Ever since I’ve paid attention to the Cannes Film Festival (which admittedly isn’t that long), we’ve never had a Palm D’Or winner as scandalous as Blue is the Warmest Color. Not just because it features extended, steamy, lesbian sex sequences -although those were and remain somewhat of a talking point- but for the comments the director and stars have had about the movie and the making of those sequences. A sort of feud has been developed between director Abdellatif Kechiche and star Lea Seydoux that started when the latter expressed her disastisfaction with Kechiche’s uncomfortable and exhausting methods on set (especially when filming the sex scenes). Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel on which the movie is based expressed her dissatisfaction with the way lesbian sex was depicted saying of the sequences “the heteronotmative laughed because they don’t understand it and find the scene ridiculous. The gay and queer people laughed becuase it’s not convincing, and found it ridiuclous.” Manohla Dargis, of The New York Times, also expressed her concern with Kechiche’s depiction of these young women, saying the movie “feels more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else.”
As you can see, the argument about the effectiveness, realism and purpose of the explicit sex scenes is already a loaded one. As a straight man, I have no idea if the scenes realistically depicted what goes on in the bed of a lesbian couple. However, what I can say after watching the film, is that I can very well see what are the elements that made the initial Cannes response so overwhelmingly positive. There is no question in my mind that these are all talented people that worked in the making of the film and they have in fact made an effective movie. In that spirit, I want to point out to another landmark the film accomplished in Cannes, where the jury decided to award the Palm D’Or not only to Kechiche, but to stars Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos, making it the first time the Palm was awarded to the actors of a film as well as the director. This is no small thing. We know movies are a communal effort, but thanks to those french guys from Cahiers du cinema and the acceptance of the auteur theory, we don’t have many quibbles with giving credit to the director. Giving equal credit to the actors is notable in its specificity. Out of all the people involved in making the movie, the Jury decided single out the actors, and two of them at that.
I have to say that I understand the triple-mention in the prize. I would dare to say the Cannes Jury probably loved the movie more than I did. I have a couple problems with it, but the one thing I wouldn’t call anything but brilliant is the acting by these two ladies. Our lead character is Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), whom we meet as a fifteen year old girl frustrated with her sexuality. She’s gone out with a guy, but not much has come out of it. It’s not until she meets a considerably older art student named Emma (Lea Seydoux) that she finds she feels love’s true connection (also emotionally, but especially sexually). Movies as long as Blue is the Warmest Color (it runs just shy of three hours) are usually epics with blue aliens, hobbits or sinking ships, yet the movie isn’t overlong. It doesn’t move slowly or take unnecessary detours, it uses every minute of its running time to portray this relationship as completely as possible. That’s why the award to the actresses seems so appropriate. Adele and Emma are pretty much everything we have to hold on to in the movie, and with such a massive running time, the actresses have really been able to come up with fully rounded characters.
If not just for how amazing the acting is, the movie’s flaws make me realize how accomplished the performances really are. There are many moments of the film that feel a little too familiar. Most of them come in the first third of the film, but the general outline of the plot, except for a few somewhat surprising developments, is not particularly original. There is, for example, an aggressive scene in which Adele’s school mates confront her about her sexuality that feels like what you’d find in a PSA or an after-school special. Despite these moments, the film manages to earn an air of realism and viscerality; and I think it’s thanks to the Seydoux and Exarchopoulos. Much later in the movie there is a party scene in which other somewhat familiar plot-points occur. By this point, however, we’re so immersed in the actresses’ work that it’s almost impossible to realize while watching the movie how overwrought and obvious the scene could feel with performances that weren’t as nuanced and naturalistic as these.
It is anything but surprising that a European movie is going for a naturalistic approach, but it does provide Blue is the Warmest Color with its strongest moments. It’s the relatability, the way these characters let us see ourselves in them that makes the movie connect. Lea Seydoux is becoming one of my favorite actresses, she’s been in great in many movies (most notably Farewell, My Queen and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and is fantastic at making a full human out of the strong-willed but delicate Emma. A task all the more impressive considering the places the script takes her. Our big entry point into the movie, though, is Adele. Kechiche seem to be as fascinated with Exarchopoulos as he is with Adele as a character, constantly lingering on her face and body. The movie is mostly close-ups of these two girls interacting as they go through the phases of their relationship.
That is why I had a somewhat mixed reaction to the sex scenes. Like I said before, I can’t really comment on the realism of the sequences, but I do feel like they don’t always work thematically for me. Those are, curiously, some of the few moments in which Kechiche decides to abandon close-ups and pull back the camera. Maybe it’s intentional that they seem like other people, letting themselves lose in their sexuality, but in those moments these girls don’t feel completely like Emma or Adele. It’s not that the scenes are ineffective, because we do get the passion and the urgency of their desires, but that the way they’re filmed is a little distracting. The best moments of Blue is the Warmest Color are really whenever the camera just surrenders to the performances and just lets the characters be. The party scene I talked about before is a perfect example. Within its movie-narrative-constraints, it feels incredibly genuine. The actresses go through so many feelings and they don’t act as they have to let us know that. They just do. It’s a great scene to watch. And there are many of those.
Grade: 7 out of 10