One of the tragedies of the Internet age is that sometimes movies get attention for all the wrong reasons. When Abdellatif Kechiche (Secret of the Grain) debuted Blue Is the Warmest Color in Cannes in May, the festival jury was so taken with the film and its two lead performances that it split the Palme d’Or between the director and his actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, who play lovers. Many critics at Cannes loved the picture, and seemingly not just for its sex scenes, which, incidentally, are among the most naturalistic and carnal I’ve ever seen. But Manohla Dargis expressed her dismay in the New York Times, writing, “It’s disappointing that Mr. Kechiche . . . seems so unaware or maybe just uninterested in the tough questions about the representation of the female body that feminists have engaged for decades.” She added, “the movie feels far more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else.”
More complaints piled in, some from people involved in the making of the movie. On her blog, Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel on which Kechiche based the film, called it “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn.” Then Exarchopoulos and Seydoux gave a number of charged interviews—or, perhaps more accurately, interviews that were presented as being charged—claiming that Kechiche’s mode of working was abusive, and that he demanded take after take of difficult sequences, including the sex scenes. Kechiche went on the defensive, essentially calling Seydoux a spoiled brat and saying that the film “shouldn’t be released, it has been soiled too much.”
At this point, what reasonably curious person doesn’t want to see Blue Is the Warmest Color? But what’s going to happen when people trek out, revved up for lots of hot lesbian sex, and find something else? Tenderness, unlike actor-director spats, doesn’t make very good copy.
Exarchopoulos plays Adèle, who is 15 when the movie opens. She’s a literature student who hopes to be a teacher, and she does most of the things 15-year-olds do: huddling with her girlfriends—a small, close-knit tribe with a predilection for blue nail polish and perpetually messy hair—gossiping about which boys are checking out whom. Eventually, Adèle goes out on a rambling teenage date with one of those boys, and later sleeps with him. The experience isn’t what she was hoping, and we’ve already been given a clue what the problem is: Crossing the street one day, she catches a glimpse of a charismatic, androgynous girl with a thatch of dyed-blue hair and a knowing smile—she’s like a tropical bird crossed with the Artful Dodger. Adèle can’t stop thinking about this young woman. We know why, but she doesn’t.
The woman’s name is Emma (Seydoux), and she’s an art student, a few years older. The two finally meet, almost miraculously, in a bar. They flirt cautiously. Emma comes to Adèle’s school the next day, hoping to see her again, an act that seems like stalking in modern terms but is really more the stuff of gothic romance: The potential lover feels the magnetic pull of any nation, patch of moor, or piece of real estate where the beloved might be.
The relationship that begins in that schoolyard lasts for years, right into Adèle’s early adulthood, and Kechiche allows it to play out in languorous detail. Blue Is the Warmest Color is a longish movie in which nothing and everything happens: Kechiche and his actresses explore the in-between—ecstasy, exploration, the comfort and eventual boredom of domesticity—and the aftermath, the painful shards of feeling we cling to after something has shattered. And they don’t mess around when it comes to the ferocity of love, sex, or, God help us, the two combined.
The sex scenes constitute maybe eight minutes of the film, and they’re extraordinary, free of the varnished, composed feeling of so much movie sex. Yet, as striking as they are, they’re hardly the movie’s major feature. Somehow Seydoux and Exarchopoulos manifest an idea of desire, a mood that performers and directors often fail to capture even when there’s good on-set chemistry. Seydoux is always a captivating actress, but here there are layers of vulnerability beneath her fox cub allure—even the way she courts Adèle is careful and measured, as if she has a clairvoyant sense of how precious and fleeting their time together will be.
But Exarchopoulos, guileless and vibrant, is the devastating one. At first Adèle doesn’t know what she wants; then she wants it all, and her ardor is overwhelming. When she breaks up with that early boyfriend, she reaches, distraught, for a stash of candy bars she keeps under the bed. She can’t shovel them in fast enough; she chews with her mouth open, so the chocolate mingles with her grown-up tears. The comforts of childhood are what she needs at that moment. But even later, when she’s changed her hair in an effort to look more “ladylike,” her face is still round and soft, a girlish moon. It’s open to every feeling, every pleasure, which means she has further to fall.
In Maroh’s graphic novel, the story is told from Emma’s point of view; Adèle has died, suddenly and tragically, and Emma recounts their history as she reads Adèle’s diary. Kechiche did away with that melodramatic framing device, for the better. The film deals with a different kind of mourning: Something, not someone, has died, and for the moment, at least, that’s worse. It’s a common complaint of our modern culture that sex is supposedly all around us: We’re obsessed, addicted, we need to just stop. Yet when passion dies in a partnership, well-meaning confidants will often advise cheerfully, “Sex isn’t everything!” They’re happy to wave it away for you, if not for themselves.
Blue Is the Warmest Color refuses to wave it away. Maybe that’s why it’s gotten under people’s skin, and maybe that’s why the actresses themselves, both still so young, may not fully understand the power—not just sexual but simply human—of what they’ve put onscreen. How will they feel about those performances, about this movie, 30 years from now, when their bodies, their faces, their own capacity for desire have changed? Meanwhile, some will see Blue Is the Warmest Color as pure horndog bait, yet another degradation of the female image made by a guy with his dirty-minded camera. Others—more, I hope—will see a story about the universality of desire and heartbreak. Love will tear us apart again. For better or worse, that truth is more enduring than politics.