Blue is the Warmest Colour
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 9th February 2014
At three hours long, this intensely physical and emotional lesbian love story may have audiences shifting in their seats for different reasons, but it is nonetheless an impressive film with a universal story and effortlessly powerful performances.
15 year old Adele is a traditional French teen, jiving with her cigarette-smoking girlfriends about sex and romance. A contemplative, observant soul, Adele is also painfully aware that something is missing in her heart, and when the bibliophile dates a handsome guy who can’t get through a single novel, it doesn’t bode well. Cue the entrance of a blue-haired, lesbian art student who quotes Sartre, and life offers Adele the chance to experiment with a new way of being, and ultimately a path towards finding herself.
Through free-styling camerawork and incessant close-ups (of faces, mouths, food, everything), we are thrust into an intimacy with the film and its subjects right from the opening scene. Given we spend three hours up close and personal with Adele, it is a miracle of casting that director Abdellatif Kechiche found Adele Exarchopoulos (he changed the character’s scripted name to the actress’s) at an open casting and decided upon watching her eat that she had the right comportment for the role. Exarchopoulos is certainly a wonder to behold, not just aesthetically (Adele is the sort of girl who even with oily hair and a runny nose looks a million Euros) but also in her capacity to convey a silent emotional response through a fleeting look. Given she appears in virtually every scene, including several where we merely watch her sleep, both male and female gazes will be applauding Kechiche’s decision.
The more confident, alternative Emma is played by Lea Seydoux (perhaps best known to non-French audiences for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), also excellent for her part in delivering a love story that, despite its gender specificity, is as relatable, intense and problematic as any. As Adele’s cheeks lose their youthful puppy fat, belying her youth en route to womanhood, the couple pursue their professional aims with a parallel passion. Inevitably, with burgeoning maturity comes conflict.
The explicit (largely unsimulated) sex scenes are notable for the actresses’ candour and their length and repetition (apparently one was filmed over two days). However, while impressive and somewhat eye-popping initially, by the third you feel you’ve probably got the picture and considering they are not conveying a change in the emotional plotting, it starts to look a little gratuitous.
Despite its having scooped the top prize at Cannes last year, distributors still have a gamble on their hands given the contemporary viewer’s aversion to spending more than 90 minutes in a dark room. At twice that length, it does go on a bit longer than feels warranted by the narrative, and still leaves you with some unanswered questions. But it’s a testament to the director and his outstanding leads (to whom, incidentally, the Cannes jury awarded the prize jointly) that we want to stay within Emma and Adele’s orbit and observe the trials and tribulations of their relationship. Whether you are left feeling warm or cold by its conclusion may depend on your stamina.