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Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adele—Chapitre 1 et 2) might be the title of Tunisian-born French director Abdellatif Kechiche’s latest sprawling drama, but the emotions — and the sex, of which there is beaucoup — definitely run red hot in this deeply moving portrait of a young girl’s climb toward adulthood in the arms of another woman. Surely to raise eyebrows with its show-stopping scenes of non-simulated female copulation, the film is actually much more than that: It’s a passionate, poignantly handled love story which, despite an unhinged 3-hour running time, is held together by phenomenal turns from Lea Seydoux and newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos, in what is clearly a breakout performance.
After taking a stab at historical tragedy with the biopic Black Venus, Kechiche returns to the roots of his 2003 sophomore effort, Games of Love and Chance, focusing once again on adolescent angst, class discrimination and thwarted love, albeit of a very different kind. So although the 175-minute cut of Blue screened in competition at Cannes will definitely have to scale some hurdles (or employ a pair of scissors) to find distribution outside France, there’s a simple enough story at the film’s core for audiences to connect with, while several heart-rending moments make the long haul worth it.
Loosely adapted by Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix from the prize-winning Gallic graphic novel by Julie Maroh, the script is separated into two sections (the “chapters” of the French title) spanning a decade in the life of high school student Adele (Exarchopoulos), who lives in a blue-collar home in the northern city of Lille. We’re first introduced to her in class — in a scene reminiscent of Games — during a lecture on Pierre de Marivaux’s novel La Vie de Marianne, for which the teacher wonders aloud: “How do you understand that the heart is missing something?”
That’s the question the film tries to answer throughout its long and winding narrative, as we follow Adele during her first, unsuccessful relationship with a charming fellow student, Thomas (Jeremie Laheurte), and then, into the embraces of the mysterious, blue-haired art school chick Emma (Seydoux), whom she connects with in a lesbian bar after having seen her earlier on. As it soon becomes clear, whatever Adele’s heart was lacking with Thomas is soon enough filled by her burgeoning affair with Emma, and despite suffering the wrath of her gay-bashing buddies, she’s clearly hooked from the start.
And it’s easy to see why. Because once the two girls get into bed together, they forge a sexual bond that Kechiche captures in ways few directors have done before him, allowing their lovemaking to play out in extended takes that definitely cross the barrier between performance and the real deal. Yet, the bedroom scenes are a far cry from softcore porn or art-house exploitation: what they show — amid various positions, moaning and exposed flesh (not to mention suggestive oyster slurping, in one playful sequence) — is that sex and love can, in the best cases, become one and the same, uniting two people who might actually have less in common than they believe.
Such contrasts are explored in the film’s second half, which picks up after Adele and Emma have moved in together, with the former working as a kindergarten teacher and the latter pursuing her career as a painter. Having already hinted at the girls’ class differences during two family dinner scenes, Kechiche begins revealing how their disparate personalities and backgrounds, especially when it comes to art and culture, are gradually driving them apart — a reality that comes to the forefront at a party where Adele appears as the apron-wearing housewife among Emma’s friends.
It’s a compelling way to shift the story’s focus from issues of gender and sexual identity to questions of social belonging, and Blue winds up going beyond the original comic book to provide a sharp commentary on how couples struggle, and don’t always manage, to overcome their innate differences, even if the sex is still really, really good. And so when things eventually explode between the two lovebirds and Adele faces an arduous chagrin d’amour in all her blubbering, snot-dripping glory, Kechiche brings us back to the question posed by Marivaux, answering it in a way that’s utterly convincing.
Less concerned with classic storytelling than with creating virtual performance pieces on screen, the film features dozens of extended sequences of Adele and Emma both in and out of bed—scenes that are virtuously acted and directed, even if they run on for longer than most filmmakers would allow. But such a technique is precisely why Kechiche belongs in the same camp as John Cassavetes or Maurice Pialat, eschewing narrative concision in favor of the messy realities of life, and creating works that can be as ambitiously bloated as they are emotionally jarring.
Despite some of the longueurs, the central turn from 19-year-old Exarchopoulos (Carre blanc), who DP Sofian El Fani captures in every state possible, manages to hold it all together, and the actress can really make you feel things only suggested at in other movies, especially when it comes to the ecstasy and agony of a first relationship. Playing opposite her, Seydoux (also in Cannes film Grand Central) shows how much she’s matured from a gorgeous It-girl to a daring young talent, and this is clearly some of the best work in her short career.
With four credited editors (including co-writer Lacroix) shaping all the footage into a workable whole, the pacing and performances never slow down despite the running time, while the story feels like it could just keep going. Perhaps this is what Kechiche intended with his open-ended French title, although, as the film’s moving final sequence suggests, this chapter in Adele’s life has definitely closed.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Quat’Sous Films, Wild Bunch
Cast: Adele Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux, Salim Kechiouche, Mona Walravens, Jeremie Laheurte
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Screenwriters: Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalya Lacroix, freely inspired by the graphic novel Le Bleu est une couleur chaude by Julie Maroh
Producers: Abdellatif Kechiche,Vincent Maraval, Brahim Chioua
Executive producers: Olivier Thery Lapiney, Laurence Clerc
Director of photography: Sofian El Fani
Production designer: Julia Lemaire
Editor: Albertine Lastera, Camille Toubkis, Jean-Marie Lengelle, Ghayla Lacroix
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
No rating, 175 minutes
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