“I have infinite tenderness for you,” one woman tells another in “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” and it’s a sentiment that also describes director Abdellatif Kechiche’s attitude toward his characters in this searingly intimate, daringly attenuated portrait of a French teenager and her passionate relationship with another femme. Post-screening chatter will inevitably swirl around not only the galvanizing performances of Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, but also the fact that they spend much of this three-hour emotional epic enacting the most explosively graphic lesbian sex scenes in recent memory. The result is certain to stir excitement and controversy on the fest circuit while limiting the film’s arthouse potential, barring significant trims for length and content.
Still, it’s a measure of the honesty and generosity of Kechiche’s storytelling that the picture’s explicit sexuality and extreme running time feel consistent with his raw, sensual embrace of all aspects of life, an approach also apparent in the writer-director’s masterful 2007 drama “The Secret of the Grain.” Indeed, it would be reductive to slap an exclusive gay-interest label on “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” a bildungsroman and first-love story whose deep and abiding fascination with life’s great shared pleasures — food, sex, art, literature, music, conversation — encourages the viewer to consider the commonality as well as the vast complexity of human experience.
Having previously examined the lives of artistically inclined youth in 2004’s “Games of Love and Chance,” Kechiche and co-writer Ghalya Lacroix (who also served as one of four editors) have narrowed their focus yet deepened their emotional palette with this very loose adaptation of Julie Maroh’s 2010 graphic novel, “Le Bleu est une couleur chaude.” Fittingly for a story about a girl’s sentimental education, the film’s French title, “La Vie d’Adele: Chapitres 1 et 2,” is a nod to Pierre de Marivaux’s unfinished 18th-century novel “La Vie de Marianne” — an assigned text at the Lille high school where we first meet Adele (Exarchopoulos), a sensitive, unassuming 15-year-old with a passion for literature.
As the film soon makes clear, following a brief romance with cute classmate Thomas (Jeremie Laheurte), Adele also harbors feelings for women — specifically, for a university fine-arts student named Emma (Seydoux), a pale beauty whose short blonde hair is streaked an alluring, rebellious blue. After an encounter at a lesbian bar followed by a series of meetings, during which the older, worldlier Emma gently puts the nervous, inexperienced Adele at ease, the two eventually become lovers.
All this unfolds in Kechiche’s signature style of long, flowing conversations marked by overlapping dialogue, performed in a vein of seemingly artless naturalism, but sculpted with unerring precision and a strong sense of drive. Captured in dynamic widescreen closeups by d.p. Sofian El Fani, these sequences crackle with humor and tension that can build, without warning, to moments of piercing emotion, as when Adele is cruelly humiliated by her friends upon discovery of her same-sex inclinations. More encouragingly, Adele is invited over to dine with Emma’s warm, freely accepting mother and stepfather, who are perhaps too tidily contrasted with Adele’s stiffer, more conservative parents, who are blithely unaware of the nature of the girls’ relationship.
The audience, by contrast, is spared nothing. Given the film’s interest in the rhythms and nuances of human communication, the explicitness and duration of the sex scenes here should come as little surprise. Still, it’s scorching, NC-17-level stuff, if it gets rated at all; the individual scenes are sustained for minutes at a time and lensed from a multitude of angles, with enough wide shots to erase any suspicion of body doubles. Trying out almost every position imaginable and blurring the line between simulated and unsimulated acts, Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are utterly fearless, conveying an almost feral hunger as their characters make love with increasing abandon. Audience titillation, though certainly there for the taking, couldn’t be more beside the point; each coupling signifies a deeper level of intimacy, laying an emotional foundation that pays off to shattering effect in the film’s third hour.
While these experiences supply moments of powerful realization for Adele, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” is not, strictly speaking, a coming-out narrative; both women pointedly refuse to label themselves, and their experiences over the course of the film convey a clear understanding of the complexity of human sexuality. As the narrative jumps ahead almost imperceptibly a few years — observing as Adele becomes a schoolteacher and settles into a comfortable live-in relationship with Emma, now a burgeoning artist — the thematic emphasis shifts from Adele’s social anxiety and fear of being found out to the trickier matter of finding contentment within commitment.
It’s a simple, even predictable story, yet textured so exquisitely and acted so forcefully as to feel almost revelatory. Always persuasive as a dreamy object of desire, Seydoux nonetheless surprises with the depth of her control; she has moments of stunning ferocity here, revealing Emma as a generous, open person whose hard, judgmental streak is inextricable from her artistic temperament. But the picture belongs to Exarchopoulos, completely inhabiting a role aptly named after the thesp herself; with her husky voice and sweet, reluctant smile, she plays virtually every emotion a director can demand of an actress, commanding the viewer’s attention and sympathy at every minute. Taxing as the 175-minute running time will be for some audiences, those on the picture’s wavelength will find it continually absorbing.
Set in a vibrantly decorated, unmistakably French hipster milieu populated by aspiring painters, writers and actors, the picture feels at once contemporary and happily reminiscent of a time before technology and social media invaded the artistic sphere; computers and cell phones are almost nowhere in sight. As in “The Secret of the Grain,” the camera betrays an almost compulsive fixation with the act of eating, taking on particularly suggestive undertones when Emma teaches Adele how to consume an oyster.