Richer Than Chocolate: Raw, honest "Blue Is the Warmest Color" more than just sex

Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)
179 min., rated NC-17.

Controversy surrounded "Blue Is the Warmest Color" for a few different reasons. The film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but Julie Maroh, the author of the 2010 graphic novel which inspired the film, denounced it. The actresses were also quoted to saying they would never work with the director again, and the director responded with complaints about one of the leads. Armed with an NC-17 rating, the film was also cited as being purely pornographic by Maroh for its explicit lesbian sex scenes. But if we're judging by the merit of the film itself, which we are, the controversy is limiting and reductive. Thoughtfully written and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche and co-written by Ghalia Lacroix, "Blue Is the Warmest Color" is fervent and deeply intimate, rawly honest and cumulatively devastating. It's a beautiful film that feels like perfection as you watch it.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a 17-year-old junior in high school. She attracts a senior boy named Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte) and they start going out. After they have sex for the first time, their relationship is over before it actually begins. Instead, Adèle can't stop thinking about the blue-haired female she shared a passing glance with while crossing the street. She's confused and feels like something is missing. Curious, she tags along with her friend to a gay bar and then follows some girls to a lesbian bar. There, Adèle finally meets the blue-haired stranger. Her name is Emma (Léa Seydoux) and she's an 18-year-old fine arts student. They start out as friends, Emma meeting Adèle after school and sketching her face in a park, and then the two girls become lovers. Years later, still together and living together, Adèle and Emma both face challenges at work and in one of their circles of friends that could change their committed relationship.

Much of "Blue Is the Warmest Color" is shot in close-up by cinematographer Sofian El Fani and it's a motivated approach to how the rest of the film plays. Dauntingly long at nearly three hours, the film earns it, deeply evolving over the course of Adèle being ostracized by a few friends at school to figuring herself out to her relationship with Emma to the time she starts working as a second-grade teacher. She's not out to the world yet, either, so is she just sowing wild oats for now? The lapse in time does call attention to the story's later negligence of Adèle's parents (Aurélien Recoing, Catherine Salée), who are unaware of their daughter's deeper relationship with Emma, but that would be splitting hairs. 20-year-old Exarchopoulos is mesmerizing, giving a performance that is so natural and emotionally available with her sad, lost open book of a face. There isn't much light there, until Adèle meets Emma, and she grows and liberates herself right before our eyes as the film goes on. Seydoux is also extraordinary as Emma, a woman who already knows who she is and not only acts as a loving companion for Adèle but an unpushy mentor. It's in the girls' meeting and growing relationship that we understand why they're attracted to each other and become emotionally invested, and Exarchopoulos and Seydoux never make it feel like we're watching two actresses pretend to fall in love.

Filmed with the utmost artistic integrity, the sex scenes are so private, sexy, and borderline-voyeuristic but not meant to be solely erotic or gynecological. While watching these scenes go on, one almost becomes distracted by the thought of how director Kechiche got the actresses comfortable in shooting the simulated but entirely authentic coitus. Even the least prudish filmgoer could probably admit that one graphic 7-minute sex scene would have sufficed and the others be stripped from the finished edit, but unlike any other film, they fully capture the ecstasy and euphoria of voracious sexual attraction and love. There is a later scene in a restaurant that goes a bit far, uncontrollable passion trumping public decency, but in context, we believe the characters would do this.

A film like "Blue Is the Warmest Color" gets so much attention for its sex, but it's about so much more. Sure, it's about love, and sex goes along with love, but it's about art, food, smoking, dancing, and philosophy. There is some classroom discussion about literature that hits on salient points relating to Adèle's life, but it's never clumsy or too on-the-nose in saying, "This is what the movie is about." It'd almost be overinflating the film's worth to call "Blue Is the Warmest Color" more than a straightforward, slightly taboo-busting relationship drama. It is that, but the fly-on-the-wall quality lends a candor and a palpable feeling that are all too rare. The power of it all should safely put a lump in every compassionate viewer's throat.

Grade: A -