This Year's Big Cannes Winner: People Who Want Great Screen Sex

This Year's Big Cannes Winner: People Who Want Great Screen Sex
Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Color

You probably won't respect me after I tell you this, but the movie that really made me want to come to Cannes was Mr. Bean's Holiday, in which Rowan Atkinson's monosyllabic waif wins a trip to the French Riviera and gets lost every which way en route.

There are more elegant pictures set in Cannes, like Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale, with its bad-girl jewel thief Rebecca Romijn. But Mr. Bean's haplessness, and ultimately his joy at being here--in the end, footage from his own awkward home movies accidentally finds its way into a pretentious art-house thing, vastly improving it--speak more directly to my own experience

.The place is a bit mad, really, something the finale of Mr. Bean's Holiday captures: All of the characters--including a pompous actor-writer-producer-director played, wonderfully, by Willem Dafoe--stride toward the beach, lip-syncing to Charles Trenet's glorious "La Mer." This is, after all, the place where the majesty of the sea meets the splendor of the movies--although when you're running from film to film all day and all evening, you can almost forget that the sea exists.

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Read more news from Cannes: Stephanie Zacharek at Cannes Film Festival

Sunday, May 26, was the final day of the 66th Festival de Cannes, and the day on which the prizes conferred by the jury--led by Steven Spielberg--were announced. Most of the jury's choices didn't raise any eyebrows: They awarded the Grand Prix to the Coen brothers' surprisingly heartfelt Inside Llewyn Davis, for example. But a few of the group's choices seemed surprising to the critics and journalists here, particularly the actors' awards, which went to Bruce Dern (for Alexander Payne's Nebraska, a picture that condescends to its characters, and to Middle America, in a way that's reprehensible) and Bérénice Bejo (for Asghar Farhadi's skillful but not particularly memorable breakup melodrama Le Passé). Both of these performances are fine, if not good. But until the Palme d'Or winner was announced, many of us wondered if one of the best-acted and best-directed pictures in the festival--and the picture that seemed to have earned the most rapturous praise, at least for a festival that didn't offer one clear, standout favorite--might be shut out.

We needn't have worried. The jury, as Spielberg explained to the audience gathered for the ceremony, had decided to award the top prize to three individuals: Director Abdellatif Kechiche and the two stars of his movie, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. This was the picture many of my critic friends were rooting for, and I loved it too (though I also had high hopes for James Gray's The Immigrant, and particularly for Marion Cotillard's delicately shaded lead performance). Blue Is the Warmest Color tells, over the course of three hours, the story of a love affair between two young women, Adèle (Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Seydoux). Adèle is the younger of the two, still a student when she and Emma meet. And although she's immediately attracted to Emma, she doesn't yet have a clear sense of her own sexual desires--not that anyone ever really does.

The love scenes between these two characters are beautifully staged, perhaps among the loveliest ever put on film. Sex scenes, as any director will tell you, are a nightmare to shoot: It's extremely difficult to make good sex look good--a combination of stylized artifice and sensitivity is needed, and the perfect mix is elusive. But Kechiche (director of the 2007 critics' favorite Secret of the Grain, as well as the much less loved 2010 Black Venus) and his actresses achieve something extraordinary: The sex scenes in Blue Is the Warmest Color are classical without being sterile; they're real and immediate in a way that honors the idea of terrific sex between two people who are madly in love, instead of just trying to paste a clumsy picture of it onscreen.

The picture has already drawn some criticism: There are those who believe Blue Is the Warmest Color is just an excuse for an old guy to use his camera to paw at young women's bodies, and, accordingly, the male critics who like it simply cannot resist the allure of two hot young things in bed. Thank you, Theory of the Male Gaze, for giving us such a handy template with which to diagram the mysteries of beauty, sex, and desire!

Yet even if these sex scenes are integral to Blue Is the Warmest Color, they're still only part of a complex whole. Kechiche and his actresses address tangled class issues, explore questions of how young people struggle to find their way in the world, and--it's better if you know-- map the contours of a romance that ends in delicate, devastating heartbreak. Seydoux, beguiling as always, is terrific as the flirtatious and self-assured Emma. But it's Exarchopoulos, with her unmanageably lank hair and cautious smile, who sneaks off with the movie. Her Adèle is a living, breathing reminder of the romantic suffering of youth, but she's not just about youth. Blue Is the Warmest Color is for anyone who ever fell in love only to be kicked right out of it, into a state that feels like drowning but is, in reality, just a kind of bewildered breathing. When the choice is sink or swim, most of us choose to swim. Sometimes, somehow, the movies are at one with the sea.

 
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