Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Blue Is the Warmest Color Movie Review

Is a three hour running time for a romantic drama a little indulgent? In general, I’d say it probably is, but there’s no one size fits all answer. If the story is suited to it and it’s compelling enough to carry you through, then why not? The French drama Blue Is the Warmest Color, winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, takes cinematic romantic love to rarely touched emotional depths. The epic length didn’t feel so long to me, which must be viewed as testament to the humane and sensitive direction by Abdellatif Kechiche and the incredible and brave performances by the two female leads, Adéle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux.

Exarchopoulos plays Adéle (she’s the title character in the original French La vie d’Adéle. As the story begins she is fifteen or sixteen and just beginning to explore her sexuality. She seems to have the other important things worked out: she’s a good student; engaged with the literature she’s studying; and she has a clear idea of her career trajectory. But she feels the pull of an attractive older boy who looks in her direction and the push of her friends who think it’s time she got a taste of physical love. Although Adéle doesn’t come out and say it, there’s a clearly delineated sense that a relationship with a boy is not satisfying and one day she catches the eye of a blue-haired girl walking arm-in-arm with another girl. Adéle notices with equal curiosity both the young woman and the fact that there may be other avenues open to her for romantic fulfillment.

It doesn’t depend on speeches and dialogue to express its idea. Mostly everything is done with an adept shift of the camera and the acutely aware facial expressions and body language of these marvelous actresses (Seydoux plays Emma, the blue-haired artist who enters into a relationship with Adéle), which precludes the need for bold declarations of newfound sexual identity. I would imagine that a young person’s transition to accepting her inherent lesbianism more often than not goes something like this. It’s more about meeting the person who makes you feel entirely yourself than anything else.

Of course I’ve thus far avoided the big topic everyone’s been talking about with regard to this movie: the unflinching, no-holds-barred sex scenes between Adéle and Emma. It’s a real double-edged sword because on the one hand there is real narrative significance to the graphic depiction of what goes on in their bedroom, but it’s also so detailed, so lengthy, and so…acrobatic that I couldn’t help growing uncomfortable and seeing it as not much different than pornography. This is, after all, two straight actresses having what appears to be very convincing lesbian sex in front of a camera. It is prurient without a doubt because we’re witnessing two gorgeous female specimens in the prime of youth naked, undulating, moaning in ecstasy.

But at the same time there is artistic merit in depicting Adéle, a girl who is shown to have an equally voracious appetite for food, in the throes of newfound sexual passion. It is her coming out party, her transition from girlhood to womanhood, and into a new world of possibility. To see how this sex affects her and how she attacks it is a crucial piece of character development. The question is whether Kechiche could have expressed it with shorter sex scenes or with slightly less detail. I suppose the answer to that is that once he decided to cross a certain line, it was probably already well into that realm of what makes most people uncomfortable, so he decided to go the full mile.

It’s critical to remember, however, that there is so much more to Blue Is the Warmest Color than its three major sex scenes. It’s easy to be distracted by them or to allow the topic of decency to dominate the conversation. The fact is that the sex accounts for no more than ten percent of the running time. That’s comparatively a lot, but looking at it another way, ninety percent of the film is not sex and thus devoted to character development and plot. That ninety percent is among the warmest and most tender love stories ever made for the cinema, even if it was adapted by Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh. That it is also an honest and very personal journey of Adéle makes it doubly striking. Her story will be recognizable to anyone who has experienced the extreme ups and downs of a deep and seemingly everlasting love. But we are human and we make mistakes and these things often aren’t eternal.

Then suddenly I realized the move had pulled me in much more forcefully than I’d thought. There comes a moment, a scene of devastating emotional resonance when Adéle loses what had come to mean so much to her and she begs and pleads to keep it. Up to that point I believed I was a passive viewer but the scene carries an unanticipated charge. It’s a great climax after a slow build and followed by an almost equally slow drop-off. The resolution is not one of a quick ten minutes wrapping everything up perfectly. It takes us through the next several months or even few years as Adéle tries to let god. But I guess we never really let go of these people and experiences that have had such profound effect on our growth. The sum total of those experiences make us who we are and when Adéle disappears around the corner in the final frames we know she may not ever get over the loss of her first love, but she’ll be the better for having had it in the first place.

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