Based on Julie Maroh’s graphic novel, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour was this year’s winner of the Palm d’Or at Cannes – arguably the film industry’s most prestigious award – and became the first film where the prize was awarded to both the director and the lead actresses. It quickly becomes clear why.
The films tells the story of Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), and begins with her in high school talking with her friends about boys. One unsatisfactory sexual experience later, however, it gradually becomes apparent that she prefers girls, and she soon becomes involved with blue-haired art student Emma (Lea Seydoux). We then follow their romance from its passionate early days, to Adele and Emma moving into together, to their eventual break-up.
As the media coverage has made abundantly clear, it’s impossible to talk about Blue is the Warmest Colour without talking about the sex scenes between Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, which some have argued are the most graphic ever presented in a mainstream film. And in all honesty, even though the actresses insist that the scenes were simulated (apparently latex genital covers were used), you wouldn’t know it from simply watching the film. Considering the subject matter, a female director might have been nice, but Kechiche nonetheless directs these potentially difficult scenes very well. His direction is frank, certainly, but also sensitive: the camera never feels like an unwanted voyeur, and the male gaze is conspicuously absent for the most part.
The sex scenes are not intended principally to arouse the audience, though doubtless they will, but to celebrate the passion and love Emma and Adele feel for one another. Honesty is the key word, and we are constantly able to believe that this is genuinely a young couple making love to each other. The realism and graphicness only adds to that. Unlike the vast majority of films featuring sex scenes, these are vital to the development of the narrative and the characters, and the film would be inarguably lesser for their absence.
But still, they are just one part of a greater whole, and it’s the original French title which truly tells us what this film is: La Vie d’Adele, Chapitres 1 et 2. It is a portrait of her young life, so of course love and sex play a big part, but we get the complete picture of her growing up as well. And crucially, the title makes clear that this is not the end of Adele’s story – we just don’t get to see the next chapter. We do, however, see the bitchiness and bullying she gets from people at school when they begin to realise she likes girls; we see her as a home-maker after she moves in with Emma; and we see her try and fail to find fulfilment outside of their relationship. Both actresses are excellent, but this is unquestionably Exarchopoulos’ show, and she is never less than utterly convincing, particularly in the scenes where she breaks down crying. No pretty, sanitised, Hollywood tears here: Adele doesn’t just cry, she weeps, with all the bloodshot eyes and snotty noses that entails in real life.
This realism, this honesty, pervades the whole film, and is a big part of what makes it so satisfying and so moving. Everything that happens is believable, and it truly does feel like watching someone grow up. Even when Emma and Adele break up, it’s not so much because of one dramatic event, even though there is one to catalyse the end of the relationship. Rather, they break up more because of irreconcilable differences in their personalities, and Adele’s utter dependence on Emma to give her life meaning: less glamorous than the norm in cinema, but much more believable.
Blue is the Warmest Colour may be an acquired taste for some. It’s three hours long in subtitled French, features lengthy discussions of philosophy and sexuality, and the graphic sex scenes may put some people off. But, like the oysters Emma gets Adele to try, everyone should at least give it a go. The French title hints at the possibility of Chapitres 3 et 4, but given the less-than-cordial relationship between stars and director, that seems unlikely. Still, we shouldn’t worry about the film that could have been. We should just be grateful for the one we have.