THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR"
When France's Blue is the Warmest Color won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, there was some talk about whether it would play in the United States. The movie was three hours long and boasted explicit sex scenes certain to earn it an NC-17 rating. Certainly not a commercial slam dunk. Thankfully, art still has value in our country. Not only is Blue playing on our shores, New York's IFC Center has bravely decided to let adolescents in, despite the MPAA's restrictive rating. Yes, the sex scenes are eye-openers, but at its heart, this is a movie about a young woman being awakened to both sexuality and first love. You know, the kinds of things teens are all about. Director Abdellatif Kechiche handles these subjects with undeniable artistry.
The young woman is Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), a teenage girl experiencing natural curiosity about sex. She tries it with a male suitor, only to discover that it doesn't really fulfill her. Pleasuring herself while thinking about the blue-haired stranger she passed on the street one day, however, does. Later, she has another chance encounter with that stranger, Emma (Lea Seydoux), after a friend takes her to a gay bar. Adele and Emma begin a passionate sexual affair that the former's classmates can't begin to understand. Insecure and nervous, she can't fully understand it herself. In the second half of the film, the now-graduated Adele is in a full-on romantic relationship with Emma, but finds unexpected challenges in serious commitment, especially when she has trouble fitting into her partner's circle of friends.
Blue is the Warmest Color starts off as a tale of erotic discovery. Adele does not identify as gay, yet she finds herself attracted to women and blossoms sexually once she surrenders to her desires. Exarchopoulos does a brilliant job of depicting all the fear and uncertainty that Adele feels. Like most teens, she's experiencing these burgeoning, occasionally-confusing feelings, and doesn't entirely know what to do with them. The film effectively shows her opening herself up, being willing to share her desirous impulses with Emma, and finding a certain liberation as a result. From there, Blue expands outward to encompass the very notion of first love. Adele's feelings for Emma are so strong that they can barely contain themselves – and sometimes they don't. She undermines herself, allowing her head to cast doubt upon her heart. Kechiche asks the question, “What do you do after you've been sexually liberated?” This young woman finds herself with feelings every bit as intense as her most powerful orgasm, yet sustaining a relationship is a lot harder than achieving sexual release.
A three-hour running time may sound long for the subject matter (and, to a small extent, that's true), but Blue is the Warmest Color uses its length to take us deep inside the relationship. We don't just see it grow, we feel it. Time is spent showing how Adele slowly accepts her feelings of longing for another woman, and in creating the bond that forms between she and Emma. In doing so, the film earns every emotion. This union feels authentic, because enough care was taken to make it honest and real. Both actresses work jointly to create something identifiable to audiences, no matter whether they're straight or gay. It's some truly beautiful work.
The only real drawback, ironically, is the sex. Does it need to be here? Yes, it's absolutely vital. Does it need to be graphic? Yes on that count, too. However, the sex scenes go on for so long, and put the two leads into so many contorted positions, that it becomes a bit distancing. We get the point, but then Kechiche allows them to go on and on, almost to a point of seeming comical. I stopped investing in the major discovery happening between the characters and started to think about peripheral things, like whether it was uncomfortable for the actresses to perform so explicitly in front of a camera and a bunch of crew members. I started to wonder how they simulated things that looked so real. In other words, I started to see Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux rather than Adele and Emma. This is most definitely not the fault of the actresses, but rather of the director, who may have been temporarily allowing his carefully-crafted work of art to bleed over into shock value.
This, however, should not be seen as a deterrent. Blue is the Warmest Color is, by a wide margin, a sensitive and beautiful film – one that contains genuine insight into the power of human connection, be it romantic, sexual, or some combination of both. It is based on the first two chapters of a French graphic novel, suggesting that a follow-up could be in the works someday. I, for one, would welcome the chance to see where Adele goes in the future, now that she's accepted herself as both a sexual being and a person capable of experiencing intense emotions for someone else, for better and for worse.
( 1/2 out of four)
Blue is the Warmest Color is rated NC-17 for explicit sexual content. The running time is 2 hours and 52 minutes.
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