Sporting her perpetually disheveled hair and unknowingly about to meet her romantic fate, Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) heads to school in the first frames of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palm d'Or-winning film Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adele: Chapters 1 &2) (ISA: Wild Bunch, U.S. Sundance Selects). The Franco-Algerian director’s latest film could be described as one of intimate ambition. It follows its characters for over a decade expanding 179 minutes of evocative imagery, which flies by on the screen with incredible fluidity, never giving the audience any indication of its length. Instead, the incarnations -- since such great takes mustn’t simply be called performances -- by the two leading actresses are so tremendously captivating that it is impossible to look away or not to be submerged into their passionate relationship.
In the tradition of many other coming-of-age tales, young Adele is preoccupied with her own sexual awakening. Her innocence and inexperience collide with the realization that she may not be like the rest of her girl friends. She tries to date a handsome boy from her class only to discover how unfulfilling that is for her, an event that resonates with confusion and discomfort, adding to the complexity of her teenage emotions. One night, tempted by curiosity and following her openly homosexual friend, Adele wanders around a lesbian bar where she finally meets the mysterious blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux). Despite the seemingly casual nature of their encounter Adele knows she has been looking for her. Crossing paths briefly just days before, she became instantly infatuated with Emma’s odd beauty, falling victim to the romantic myth of love at first sight.
During the first half of the film Kechiche organically includes philosophical hypotheses on the nature of love via several classroom sequences. He delves into the conflicting ideas of a predestined plan vs. random chance as two mutually exclusive possibilities for the path each human life follows. Regardless of which of these forces produced Adele and Emma’s serendipitous meeting, it is clear their lives will forever be affected by it.
Emma is a strong college art student fully accepted as a homosexual woman, while Adele is just starting to grapple with the implications of identifying herself with that label. Their differences are even more noticeable when they meet each other’s families. One is sophisticated, liberal, and above all accepting of Emma’s sexual orientation and career choice as a painter; on the other hand, Adele’s working class parents love her but are unaware of what goes on behind closed doors between the two girls. That secrecy and Adele’s inability to come to terms with her sexuality become the prime source of conflict for the couple.
Much has been said about the explicit depiction of sex in the film. Deemed by many as exploitative or influenced by the director’s masculine perspective (though some say he too is homosexual), the intimate scenes feel driven by passion rather than only existing for mere provocation. Daring and sensuous, these sequences of beautiful vulnerability speak volumes about the strenuous labor by the actresses and their director. Kechiche's style of Cinema Verite, combined with the terrific naturalism of Seydoux and Exarchopoulos' acting delivers a compelling film of outstanding honesty.
Each scene runs its course without the need to cut them short. They flow as small building blocks of a love story that exudes intensity and fragility. As the characters’ relationship develops into adulthood the lustful and vibrant passion diffuses and they begin to fall apart. Adele wants to be a teacher and Emma lives to paint, and as their two separate ways take form, their love for each other is tested. This slow-burning development of their flaws and aspirations allows the actresses to showcase their talent by throwing away any inhibitions and becoming their characters from the inside out. Seydoux as androgynous and tough Emma evokes a strange mystique. Her apparent maturity and assertiveness clash with Adele’s need to be loved and her indecision to come out fully as a lesbian woman. Few times before have two actresses given such audacious performances. Certainly these are two of the best roles in any film, from any country, in a very long time.
Blue is undoubtedly the work of an auteur. Even after all the scandalous accusations and discomfort towards the film, there is no denying this is a riveting piece of filmmaking. Every move and every touch is carefully planned to create a realistic yet dreamy account of two women who are consumed by ravaging love, who suffer through it, and who survive it. No one in cinema has ever gotten closer to conveying the mix of torturous anguish and insane joy of what it means to be in love as have Kechiche and his fearless protagonists.