by Tony Dayoub
Two of the year's best performances, female and otherwise, are found in this year's problematic Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2). Abdellatif Kechiche's 3-hour lesbian romance stars Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle and Léa Seydoux as Emma, two young women who embark on a passionate love affair with serious, life-changing consequences for at least one of them. That would be Adèle, who the movie follows from her high school years on through to her first years as a schoolteacher.
Exarchopoulos has the kind of bucktoothed, precocious sexuality that recalls the baby-faced Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris. But there's an indomitability to her that suggests she is far more talented than Schneider ever got a chance to demonstrate in later films. As Adèle, Exarchopoulos is called upon to carry the entire film on her narrow shoulders, a feat that might cause even the most prominent American actresses to buckle. Unlike Kechiche's other films, which frequently define their characters by framing their day-to-day processes in medium shots, most of Blue is framed in tight closeups on Exarchopoulos's pouty face. Often times, this occurs to the point of nearly excluding the other half of the couple, Seydoux's Emma.
Because of this, Seydoux accomplishes the even more difficult task of keeping us equally engaged with Emma. Older, more experienced, and more comfortable in her own skin and with her own sexuality than Adèle, Emma could easily have turned out as a static, dramatically inert figure in contrast to the more dynamic, constantly evolving Adèle. But Seydoux does a considerable amount with her most powerful moments. When she first meets and subtly seduces Adèle in a bar and, over time, in long walks at the park, the harder-edged, blue-haired Emma comes across as more vulnerable not less than her paramour. Perhaps it is because of the shy coquettishness Seydoux plays up in these early scenes, making it seem like she's less the seductress and more the seduced. This softness all but vanishes later when Emma has a row with Adèle after discovering she's been cheating on her with a male colleague. Through welled-up tears that refuse to fall, you can see Seydoux building an unscalable wall between Emma and Adèle as she swiftly decides never to be hurt by her lover again.
So far so good, but Blue is the Warmest Color is mired in some of the same problems that have plagued Kechiche's previous films. First is its length. While length was less of a problem in 2007's The Secret of the Grain, where Kechiche utilized the movie's ample running time to really dig deep into its characters daily routines, it's arguable whether the same kind of attention to Adèle—particularly in Blue's second chapter where the director tracks her growing self-confidence in the context of her elementary school workplace—reveals anything particularly noteworthy about her that we couldn't have figured out otherwise.
More controversial are Blue's very explicit sex scenes, which have garnered it an NC-17 rating her in the U.S. Like in 2010's Black Venus, Kechiche only appears to be applying a measure of eroticism in order to arrive at a greater truth, in this case Adèle's burgeoning sense of self in a 10-minute lovemaking sequence that clearly comes at a point that cleaves the movie into two distinct chapters. In reality, the execution of this and subsequent sexual interludes are quite jarring within this lushly romantic, first-person narrative. The framing of the actresses in full-length for these erotic scenes stand starkly apart from the rest of Blue's intimate framing. This and some of the sexual behavior depicted—spanking being the most indicative—are things I associate more with hetero-targeted depictions of lesbian lovemaking in pornography rather than any real-world behaviors I'm aware of (which as a straight male, I freely admit I'm in no position to speak authoritatively on).
Ultimately, it's not the explicit nature of these scenes that undermine what might have been the most romantic lesbian love story to ever play onscreen. It's Kechiche's decision to switch gears to and fro from an impressionistically intimate rendering of love to a clinically anatomical portrait of lovemaking that interferes with the gentle ebb and flow this kind of romance calls for. It's a shame this is so, because in all other respects Blue is the Warmest Color serves as a sensuous canvas for a pair of indelible performances by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux.