A nice big made-in-France can of worms: these are the sex scenes in the justly-laureled Palme d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color. Instead of sticking a fork into said can and twirling it, I’d rather voice a hope.
Perhaps it’s true that the two actresses (Lea Seydoux and marvelous newcomer Ad le Exarchopoulos) who inhaled each other on camera, went too far, and had second thoughts. It’s true the author Julie Maroh, whose graphic novel was the source of this absorbing study of some five or seven years in a woman’s life, is currently renouncing the sex scenes in this film as porn. Maybe the deft young director Abdellatif Kechiche regrets having shown too much. Perhaps, then, all of them, individually and separately, will catch up with the art they collaborated on here. Give them a few years.
Ad le (Exarchopoulos) is a northern French girl in her second year in high school in the suburbs of Lille, close enough to Belgium that locals go nightclubbing across the border. The shots sometimes seem like the Belgian Dardenne brothers’ films, following ordinary people as they trudge through their routines in the Ohio of Europe.
The movie has the fleshy, worldly style of Flemish art, stripping glamour. We see Ad le so close up that we see the blemishes. Her front teeth are a little rabbity; the baby fat still on her face, applying what looks like pre-chipped nail polish. She sleeps heavy as a ton of bricks, like a toddler, mouth slack. She’s still half-asleep on the bus to school, with her hair in her brown eyes, and an Inca yarn beanie on her head. At the beginning, she’s still very much a kid; at the end, awake, grown-up and sadder.
Ad le eats with praiseworthy gusto, and it’s gone to her butt a little. There’ll be contrast enough later when Ad le meets the woman who will be her one and only—the more cool, cultured Emma (Seydoux) with her blue-dyed hair. Emma’s debonair family knows their white wines, and select seafood to go with it. Ad le’s family eats spaghetti Bolognese out of a cooking pot with a cartoon hedgehog painted on it, and they eat the hell out of it. The Olmec-sized heads are in closeup, with champing jaws and the satisfied slurping lips.
Ad le is a smart student—taking lit, wrestling with the material (Marivaux and The Princess of Cleves); significantly after her class discusses the question of whether there is such a thing as “le coup de foudre,” love at first sight. It’s maybe too on the nose that Ad le has her coup shortly after class: crossing the crosswalk, she sees a blue-haired art student at the university, grey-blue eyes, pale eyebrows and lashes, a Levi’s jacket with the sleeves cut off.
This little blue-haired girl obsesses the hapless Ad le the way the little red-haired girl obsessed Charlie Brown. Ad le tracks Emma to a lesbian bar, and makes a rapid scan through of the other types inside: too old, too intense, too high, too scary, too glam, too butch, too bald—and finally Emma.
They become lovers, in front of us—it leads to an ecstatic, summery liaison, the gay pride parade, an anti-austerity march, and kissing on Main Street. Ad le poses and Emma paints, and Ad le hides the affair from her family. Ad le crosses the threshold of the 18th birthday. She doesn’t want to go further in school—she can’t see doing 10 years of academia just to land no job. Emma’s careerism firms up, and she starts to insist that her partner Ad le has unrealized ambitions as a writer.
Seydoux is a blueblood in real life; in Paris, a major film institute is named after her family, which was wrapped up with the creation of the film studio Pathe. She showed a cold streak in the recent Farewell, My Queen. There, she was on the other end of the class stick, as a commoner in love with a bitch-goddess Marie-Antoinette. There’s equality between Emma and Ad le when desire strikes them. But the proprietary way Emma slaps Ad le’s ass isn’t a good sign.
The turning point is a reception in which Ad le does the cooking and the cleaning and Emma gets the glory. It’s a boho party with Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box flickering on a garden wall behind them, and Emma lured into an argument about “morbidity in Egon Schiele’s oeuvre”. It’s like a draught—the first detectable cold breeze of snobbishness. Emma toasts Ad le, who we’ve come to care for and feel for, as “my muse.” How cruel is that? It’s as if Emma were calling Ad le a walking conduit.
The heartbreak, which waxes and wanes through the next hour, only sometimes slacks our interest— Kechiche is procedural, noting the way a young woman works at her job when she’s aching inside or has a mind elsewhere. A slight recovery, a bigger relapse, and we see the way pain clears Ad le’s vision—it becomes ultimately clear that Emma is neither a world-beating painter, nor the world’s most uncompromising person.
I’m ready for those worms now. Here, the faces tell us more than the subtitles, telling us of the keenness of this couple’s appetite for each other and when it stales, telling us of the way the heart wants what it wants until it, suddenly, bafflingly, wants something else.
You know porn when you see it, said Justice Potter Stewart, but you can’t really see porn here, not if you’ve seen much porn. There exists a quantity of lesbian porn, sometimes woman-made, that insists on backstory—a dauntingly-titled series called “Lesbian Psychodramas” tries, via long scenes of sitting and talking on the couch or at the table, to infuse some narrative life into the unlikely get-togethers. Even here, the payoff is the same as always, with careful, thorough unveiling and display of the actresses: first one, then the other. In these grappling, ardent, Cubist scenes in Blue, it’s more like you can’t tell where one woman ends and the other begins.
But do porn actresses tuck into stashes of candy that they keep under the bed? Do they get snot-nosed when they weep? Do we care about their birthday parties? Blue Is the Warmest Color is Lena Dunham material that died and went to heaven. Kechiche succeeds in getting us into the skin and the head of Ad le, showing us her world, the ferment and rebellion in it; we meet her fellow students who are immigrants’ kids, relatively international, but ready to jeer at a lesbian. Yet this world keeps thawing. These characters are people our movies haven’t seen before, and in that it’s like the good parts of She’s Gotta Have It. You remember that Spike Lee movie, the one with the too-explicit sex scenes? If you’re young, Blue Is the Warmest Color may reflect your world like nothing you’ve seen; if you’re old, it may make you feel young again.
Blue is the Warmest Color
179 Min.; NC-17