Since it first bowed at the Cannes Film Festival back in May (where it picked up the Palme d’Or, the fest’s prestigious top prize), Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color (also known as La vie d’Adele or Adele: Chapters 1 and 2) has drawn significant attention for its realistic and prolonged sex scenes. The film does include a handful of sex scenes (by our count, five), two of which are extremely graphic, and one that’s so extensive and drawn-out that it’s somehow both shocking and a bit silly. While some of the scenes (or, at least, the length of some of the scenes) are perhaps unnecessary, they serve to highlight the intense physical connection between leading ladies Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Lea Seydoux). And, considering that recent appearances and interviews have made it plain that Exarchopoulos and Seydoux might not have entirely liked or enjoyed their director during the process, they’re some of the bravest sequences put on film in recent memory. (It’s hard enough to imagine being that naked, both figuratively and literally, with a director that actors actually like.)
And yet, for all the chatter and buzz about the film’s bold depictions of the physical act of love, Blue Is the Warmest Color has little to do with (the perhaps somewhat) exploitative and salacious sex scenes, and much more to do with coming of age through the lens of one’s great first love. In some ways, Adele’s sexual orientation has little to do with the thrust of the film itself, as Blue Is the Warmest Color could just as easily use a highly charged heterosexual relationship as the center point of Adele’s maturation. That would certainly remove some of the gawking aspect of the film, but it speaks to how universal Adele’s story really is.
Despite its full title promising to deliver chapters 1 and 2 of Adele’s life, the film is obviously and cleanly divided into three sections, all separated by three to five year intervals. We first meet young Adele as a junior in high school, all messy hair and gangly limbs and insatiable hunger. It doesn’t seem as if her sexuality is of utmost concern to the teenager – until she embarks on an unfulfilling relationship with a well-meaning but essentially dull boy at her school (Adele’s eventual casting off of young Thomas isn’t totally surprising, considering that any dude with two piercings in one ear can’t be expected to be intellectually stimulating, something that the curious Adele seems particularly in need of). Her dissatisfaction with Thomas, paired with a strangely striking run-in with the blue-haired Emma help drive Adele to some major realizations – and when she eventually finds Emma in a local lesbian bar, all bets are off (and, suddenly, all those school lectures about romantic novels that rely on “predestination” suddenly make sense).
The film’s following two sections continue the theme of the film – if the first act is the beginning of their relationship, you can probably guess what the second and third acts are about – but while Adele and Emma’s intense relationship sets the scene for the film, Blue Is the Warmest Color is really a film about Adele’s many adult awakenings, not all of them as pleasurable as the one inspired by Emma.
Exarchopoulos’ work throughout the film is consistently wonderful, though she particularly excels in the first act of the film, portraying the then-high school aged Adele with startling precision. She’s extremely believable as a warts and all teenager – messy, sloppy, always late, confused, overly emotional, hormonal, sullen, funny, passionate, smart, starving – and the honesty of that performance buoys the rest of her role. Kechiche keeps the camera tight on his stars’ faces for the majority of the film – the result it something both intimate and occasionally uncomfortable. It’s particularly jarring during the many scenes that feature Adele sobbing, though it illuminates the physical depth of her performance, simply because there’s no way she could be faking that emotion for so long and so often.
The film’s time-jumping conceit works well enough in practice, but both Kechiche and the script (as adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel by Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix) seem strangely unconcerned with filling in large gaps between sections, and there are plenty of unanswered questions that, while bothersome, don’t entirely sink the production. Though the first act of the film features one hell of a scene that involves Adele’s forceful outing by some of her more insensitive friends, along with a tense sequence in which she brings Emma to a family dinner under the guise of her being her philosophy tutor, the effects of Adele ostensibly staying in the closet when it comes to some of her friends and family are never addressed again. In fact, after the first act, Adele’s high school pals and her family never appear again – she seems to have few relationships outside of her romance with Emma, another intriguing idea that’s never fully explored.
What does suffer in the gaps of time, however, is any sense of continuity within Emma’s character. Seydoux does good work here, but while Adele’s evolution feels very organic and very understandable, Seydoux is tasked with whizzing between charming student, snobby artist, and cowed ex-lover, three different parts for three different acts that never gel together. Ultimately, however, the film satisfies when it comes to its eponymous character, and Exarchopoulos’ performance beautifully drives the surprisingly relatable tale of the life of Adele.
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