One look, a wordless exchange of glances at a crosswalk, is all it takes for French teenager Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) to realize that she prefers the company of women. Or one woman, anyway: blue-haired bohemian artist Emma (Léa Seydoux), whose seductive sidelong stare stirs in Adèle a mighty tempest of desire, at once liberating and a little scary. The beauty of Blue Is The Warmest Color, a sprawling three-hour chronicle of first love and sexual awakening, is the way it drops viewers onto the emotional wavelength of its heroine, inviting them to witness (and hence share) every palpitation of her heart and every high and low she experiences. The film belongs to Exarchopoulos, its remarkably expressive starlet, whose countenance—frequently framed in close-up, the better to read each telling, minute shift in feeling—becomes a grand canvas for director Abdellatif Kechiche (The Secret Of The Grain). Of course, it’s not the performer’s face, but her bared body that’s created all the fuss around this intimate epic, which has proved surprisingly divisive since the Cannes jury handed both Kechiche and—in an unprecedented move—his two lead actresses the Palme D’Or.
Explicit lesbian lovemaking aside, Blue is, at heart, a somewhat ordinary coming-of-age romance, pulled and stretched nearly to its breaking point. Three hours may seem excessive for such a modest plot (adapted from the French graphic novel Blue Angel), but Kechiche wastes little of his mammoth running time. In place of corner-cutting clichés, there’s a wealth of character and environment building. Nearly an hour passes before Adèle tracks down Emma, the stranger she encountered on the street, at a lesbian bar. During that prelude to courtship, she dates and then dumps a faintly dull boy, nurses a brief infatuation with a female friend, confides in a gay classmate, quells her sadness with food, sings protest songs in the street, and copes with the cruelty and general mundane nature of high school. Seydoux, whom American audiences may best know as the near-mute assassin in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, eventually injects a little electricity into the proceedings. (Her first real scene with Exarchopoulos, a long and flirtatious conversation, pulses with mutual attraction.) But even after a love connection has sparked, the film takes its time, allowing a vision of late adolescence—and, eventually, of a fledgling relationship—to slowly, organically take shape. The fact that the romance is between two women is and isn’t important: While the director takes care to show how Adèle struggles with social pressure, hiding her sexuality from her friends and parents, that aspect never hijacks the narrative. This is a drama of self-discovery, not a social-issues film.
As for the sex scenes, they’re as insanely erotic as advertised; it’s not just their frankness and duration that counts, but their emotional intensity too. While many movies make sex look either sleazy or pantomimed, here’s one that depicts it honestly—as a messy, sometimes ungraceful act of connection. For some, it may be impossible to separate these prolonged simulations, which were surely no picnic to film, from the allegations of unprofessionalism the actresses have leveled against Kechiche. But only a hopeless prude could confuse any of it for pornography. There’s too much raw emotion, too much fierceness and beauty, in the way Exarchopoulos and Seydoux embrace. How, in this day and age, could two women fucking inspire such hysteria, especially among otherwise enlightened cinephiles? It’s just sex, after all. The heavy stuff comes after, when passions cool and two people, once united in amorous appetite, have to figure out how to keep what they have alive.