It’s hard to tell if Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d’AdÃ¨le) is going to gain more attention for its Palme d’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival, the outstanding performances from its two lead actors or for its explicit (and questionably necessary) sex scenes. Either way, once you get beyond the talking points there’s a lot more to see and it’s a film that won’t be soon forgotten.
Running only a minute shy of three hours, the narrative, adapted from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, follows the story of Adele (AdÃ¨le Exarchopoulos), a young high school junior as she begins exploring her sexuality. Sex with men leaves her feeling empty and unfulfilled as her mind wanders and she dreams of a blue-haired girl she only saw briefly on the street, a chance encounter that caused something to stir inside her and she’s compelled to learn more.
Exarchopoulos’ performance is the kind “break-out” was made to define. Her performance here as Adele is as mysterious, intriguing, intoxicating and emotionally draining as they come. She finds herself torn between what she knows of the world and how she feels, and director and co-writer Abdellatif Kechiche (The Secret of the Grain) explores every avenue of her self-discovery.
Initially she’s unsure of her feelings as much as she is afraid of them. Unwilling to reveal her secrets, even to her closest of friends, who happens to be gay, she finally begins to loosen up once the blue-haired girl, again, enters her life. Her name is Emma (LÃ©a Seydoux) and she’s an artist and a couple years older than Adele, and not only has she captured Adele’s attention, but she too is intrigued by this mysterious young girl.
Over the coming scenes they grow close while Kechiche, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ghalia Lacroix, isn’t concerned with detailing just how long they’ve been together, but rather chooses to focus on events in their relationship and their lives. Before you know it Adele has turned 18, she’s out of high school and eventually teaching and she and Emma now live together. This style of storytelling allows the audience to focus on the relationship and the relationship alone as opposed to being concerned with the passage of time and other details that have no real bearing on the story. For those that need such details, the screenplay includes enough dialogue to give you a clear idea of just how much time has passed as the story moves briskly through the lives of these two lovers.
That word, “lovers”, is one you’ll want to be acquainted with before settling in. All facets of Adele and Emma’s relationship are on display, including a trio of explicit sex scenes one could easily argue are hardly necessary in their extended form. Sex on film is often choreographed in such a way that a breast can only briefly be seen and the act is more of a suggestion rather than entirely on display. Here there is nothing left to the imagination as the pages of a the Kama Sutra come to life and the slapping of flesh and breathless moans of the two girls reverberates through the cinema to the point I can’t find reason for the scenes to exist in their current form outside of attempting to shock.
I could understand if these scenes had some sort of arc of their own where you first see them merely as sex scenes, and then slowly begin to feel a little uncomfortable only to finally come around and see the two characters have lost themselves in one another. Admittedly there is a small amount of that there, but ultimately it comes across as unnecessary.
Explicit sex aside, the rest of the film is a revelatory window into the life of this young girl who continually keeps you guessing, leaving the audience just as unsure of what’s around the next corner as she is. Exarchopoulos gives a rare performance where less is more in so many different and subtle ways. Her control of body language and ability to say so much with just a glance or even ask questions with only her eyes allows us to see the world as she does and question it. As an audience member you experience joy, frustration, jealousy and sadness right alongside her and this is largely attributable to Exarchopoulos and Seydoux’s performances.
The film doesn’t utilize much in the way of a score, opting to let music within a scene fill the speakers rather than layering on additional atmosphere. Instead every audible sound within a scene is heightened, particularly scenes involving food as every sip and swallow seems to be amplified. This is just another way Kechiche explores the many of life’s pleasures from food to sex to art and several scenes in which literature is deeply analyzed.
Where Blue is the Warmest Color largely succeeds is in treating Adele’s journey not as a lesbian, but as just another person, looking for love and a happy life. Certainly her sexuality comes with a social price, a level of confusion and even moments where ignorance finds her the victim of hate. Adele’s inability to admit to everyone she knows her true sexuality also opens up additional realities. The knee-jerk reaction is to define her as a lesbian but the film is quick to prove that would merely be a label and in this case possibly a wrong one. The film finds moral grounds in asking if it’s natural human instinct to love, can it really be wrong to find love and passion with anyone or anything? How can you condemn something you haven’t tried simply on the basis of looks, texture or a lack of understanding?
The question of morality bubbles at the surface of every corner of Blue is the Warmest Color along with the exploration of first love and life’s great passions. Ultimately Adele’s future is left open to interpretation as to what it may hold. There’s a suggestion passion comes with a price and it can’t be forced as much as it merely ought to be left up to chance and trying new things. Whether that means stumbling into the right bar or taking a left instead of a right, a lot of life is left out of our control and we must simply embrace each twist and turn as it comes.