By Gary M. Kramer
The extraordinary Cannes Palme d’Or-winning French film “Blue is the Warmest Color,” about a teenage lesbian’s coming of age, has become famous for its lengthy and explicit sex scenes, but this powerful film should be celebrated more for Adele Exarchopoulos’ phenomenal performance in the lead role. The actress gives an incredibly nuanced portrait of a young woman finding her way in the world, and herself in the process.
Adele is a high school student who is studying literature in the film’s early scenes. The pupils talk about “something missing” for the character they are reading about, and the same can be said of Adele. Although she flirts with – and eventually has sex with – Thomas (Jeremie Laheurte), a handsome student in her class, she feels like she is faking things with him.
Adele secretly knows this to be true because when she spies Emma (Lea Seydoux), a blue-haired beauty on the street, she is intrigued and distracted. She later fantasizes about this stranger while masturbating.
“Blue is the Warmest Color” gets into Adele’s head throughout the film, and director and co-writer Abdellatif Kechiche shoots his protagonist often in close-up to emphasize this. Shots of Adele sleeping, eating, watching a movie, smoking a cigarette and crying (which she does easily) reveal much about her character. Exarchopoulos does a remarkable job conveying expressions that belie Adele’s complex emotions.
Her angst is palpable. When a fellow student kisses her, it has the impact of legitimizing Adele’s same-sex desires. However, the relationship quickly goes nowhere, although it awakens Adele’s desires to go off to a gay club with her friend Valentin (Sandor Funtek). It is in a lesbian bar that Adele meets Emma, and the pair hit it off over drinks. They bond further upon their next few meetings, suddenly developing an intense relationship as Emma, an artist, sketches her new girlfriend. An intimate picnic the girls share leads to one of the aforementioned sex scenes.
A three-hour romantic drama, “Blue is the Warmest Color” hits its stride in its second hour, when Adele’s relationship with Emma takes over the narrative. While Adele’s high school friends grill her about her mysterious new friend Emma, the film avoids a coming-out scene and instead portrays the responses Adele’s peers have to her lies and reactions to being called a lesbian. Likewise, as the young lovers each meet the other’s parents, Adele never quite reveals the extent of her relationship with Emma to her own folks, who think the blue-haired girl is helping their daughter study philosophy. There is no drama about the girls being “caught” in bed, or any other obvious moments that would unbalance this delicate romance.
In fact, that some of the typically big dramatic moments happen off screen (or not at all) is critical to the success of the film. “Blue is the Warmest Color” is absorbing because viewers are keyed into Adele’s world and how she navigates it. When she lies, makes mistakes or reaches under her bed for her stash of candy to comfort her following an emotional scene, the audience can sympathize with her – or choose not to.
Part of what makes Exarchopoulos’ performance so enthralling is that the actress is not afraid to show Adele at her most vulnerable. The sex and nude scenes certainly illustrate the actress’s bravery, but her crying scenes are long, messy sequences, and her heated exchanges with her high school friends, or Emma, when the lovers fight, are painful and hyper-realistic.
As viewers get a glimpse into the emotional rollercoaster of Adele’s life, they become absorbed in it. The film is quite long; it could be slightly edited. A series of extended scenes in the last third depict Adele realizing her dream to be a teacher, but some of these episodes go on too long. It makes sense why they are included (to show the maturation of the character), but watching her teaching children in a classroom does not do much to advance the plot.
That said, these moments lead to a scene in a restaurant between Adele and Emma that is one of the most astonishing sequences in any film this year. It’s best not to explain more about it or the way the lovers’ relationship unfolds as that provides much of the magic of this film – but their romance does emphasize the old adage that whoever has the least interest in the relationship controls it.