Genre: Drama, Romance
Directed by: Abdellatif Kechiche
Starring: Lea Seydoux, Adele Exarchopoulos, Salim Kechiouche, Aurelien Recoing
Ever since picking up the main prize at Cannes earlier on in the year, Abdellatif Kechiche’s bold and provocative coming of age story has attracted alternating waves of praise and criticism. Finally rolling into the UK, a long running time is mostly used to good effect in a tender and emotionally raw navigation of sexuality and love.
In northern France, high school student Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), fascinated by literature and very much in love with school, has her future mapped out in all but one regard. Egged on by friends, she begins a soon aborted relationship with school heartthrob Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte) that never feels quite right. A passing glimpse of a blue haired young woman and uncertain explorations with a friend suggest that there may be more to the world than the narrow male focussed conversations of her friends.
Finally meeting the blue haired woman, university art student Emma (Léa Seydoux), she embarks on an initially tentative and eventually full-fledged relationship. This is then traced through the flirtatious early days, halcyon high points, and eventual decline in bitter circumstances.
Kechiche’s fifth feature is packed full of individually powerful moments that drive the three hour running time forward with affecting emotional intensity. The scope manages to be both vast and confined. Barring passing comments, this is not a study of the difficulties of a lesbian relationship nor is it a wider culture clash piece as the inexperienced and security focussed Adèle stumbles into the world of artistic expression. Instead, it is a vividly rich account of a woman on the cusp of adulthood exploring and coming to terms with her sexuality and the possibilities that incurs.
The use of tight close-ups captures the full range of Adèle’s experiences with intimate grace. The camera frequently trained on the faces of the protagonists, but particularly Adèle, Kechiche does not show the world through their eyes, rather the impact the world has directly on them. There is a raw emotional immediacy throughout, displayed in every tear, every awkward glance, and every stray hair.
As such, the film lives and dies in the performance of the leads, especially Adèle. In an astonishing breakout performance, Exarchopoulos’ wide-eyed, inhibited wonder roots the story, strengthening the emotional impact. Her journey through an exhilarating lifestyle she’s never entirely comfortable with sees nervous inexperience gradually fade away to an emotional maturity that brings with it regret and longing she finds hard to shake.
Lying at the heart of much of the controversy is the prolonged sex scenes. They are certainly explicit, but less in the images and more in the fullness with which the act itself is revealed. Rather than cutting away after a few carefully framed shots, they are unadorned with frivolous detail, a frank depiction of an act usually curtailed in films. Even here, the camera often strays back to the faces of Adèle and Emma, unable to stay away for too long. It perhaps says more about our approach to sex, particularly non heteronormative relationships, that many audiences have found it such uncomfortable viewing.
While they remain the centrepiece, there are plenty of other emotionally charged scenes scattered through the story. The film veers from a disturbing playground fight when Adèle’s friends react badly to her growing closeness with Emma to a vicious row over infidelity, alleged or otherwise. Towering above them all is the moment when Adèle and Emma speak for the first time. Watching the two first make eye contact in a club is electrifying. It’s the closest cinema has placed me to vicariously experiencing that instantaneous attraction that draws two people together.
Ensuring that the burden does not rest solely on Exarchopoulos’ shoulders, Seydoux instils Emma with a knowing, ethereal persona. If anything, her performance rises above any inherent weaknesses in her character. Where Adèle is a fully rounded person, Emma, and the world she comes from, feels stilted. Kechiche seems to struggle more with the liberal, cultural class. There is superficiality to Emma’s artistic pursuits, the way her friends namedrop artists, and the juxtaposition between her parents who eat oysters and praise creativity and Adèle’s who cook simple pasta and put great store in dependable work. It’s cleverly done admittedly, but the artifice eventually shines through.
The second half also loses the narrative fluidity that marks Adèle’s journey from high school literature student living at home to trainee teacher cohabiting with her female partner. As the timeframe jumps forward, an element of coherency is lost. The individual scenes remain as strong, but they are no longer connected quite as naturally.
Despite this, Blue Is the Warmest Colour is a brave, immersive film that drew me in until I felt partly complicit in their relationship. Sensual and sexual, painful yet tender, it is a spellbinding portrait of the ups and downs of a love story still seen too seldom.