*This review contains minor spoilers*
It's love at first sight for Adele (Adele Exarchopolous), the protagonist of Palme d'Or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour - or at least lust. Crossing a busy street, she spots Emma (Lea Seydoux), a blue-haired dream who instantly fascinates her. This is the beginning of a small obsession that blossoms into a passionate relationship between the two women, and the film follows them through their love affair and the changes life brings them.
To call Blue is the Warmest Colour a coming-of-age tale is only partially true. Yes, the film's focus is mostly on Adele - which should come as no surprise, since the original French title translates to "The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 & 2." Yet director Abdellatif Kechiche - working from a script he co-wrote with Ghalia Lacroix and based on the graphic novel "Blue Angel" by Julie Maroh - is interested in more than just a standard bildungsroman. The film is much more an examination of these girls' relationship and how it affects them.
More after the jump…
Let's get the film's sexuality out of the way first: yes, there are extended, explicit sex scenes, most involving Exarchopolous and Seydoux. Are they realistic? That's not something I can say with any authority. But are they necessary? Absolutely. The film's willingness to tackle the messy emotional intricacies of sex are bold and refreshing, given how most films either present sex exploitively or just ignore it all together. These scenes are passionate, but also highlight some of the key differences between the women. Adele is just beginning to explore her budding sexuality, being the younger of the two, and through her scenes with Emma we see the voracious ecstasy that she's discovered (and was noticeably lacking in her experiences with men). Emma, on the other hand, is older and more confident in her sexuality; her experience is more of enjoying great sex, but she also knows what she likes and sees more to their relationship beyond the physical. In addition to this, the physicality and emotional bluntness of the sex scenes toward the beginning of the film are essential to the emotional payoff of a later scene.
(That said, it should be noted that Kechiche's camera isn't free of moments of male gaze, particularly in shots of Adele showering and sleeping nude that seem included only for the sake of showcasing flesh).
Of course, this wouldn't be nearly as effective if the two actresses weren't game for this raw subject material. When the film won Palme d'Or at Cannes in May, the jury made the unprecedented decision to give the prize to Exarchopolous and Seydoux as well as Abdellatif, citing that the credit for the film's success belongs just as much to the actresses as it does to the director. It was a wise decision. Seydoux does a marvelous job at presenting Emma as a complicated human being who's appeal to Adele is obvious, yet she's reached the point in her life where she has to start thinking about her future. Exarchopolous, too, is a stunner: a relative newcomer, she absolutely owns every aspect of Adele, from her adolescent confusion to her hungers, both culinary and sexual (a point that Kechiche drives home with consistent close-ups of her mouth). They also have terrific chemistry together, though both exhibit their characters' maturity in subtle, but ultimately telling, ways.
Which is ultimately what's so fascinating, and equally refreshing, about Blue is the Warmest Colour: this is a film about the relationships we have to have in order to grow and become the people we're meant to be. As with its approach to sexuality, this makes it a rare film by American standards by not having Adele and Emma be star-crossed lovers. Their differences in age and maturity were bound to doom their relationship, but it was exactly what each of them needed. Over the course of their long-term relationship, they help each other pursue the careers they've dreamed of - Adele a teacher, Emma an artist - but it also goes beyond that. Adele needed Emma to explore her sexuality (I commend the film for not settling on Adele strictly defining herself as a lesbian but presenting her sexuality as fluid) and navigate the tempestuous transition into adulthood which, by film's end, she's still in the process of doing. Emma needed Adele to explore the frightening territory that is a long-term relationship, allowing her to see the benefits of settling down and finding more in a mate than just physical attraction. Saying that it wasn't "true love" doesn't mean that they didn't love each other; on the contrary, it's fairly obvious that they are in love. But being in love doesn't mean it's going to work out. Sometimes people aren't meant to be together forever, but they do need to be together right now. Most people aren't defined by their first relationship turning out to be their only one. Most of us have to experience the joys and pains of other relationships, hopefully learning something about ourselves from each one and growing into the person we want to be.
On this point, the film that most comes to mind - and it did as soon as the credits started rolling - is (500) Days of Summer. Stay with me here: yes, that film comes from a passive-aggressive male point-of-view that presents a problematic view of heteronormative relationships (though I think, from a distance, that's actually an asset for the film, but more on that another time). But it's also the rare American romantic comedy to tackle the idea of finding some who's "right now," not "forever." In terms of comparison, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is Adele and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is Emma. Tom and Summer are closer in age than Adele and Emma, but their maturity levels are approximately the same. Tom has a lot of growing left to do, where Summer is more assured of herself and what she wants. Like Adele, Tom is still struggling to grow up by the film's end, but they both have made baby steps and potentially found new partners. Summer and Emma, meanwhile, move on, having learned more about themselves and finding the confidence to find their place in the world (this is a lot of assuming for Summer, I concede, given that we get very few glimpses of her point of view). Both films trace their relationships from lusty beginnings to painful endings, and in the process find their characters growing and maturing in ways that only could have happened with each other.
Blue is the Warmest Colour is a remarkable, heartfelt, and emotionally powerful film. The film's reputation - production woes, explicit sexuality - is unfortunate given the beautiful beating heart at its center. Hopefully audiences will be willing to let themselves be awash in its understated riches. A