Rob Harmon’s Recommendations 02/25/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksIf Shakespeare’s statement that the course of true love never did run smooth then few films could be said to be as accurate—or to “feel as real” —as Abdellatif Kechiche’s warts-and-all tale of sexual awakening BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR. Arriving on DVD a few weeks too late for Valentine’s Day the French-Tunisian director’s latest effort somehow manages to toe an impossibly-thin line for three engrossing hours, painting a young woman’s withdrawn dreaminess in her teenage years, her flushes of first true love with another—slightly older and more experienced—woman, the melancholy fall-out from their intense and searing relationship, and the reverberating tones which echo through life afterward like a hangover. True to the title’s reference to temperature, director Kechiche keeps his film at a boiling point, meaning that the much-discussed love scenes between the two female stars are always hot, hot, hot. But to get hung up on these or the film’s NC-17 rating would be tragic as well as a disservice, for it would obscure Kechiche’s latest effort—a sort of lesbian coming-of-age story done in the hothouse, psychologically grinding filmmaking style of John Cassavetes—and one of the most riveting performances that I have seen by an actress in recent years.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a high school student, seemingly smarter than most and a bit introverted, willingly able to get lost in books, but with a normal group of friends who chattily obsess over the attention of boys. She plays along and allows one infatuated classmate named Thomas to pursue her, though she feels empty after they have sex and ends the relationship. One day she is crossing the street downtown when she passes a bohemian-looking young woman with blue hair with her arm around another woman. She sees her for only a few seconds but remembers and later begins to fantasize about her. Soon, a few of Adèle’s classmates have made inferences about her sexual leanings and one of them, sympathizing, invites her along with him to a gay bar. Bored, she walks down the street to another bar where she finally spots and later meets the blue-haired woman, a budding art student named Emma (Léa Seydoux). Though Emma is in a relationship she is intrigued by the innocent Adèle and the two women continue to see one another. Emma eventually brings Adèle home to meet her liberal parents but when Adèle introduces Emma to her conservative, more working-class folks she is only “her friend.”

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Time passes and Adèle and Emma carry on a long-term relationship, living together. Emma’s profile as an artist continues to rise and Adèle is widely acknowledged as her muse. Eventually the tension between their differing directions—dèle is pursuing a life as a teacher and Emma as a painter—leads to jealousy and suspicions which threaten to tear their relationship apart.

Blue Is the Warmest Color may be the tale of one woman’s search for love and sexual fulfillment but through its length and Kechiche’s harrowingly direct and naturalistic filmmaking style it feels like an epic, a kind of “intimate epic.” Kechiche is assured enough to project little context outside of Adèle’s claustrophobic surroundings, essentially thrusting the viewer into her space for the film’s duration. The effect is both disorienting and exhilarating. Additionally, Kechiche’s emphasis on scenes of eating found in his magnificent THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN (2007) (available for rental in our French section!) shines through as food is used—what is being eaten and how it is eaten—as an important character indicator throughout.

As with Cassavetes’ riveting, psychologically-attuned character studies much of the high-wire balancing act to be found in Blue Is the Warmest Color lies in its razor-sharp editing, courtesy of frequent Kechiche collaborator Ghalia Lacroix. She keeps the film taut and prevents the entire thing from spiraling out of control, while additionally pulling double-duty as co-writer of Blue, as she has also written or co-written films with Kechiche in the past. Lacroix and Kechiche adapted the French graphic novel of the same name by artist Julie Maroh, and the portrayal of a young lesbian’s sexual awakening seems to be sensitive and true-to-life.

Blue Is the Warmest Color made a kind of history at last year’s Cannes Film Festival as both Kechiche and his stars, Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, were jointly awarded the Palme d’Or for best film. It is a fitting tribute as their titanic performances literally hold up the film. Of the two, Exarchopoulos needs to be singled out as delivering one of the bravest, most unflinching portrayals in recent memory. She is on camera for just about the entire movie and she shines continuously. Her performance as Adèle is jittery, awkward, fully fleshed-out… and positively wrenching.

Blue Is the Warmest Color may have garnered massive exposure for its lengthy and graphic sex scenes but it should be remembered that these sequences are treated with an ease that renders them both naturalistic and everyday, as though just another of the colors at the director’s disposal. Blue may be the warmest color but it is far from the only one in life’s palette.