Yes, there is a lot of sex. Graphic sex. Two women going at it, up, down, over, under, sideways - pretty much devouring each other. But that's only part of what the extraordinary Blue Is the Warmest Color is really about.
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche with a close-up intensity that brings the soul of the central character out from the screen and into your heart (it's emotional 3-D!), this three-hour portrait of a young French woman named Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) captures the dizzying, all-consuming ardor of first love, the joyous discovery of bringing your body and mind into union with another human being. It is about sexual identity - finding it and, in a society still grappling with same-sex relationships, trying to accept it. And it is about growing up, about impossible heartbreak, loneliness.
Blue Is the Warmest Color, adapted from Julie Maroh's graphic novel, begins with Adèle - wide-eyed and tousle-haired, from a working-class family in Lille - in high school, studying, hanging with friends. She starts a relationship with another student, Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), and their exploratory conversations about music, about reading, are charming. But when they finally make love, Adèle is unsettled, unsatisfied. Something, or someone, is missing.
Enter Emma (Léa Seydoux), a few years older, in art college, with a pixie grin and a punky shock of cobalt-blue hair. In Adèle's literature class, the teacher had been discussing predestination, love at first sight, and when Adèle first sees Emma walking across a square, you can almost hear the clicks, the cogs falling into place.
The courtship of Adèle and Emma, from walking and talking to tumbling together voraciously, unfolds in a series of lovely, telling encounters. Our enthusiasm and empathy for the couple increase with every (funny, awkward, touching) scene. Respective parents are introduced, meals consumed, friends met.
Well, Emma's friends. In a brutal bit of peer bullying, Adèle is taunted by her classmates for wandering off with a "tomboy," a "dyke." If this was Carrie, Adèle would burn them all at the prom.
Blue Is the Warmest Color transitions seamlessly over several years as we watch Adèle struggle to come to terms with her sexuality, or at least struggle to live it fully, uncloaked, without compromise or compartmentalization.
The contrast between Adèle and Emma isn't only about how they handle being a lesbian, it's about class, and culture, too. Emma moves in artistic circles - painters, sculptors, filmmakers, actors - and she exerts an increasingly unsubtle pressure on Adèle to elevate her aspirations, to notch it up, become a writer. But in this realm, Adèle knows who she is: She wants to teach, and after graduation, she does, first in a preschool and then with kindergartners. She loves her job, the interaction with the little kids. It fulfills.
Blue Is the Warmest Color won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May, an honor shared, in a historic first, by the director and his two stars. For all the hype and controversy the movie has since engendered (the sex scenes, Kechiche's threats of a lawsuit against Seydoux for the actress' troubling allegations of psychological abuse), there's no getting around the fact that this is a remarkable work: Exarchopoulos' performance is so lived-in, so fully realized, that it's jarring to see her out of context, doing TV interviews, walking the red carpets (and, soon, I'm sure, making other films).
In France, Kechiche's picture was released under the title La vie d'Adèle: Chapitre 1 & 2. I, for one, want to know very much what happens to Adèle in Chapters 3 and 4, and on and on. Blue Is the Warmest Color explores a life with a depth and force that would be scary - if it weren't so scarily good.
Blue Is the Warmest Color **** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche.
With Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. In French with subtitles. Distributed by IFC Films.
Running time: 2 hours, 59 mins.
Parent's guide: NC-17 (graphic sex, nudity, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five.