Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Step away from the controversy – over extended sex scenes, over contentious working conditions behind the scenes, and over a vicious insult-trading press tour – and it’s easy to see Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color for what it really is. It’s a coming-of-age first-love story of uncommon patience and with a central performance of uncommon depth of feeling. Adèle Exarchopoulos stars as Adèle, a young girl in her late teens who is slowly discovering who she is, exploring possibilities. A disappointing short relationship with a young boy from school is unsatisfying. She’s still reeling from that when, out walking in her French hometown, she spots Emma (Léa Seydoux), her hair dyed bright blue allowing her to stick out of a crowd with ease. Adèle soon finds herself in a position of dating this bold twentysomething lesbian, a situation to which she feels far more simpatico, even if it leaves her schoolgirl pals behind, confused and maybe even a little jealous. It’s a story of first love that slowly fades over the course of a nearly three-hour runtime into a story of maturation, a trickier subject, to be sure, and something that benefits from the film’s length and comfortably languid pace.

The course of most first loves are similar, in movies and in life. The initial blushing friendship and attraction snowballs into romance, all consuming, and then, inevitably, the couple parts ways. Kechiche, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ghalia Lacroix from the graphic novel by Julie Maroh, views the details within that basic structure with a fussy naturalism, the camera bobbling ever so slightly as it keeps its characters in tight close-ups when it’s not floating along behind them, wandering through their lives in medium shots. It’s all very of the moment, shaky with a sense of discovery as these two young women drawn to each other through conversation about art and representation, philosophy and literature, life plans made and unmade, exploring new ideas and each other, body and mind. This isn’t just any love story. It is theirs. Adèle is self-conscious, something of an innocent, blushing, complaining one morning to a close friend about her sloppy fashion and slick hair. Emma, on the other hand, is confident, pursuing the relationship with a happy eye towards encouraging her girlfriend’s sense of excitement and discovery.

What’s remarkable about the film is hardly the filmmaking, which has all the standard at-a-remove-but-not-impartial deliberateness of the typical European melodrama, slickly restrained and tasteful, except when it comes to shamelessly appreciating the female form. Nor is it the screenplay, which has some nuance, overtly thematic conversations aside, and a generosity of length and incident, but accumulates details, like a homophobic face-off on a high school blacktop, that nod in directions it’s otherwise uninterested in exploring, and features a scene in a gay bar filled with comically exaggerated lesbian caricatures, our leads excepted. No, what’s remarkable is the lead performances, two feats of warm-hearted precision acting from two young women with wide-open expressive faces, totally unselfconscious in their every movement and gesture.

Seydoux has a nicely controlled sense of coiled energy that radiates upward out of her shock of blue hair. She’s appealingly unpredictable and yet, at the same time, a seemingly safe first love. But it’s Exarchopoulos who steals the show here, as well she should given her protagonist is on screen in practically each and every second of the runtime. She’s delivering an extraordinarily empathetic and fully felt performance, physical and emotional at once at all times. Her character is a girl of huge appetites, reading large novels lost in their worlds of words, slurping down her meals with explicit and exuberantly sloppy chewing, crying with tears and snot clumping up on her smooth cheeks, and, yes, having sex with intensity and passion in sequences that last exactly as long as they need to and then a few minutes more.

What could be standard coming-of-age doodling is elevated through these deeply felt and wholly convincing performances that play off of each other with natural complexity and ease. The directing and the writing wisely give over all the time and attention to allowing these women the space to breathe and grow and change without much in the way of embellishment or exaggeration. Because the camera sticks so close to Adèle for so long and through so much, the film accumulates a sense of her personhood that feels uncommonly fully formed. In the days since I saw the film, I’ve found myself wondering about the characters as I do people I know. I wonder what they’re up to now. I wonder if they’ve found their place. I wonder if they’ve become who they want to be. 

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