Few movies have arrived in Australian cinemas amidst as much controversy and commentary as Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour. The film has not been out of the headlines since it was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, with the Tunisian director coming under attack from his two lead actresses – Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos – and Julie Maroh, the author of the book on which the film is based. Most of the criticism from the various parties revolves around the sex scenes in the film and, whilst Exarchopoulos has since recanted somewhat in her criticism of Kechiche, there is no doubt that the public feuding has only served to generate an awareness and interest in the film that may not have otherwise been achieved. However, putting aside the tit-for-tat spats from the various parties, the film needs to be evaluated on his merits as a piece of cinematic art and, on that level, it is a terrific success.
The unheralded Exarchopoulos plays Adèle, a shy, studious young woman who starts as a high school student and is working as a teacher when the film ends. In the opening segment, Adele is tentative in her social interactions but finds herself under constant pressure from her friends to conform to their expectations, which primarily means procuring a boyfriend. A brief relationship with a popular boy ensues but soon fizzles out as Adele finds herself drawn to cool, blue-haired 20-something artist Emma (Seydoux), who she initially glimpses on the street and later seeks out in a gay nightclub. The romantic spark between them is electric and the two soon become inseparable. However, as Emma’s career starts to blossom, Adele finds herself increasingly on the margins of Emma’s broadening social circle. Despite being quite intelligent, Adele struggles with the confidence she needs to flourish in this environment and, eventually starts to spread her wings, a decision that ultimately leads to the end of the relationship in a particularly powerful scene that showcases the talents of both actresses.
Whilst the sex scenes have caused much conversation and consternation, I’m not really sure what all the fuss is about. Are they exploitative? No. Are they inauthentic? No. In fact, I would suggest they seem very realistic in the context of two young people discovering each other in that early stage of a relationship where passion and lust are still very much at the forefront of their attraction to each other. Kechiche has been accused of lingering on these scenes, but the reality is that he lingers on everything in this film. Whether it is scenes in the classroom, family dinners or even Adele sleeping, Kechiche takes his time with each shot and, furthermore, shoots almost the entire film in close-up. At least in this instance, the sex is very much the result of two people in love without an agenda, whereas in so much Hollywood fare, sex is usually presented as either; an act of spite/vengeance, a transaction of some kind, a convenient source of narrative conflict, a demonstration of the relationships of power and/or unwelcome by at least one participant. In this instance, Kechiche shies away from such conventions and uses the sex scenes purely as an insight into the relationship. Whilst I have no way of knowing whether Kechiche exploited the girls during filming – it is claimed that it took up to 10 days to shoot these scenes – I do know that the end result is certainly not deserving of the outcry that has come from some quarters.
Once you adapt to the languid pace and the abundant close-ups – which do take some getting used to – and settle in for the long haul of the three hour running time, there is so much to enjoy. There is a real sense of authenticity in most of the characters, whether they be teachers, friends or the various sets of parents. In fact, both sets of parents are presented in a way that contrasts strongly against the type of histrionics we might ordinarily see in a more mainstream production. Adele’s parents are not made aware of the nature of her relationship with Emma – they assume the two girls are just friends – but this is not milked for laughs or melodrama, which is great to see. There are many scenes in which not much happens, but it is this sense of realism (real life is quite slow at times) that draws you in.
Without doubt, it is the performances the make Blue is the Warmest Colour something special. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux (Farewell My Queen, Sister) are brave and outstanding in their depictions of these two young women in love. Exarchopoulos is in almost every scene and it is to her great credit that she takes on this responsibility with consummate skill. Seydoux is also fabulous as an artist who ultimately loses sight of what (who) is important to her. He may not have ingratiated himself with too many people along the way, but Kechiche has drawn remarkable performances from two talented young actresses to produce a film of exceptional quality.