Film Review: Blue Is the Warmest Color

For its intelligence, sensual daring and fecund human empathy, this film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and you can certainly see why.

In Blue Is the Warmest Color, the fleshily voluptuous face of 19-year-old Adèle Exarchopoulos is a wonderment. Renoir might have painted her, with her fulsome, sensual  mouth which can break into the most ingratiatingly goofy smile and a wealth of hair to match that of Veronica Lake and Rita Hayworth combined. These qualities stand her in good stead, for she is, seemingly, in practically every frame of Abdellatif Kechiche's powerfully moving film.

Exarchopoulos plays the character of Adèle over ten years, from a high-school girl in the town of Lille, ready for love and life, to a young adult kindergarten teacher who must learn to somehow survive the love that she's had in her life. As popular as she is pretty, she has a brief affair with hunkily desirable classmate Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), but finds herself magnetically pulled towards blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux), an older artist she encounters in a lesbian bar. Their relationship is intense, and intensely romantic, with Kechiche's controversial decision to film the two in a couple of protracted, very intimate and graphic sex scenes. (There have been cries of sexist male heterosexual exploitation over them, but the scenes feel authentic and necessary.) However, it becomes apparent that a deep physical connection is not enough, due to Adèle's youth, her ignorance of the soignée art world Lea inhabits, and her inescapable innocence about relationships.

Initially, the prospect of a three-hour film about a lesbian relationship, adapted from a graphic novel (by Julie Maroh), would seem, well, challenging. But such is the intelligence and empathy which suffuse this film that you become completely engaged in Adèle's story and the time whizzes by, filled with real human emotion in all of its highs and lows, especially with its depiction of the quivering delight of first love. Kechiche gives you profound plastic beauty to gaze at—the physical comeliness of the girls, that bench by that tree right out of a sublime Impressionist landscape which is their special spot—as well as some serious brain food which takes the form of heated discussions about literature and art (Marivaux, Sartre, Klimt versus Schiele) that form Adèle's real-world education, brought off with the same kind of febrile Gallic élan of early Truffaut and Godard, as well as The Mother and the Whore's late, great Jean Eustache.

Unusually rich characterization is the key here, as in the beautifully observed, highly differing and loving families of the girls, one (Adèle's) more working-class, warm and pasta-devouring, while the other is riddled with well-heeled elegance and savoir-faire. Both show you clearly how and why these young women are at once so very alike yet different. Even peripheral characters, like Adèle's gossipy, louche girlfriends, her one gay male friend and intimate, and the equally rowdy lesbian set around Emma, are sketched with a keen percipience that makes the engaging group scenes positively buzz.

Kechiche calibrates his wondrously edited film with a skill which must have gone a long way towards helping his Cannes win. The tedium as well as the fraught social nature of high school is rendered with rare accuracy, and then there are those emotional explosions which leave you quite breathless. These range from Thomas' heartbreakingly tearful reaction to Adèle's dumping him to a fabulously blistering homophobic set-to she has with the overly curious girls of her set who wonder about her taking up with this blue-haired, arty weirdo. The big break-up scene, with its volcanic fury and wild-eyed desperation, is perhaps the greatest break-up scene ever filmed, devastatingly capturing the terrifyingly intense kaleidoscope of feelings such soul-shaking ruptures engender. A lot of tears are shed in the film, rather breaking that old theatrical axiom of not crying too much or the audience won't, but every one of them springs from an emotional and histrionic truth that is both unquestionable and frequently heart-stopping.

Exarchopoulos grows into a woman before our very eyes, a rapturous evolution so intelligently and sensitively handled here that it absolutely makes Adèle one unqualifiedly great movie heroine. (For once, you wouldn’t mind a sequel here, as that final, intriguing shot of her has a modern resonance to match that of the famous last frame of Garbo's Queen Christina.) Seydoux is also excellent, with a daunting mystery to her, charismatic and blazingly smart. You can see exactly why the two fall for each other, but the subtle, yet undeniable froideur which insinuates itself onscreen as, in bed, she questions Adèle about her lack of creative ambition makes you positively quake for her unaware but oh-so-blissfully in love younger partner.