News Column

'Blue Is the Warmest Color,' a graphic lesbian romance, comes to U.S. theaters

October 22, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 22--The most talked about film of the year may not be "Gravity" or "12 Years a Slave," but a three-hour French lesbian romance.

"Blue Is the Warmest Color" won the top prize, the Palme d'Or, at the Cannes Film Festival in May for its French-Tunisian director, Abdellatif Kechiche, and, for the first time in the Palme's history, its two stars, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux.

Jury head Steven Spielberg praised it to the heavens, as did many other critics. But some, mostly female, critics thought the movie's lengthy, passionate and just shy of hardcore sex scenes said more about Kechiche's fantasies than they did about two girls in love. Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel from which "Blue" was freely adapted, has criticized the film as well, writing among other things that "It appears to me this was what was missing on the set: lesbians."

Then, as Kechiche and the actresses hit the North American festival circuit late in the summer, fevered reports came out about what a trying experience making the movie was and that the women never wanted to work with the director again.

During an L.A. stopover in September, the trio played down any contention and played as nice as they could.

"It's hard to explain the shoot, really," says Seydoux, 28, who comes from a family of French studio executives and has appeared in movies ranging from "Farewell, My Queen" to "Midnight in Paris," "Inglorious Basterds" and "Mission: Impossible --Ghost Protocol." "Most reporters like to focus on the negative, when actually there were a lot of really good and important experiences related to this. It's a human experience before anything else. It's the result that counts, basically, and how much we grew as actresses in this movie."

"Abdellatif gave us a lot of freedom, but at the same time it was a very, very long shoot and the whole thing was very passionate as well," adds Exarchopoulos, who turns 20 next month. "When we watch American movies, it's like wow, the actors look like they're having so much fun. In France, it's kind of different. The psychological demands are stricter, you can't always enjoy the creative side of creating a character. That's why this was fun; we could just express behavior from moment to moment."

Filmed over a grueling five-and-a-half months, "Blue" follows Exarchopoulos' character, also named Adele, from high school into a teaching career and through a decade-or-so of lovemaking and breaking up with Seydoux's initially blue-haired artist, Emma. The gamut is run from carnal ecstasy to emotional devastation, all in unrelenting, intimately framed widescreen.

"I rehearsed break-up scenes that were not in the movie throughout the shoot, so that the actresses would experience it," Kechiche says, in French through an interpreter. "None of this is a method, there's no science to it. I'm merely following my intuition. I hope things will happen during the shoot, but when they do happen, I am not quite sure how.

"My work as a director is to accompany the actor to this place where they can experience what the character is experiencing," adds the 52-year-old filmmaker, who focused on African immigrants' experiences in Europe in such earlier works as "Black Venus" and "The Secret of the Grain." "Part of that work is eliminating the obstacles the actors have, their self-awareness or whatever, and just getting to a place where they can open up and reach a sort of truthfulness while they're being filmed."

Yeah, that sounds like fun.

"The shooting was very intense and the process was extremely intense," Seydoux admits. "Abdellatif has his own way of working. Of course, working with Abdellatif, I wanted to go far as an actress."

Which, for the two heterosexual women, also meant going at one another with uninhibited abandon.

"To shoot those scenes was, of course, really hard and complicated," Seydoux acknowledges. "We had to understand that it meant something, not only as actors but as a person, to be naked in front of the camera. But the thing is, it was part of the story, and I knew that beforehand so I was OK for that."

"The comic books were really explicit," Exarchopoulos notes. "This passion between the two of them reflects everything, how they're so connected, so this was really important. But in every movie, it's not a fun part to make a love scene like that, so intimate at times.

"Sometimes, I squint at them when I see the movie because it makes me uncomfortable," Exarchopoulos adds. "It's not because it's so raw, it's just the fact that I have some complexes, like everyone does, and it's hard to watch them so physically and so close up in front of everyone. It's like everyone can see what I ate!"

For his part, Kechiche sounds less than, well, passionate about the controversial love scenes.

"I felt that they should be in the film, and it's kind of up to the viewer to feel either they are just right or that they are too much or they are essential or they're the centerpiece of the film or they're superfluous to the story," he says. "It's really up to the viewer to experience that. At that moment, when I made the film, they were right for the story. Perhaps, if I made the film today or in a different state... I can't really say. But they have a place in the whole of the story, and that's why they're there."

Charges that "Blue" is all about the male gaze get his dander up, though.

"It's a moot point for me," he says. "To criticize that it's [from a masculine viewpoint] is, in itself, racist. It's the viewpoint of an artist, not of a man or a woman. It's an artistic expression."

Speaking of prejudice --and more controversy -- "Blue" won its Palme d'Or a week after France very contentiously legalized gay marriage.

"We were like, 'Woo hoo hoo hoo hoo!'" Seydoux says of the moment the three of them were named. "It was like a surprise, but it was like a blessing. The fact that Steven Spielberg gave us this prize, and for us to be awarded for this work, was something so huge for us because we gave so much of ourselves to it."

"This wasn't made as a gay political movie," Exarchopoulos adds. "We just made a love movie about when you have so many feelings that you can't control. But it's the most beautiful coincidence that you can have, to win the Palme at the time marriage equality was legalized."

"It's a very modern story in that it's beyond homosexuality," Seydoux concludes. "So, I think it's really a film that can change cinema in the long run. It's a new way to show the reality. I think that people today are more free about themselves; I really feel like it's not a taboo anymore."

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