Blue is the Warmest Color, the winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a frank and honest examination of a relationship from a heated first glance to its dying embers. Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, the film rides waves of passion, bliss and anger in such truthful ways that anyone who’s been madly in love will identify with the couple, even if the parties happen to be two women. And to boot, the movie is wonderfully alive.
Adèle Exarchopoulos plays Adèle, a high school junior in Paris who loves literature and wants to be a teacher. On a crowded sidewalk one afternoon, she locks eyes with Emma, a blue-haired artist and college student played by Léa Seydoux. Both acknowledge an immediate attraction in that brief, wordless connection but don’t have any way to contact each other. They do spot each other some time later in a lesbian bar and Emma blocks another woman’s intentions toward Adèle by telling her she’s her cousin. They exchange pleasantries and it’s not long before Emma shows up outside Adèle’s school – to her delight in spite of the homophobic leaps of logic made by her acid-tongued female peers.
Viewers become voyeurs at their first date, first dinners with each other’s families, and their first sexual encounter. It’s this explicit latter scene (and subsequent ones) that brings the film a rating of NC-17. The lovemaking goes on for seven graphic minutes, and the women are shot under bright lights sans clothes. For all the hubbub about the scene (even the actresses have grumbled about Kechiche’s treatment of them), it can’t help but seem at once necessary and gratuitous. Sex is a big part of new relationships, yet so is privacy and discretion.
About halfway through the three-hour film, it’s apparent - by Emma’s hair reverted back to its original color and Adèle’s job at a nursery school - that a few years have passed with them living as a couple. At a celebratory dinner party at their home, though, they’re very much detached from each other. Adèle’s pungent jealousy boils in her belly when Emma spends too much time with a woman Adèle’s never met. As payback, of sorts, Adèle spends the evening attentively hanging on every word of a handsome Arab actor (Salim Kechiouche). With the passion waning, they seem dismissive of each other’s feelings; this one night could dictate the next thousand.
Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are extraordinarily natural and captivating. In the early scenes, Exarchopoulos exhibits the chaotic, hormonal volatility of youth. She unabashedly gobbles food like a much younger child yet embraces being womanly. (She already has a sex life with a boyfriend before meeting Emma.) Seydoux (who has been terrific in period pieces like Farewell, My Queen and the contemporary melodrama Sister earlier this year) has the gap-toothed beauty of a young Lauren Hutton, as well as Hutton’s adventurous independence. Together, the actresses bring a chemical ferocity to their characters: young women seeking niches where they won’t feel so lost.