especially true of the earliest parts of the film in which we see Adèle and her friends at school. When Adèle catches an early glimpse of Emma while on a date with a boy from her school, we’re immediately instantly aware of her fascination with someone whose rebellious spirit she immediately identifies with recognises.
As we first encounter her, Adèle is a conformist schoolgirl. She has a token “gay” friend but takes it for granted that girls go out with boys. Adèle, though, is at a pivotal moment in her life. She is intensely curious. When she and a school friend share a kiss almost on a whim, the friend sees it as little more than a joke. For Adèle, it is far more important than that. There is a wonderful sequence when she wanders into a bar hoping to meet Emma – it is as if she has entered an exotic and dangerous new world.
Julie Maroh has complained that Blue Is the Warmest Colour is a heterosexual male director’s vision of what a lesbian affair might be like and is close to pornography. That seems unfair. This is primarily a film about a relationship. The fact that it is between two women isn’t the key factor. For Adèle, her lover represents difference and defiance. Emma is an artist. She is self-consciously rebellious and unashamed about her sexuality.
The two girls come from very different social backgrounds. Adèle is working class, Emma comes from an artistic elite. This is made very apparent in the scenes in which the girls and their families sit down at table. Kechiche loves to show his characters eating. Emma and her parents are shown shovelling spaghetti into their mouths.
“I eat everything,” Adèle blithely declares. Her voracious appetite for life is reflected in the way she devours her food. In theory, she doesn’t like shellfish but when Emma’s family offer her oysters, her curiosity gets the better of her.
In the first half of the film, as Emma and Adèle come together, the differences between them fall away. The film-maker’s approach remains determinedly naturalistic. There is nothing here like the famous scene in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona in which the two women’s faces seem to merge together, as if they are a single personality.
The storytelling style changes subtly in the second half of the film. It’s as if Kechiche is taking a step back. The close-ups aren’t as big. The intensity in the relationship gives way to a cosy domesticity as Adèle pursues her new career as a teacher and Emma works away at her art. There is still one astonishing scene when the couple have a full-blown row. The rancour is every bit as fierce as their tenderness had been earlier on.
The film tapers out in its final quarter. Its ending is strangely conventional. There have been countless other films that have chronicled young love affairs in a similar way. What makes Blue Is the Warmest Colour different, though, isn’t the story itself but the searingly frank and intimate way in which it is told.
Abdellatif Kechiche, 179 mins Starring: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos