Nov. 15--Blue Is the Warmest Color, drama, rated NC-17, in French with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
Blue Is the Warmest Color tells the story of Ad le, a junior in high school who's discovering her sexuality -- tentatively, at first, and with all the awkwardness that youthful inexperience brings. Ad le, played by Ad le Exarchopoulos, is a bit of a loner, the sort of kid who prefers the company of one or two good friends and is less comfortable in large groups. Her sexual orientation is toward women. That is something she isn't committed to at the film's start but becomes a dawning realization as it progresses. Ad le has a boyfriend, a young man who she is driven to date because of peer pressure. They have sex in one of the film's many graphic scenes of intimacy, but Ad le is clearly not enjoying the experience. By contrast, an early sequence shows Ad le enraptured by a glance from another young woman, part of a lesbian couple she passes on the street. That night, she fantasizes about the stranger while alone in bed. Later, she seeks her out in a gay bar and finds her. Emma, the stranger, played by Midnight in Paris' L a Seydoux, is a college student studying fine arts. Ad le is interested in literature. Their discussions of art, philosophy, music, and books are thought-provoking. They have an easy rapport. The passion between them ignites quickly, and it isn't long before the two young lovers seek out every opportunity to explore one another's bodies with desperate intensity and overwhelming desire. Ad le mercifully cuts her boyfriend loose early.
Back at school, she is faced with the persistent questions of her peers who realize, even when Ad le isn't ready to admit it to her closest confidants, that she is gay. She denies it, but her protestations fall on deaf ears, and one friend is so angry about Ad le's sexuality that she insults her cruelly. The friend's vehemence, however, seems more like jealousy than homophobia -- a subtle but unmistakable touch. Blue Is the Warmest Color makes it plain why some people don't come to terms with their sexual orientation until much later in life.
The film's early sequences establish Ad le's burgeoning sexuality as traumatic and rapturous in equal measure. Exarchopoulos is a wonder. Here's a young actress who can convincingly portray a range of emotions without having to say a word. We always know what she's thinking and feeling even in her silence. The emotions portrayed onscreen are raw and heart-wrenching. The film, which runs nearly three hours, never loosens its emotional grip, nor does it stray into sentimentality. Exarchopoulos, Seydoux, and director Abdellatif Kechiche shared the top Cannes Film Festival award, the Palme d'Or, this year -- a first for the long-running festival. Every emotion in every scene is believable and naturalistic.
Controversy surrounds Kechiche's provocative film, but the question of whether the passionate sex scenes were simulated or not is beside the point. They feel as real as any other scene in the film. An argument can be made that cutting some of these scenes could significantly reduce the film's length, but so could cutting the numerous scenes of family dinners. What would be the point? This is a film about Ad le's blossoming sexuality, and kudos to Kechiche, Exarchopoulos, and Seydoux for not shying away from it.
As gratuitous as it is, the sex is not as explicit as you may have been led to believe -- with one or two exceptions, and those are at the movie's halfway mark. The lovers give themselves to one another so completely in their lovemaking that what we witness is real intimacy, which elevates the scenes out of the realm of pure eroticism and adds weight to the trauma of later scenes. We are invested in their relationship. When the honeymoon ends, the final hour is a painful exploration of betrayals and unrequited love, and Blue becomes more a journey of self-discovery for its young heroine than merely a tale of sexual desires and awakenings. You sense it in a late sequence, when Ad le is a fish out of water at an art opening for Emma and comes to a potentially life-changing decision. It's the punctuation mark on a lengthy tale -- where the film was headed all along.
Ad le is a teenager at the film's beginning. Although she ages a few years as it progresses, graduating from high school and entering a teaching profession, her experience is a common one. Regardless of sexual orientation, most people go through the growing pains of young love. Blue Is the Warmest Color doesn't deserve its NC-17 rating. Why alienate the audience that might relate most to the central character? Teenagers have a more sophisticated sense of self and more knowledge of the world than they're often given credit for. More than a few would see themselves in Ad le's character. To deny them that chance is to deny them that recognition.
The main reason Blue Is the Warmest Color works so well is the strength of the performances of its two leads. Ad le and Emma share a mutual attraction, but the experience is different for each. Ad le approaches Emma as though indulging a secret fantasy. She isn't prepared for the difficult realities of a committed relationship. Exarchopoulos tempers Ad le's delight at the prospect of new love against the societal pressures implied by her staid home and school life. She can barely contain her excitement when introducing Emma to her parents for the first time but passes her off as a tutor -- probably because she fears they won't accept the relationship. You may suspect her parents are perceptive but choose to participate in the charade to avoid embarrassing their daughter.
Kechiche seems to have a knack for eliciting strong emotions from his cast. It isn't just the tears that Exarchopoulos seems to be able to muster on demand but the convincing portrayal of feelings that lie beneath the surface. The entire cast is exceptional, but Exarchopoulos has the most screen time. Blue Is the Warmest Color is one of the year's most heartfelt and engaging films.
(c)2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)
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