This review was originally published on Mary 23, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
Love comes in all kinds of flavors but none linger like first love. It might not be the right love, or the best love, but it is a transformative love, a necessary love - and there is no dearth of films that have tried to capture its special blend of exuberance and heartbreak. Abdellatif Kechiche's "Blue Is The Warmest Color" (also known as "La Vie D'Adele: Chapitre 1 & 2") ranks in the very highest percentile of such attempts. If you don't see yourself in its fierce depiction of intense emotion I both envy and pity you. It is a masterpiece of the genre, a damn near perfect film.
Our story concerns Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) a shy high school junior who likes to read. She has a circle of friends, though her relationship with some of the girls is somewhat on the receiving end of light bullying. She catches the eye of a boy; she likes him well enough, offers him her virginity, but something isn't clicking. She can't shake the moment of eye contact she shared with a college-aged girl with blue hair. She fantasizes about her at night and, after a uncomfortable trip with a male friend to a gay club, she walks down the block to a lesbian bar. Naturally, she meets the girl, Emma (Lea Seydoux) and soon they are hanging out.
Emma is an art student and she appears to have no shortage of girlfriends. After a tender afternoon together (on the heels of some pushy questions from Adele's high school "friends") Emma initiates Adele into the world of homosexual lovemaking. Adele takes to it quite naturally.
Okay, let's get this over with. "Blue Is The Warmest Color" is explicit in its intimate scenes. It makes "In The Realm Of The Senses" looks like a Frankie and Annette picture by comparison. Some critics may wonder if these sequences - lengthy, intense, un-simulated and numerous - are necessary to tell the story. Please believe the part of my brain that doesn't house a lecherous voyeur when I say yes, absolutely.
Sex is real, man, even if we rarely see it like this on screen. Adele and Emma connect first and foremost on a sexual level and to understand the depth of their passion you can't just hear them talk about it - you need to see it. Despite the tongues, heaving breasts and exposed sex organs, Adele's flushed cheeks are the most erotic things on display. They make evident the reality of her experience - and they alone tell the true story of this budding relationship.
"Blue Is The Warmest Color" is, by and large, a universal story, but the fact that this is a homosexual love isn't just icing. Even in progressive France being gay isn't 100% accepted. Emma's parents are cool with it, we're not so sure what Adele's parents would think (the implication is they may have some misgivings.)
More to the point, it does double-duty for us in the audience. We've seen heterosexual love stories before. The transgressive nature of Adele and Emma's affair adds extra power - a slap across the face to alert us to just what's going on. We're sympathetic to Adele as she takes this bold step, rooting for her to find herself and to find some happiness, same as we would in, say, a biopic of a musical prodigy picking up her first instrument.
Then comes the second half of the film. After some time (Kechiche keeps the specific amount unclear, which works wonders in his favor) Emma's hair is its natural color. She is out of school and struggling to get her art career going. Adele is now a teacher's aide. They've settled into routine, and Emma is first to recognize that perhaps physical attraction is all they share. Emma, insecure, perhaps, or maybe growing bored, urges Adele to find a creative outlet. Soon Adele is catching the eye of a male coworker.
I'd rather not say too much more, but I think I've made it clear enough that the orgasmic highs of the first half of the film are mirrored by the soul-squelching turns in the second. There's a "let's meet for closure" scene that is so heartbreaking, so true and, importantly, so true to these characters and their specific relationship that it (deep breath now) ranks as one of the most emotionally devastating moments I've seen in a drama ever.
Monsoon-level tears rained down my face toward the end of Blue Is The Warmest Color. (I should probably add that I am a little bit of an emotional wreck of late, so you may just think "mmn, good film.") Another thing I love is that is tackles, with tact and clarity, one of human sexuality's more interesting quirks.
I don't think I'm saying anything shocking by noting that many heterosexual men (a group I belong to) have something of a prurient fondness for lesbianism. It's something that, by and large, is not shared in reverse order by heterosexual women for gay men. Ask a guy why this is and the stock response is "I dunno." At a rather epic backyard party scene among Emma's bohemian friends the conversation turns this way, and one person theorizes that male sexuality is focus driven while for women it comes in waves. A feedback loop among two women, as it were, would be the purest form of a divine pleasure, and to view this would be like looking at God. (These are artists who are talking, keep in mind.)
Listen, I don't know if he's on to anything, but there's no doubt that seeing Adele and Emma in love - and in the act of making love - as presented by Kechiche and these two actors is something special, not just titillation. If your prudish hangups or need to cry foul over perceived exploitation prevent you from seeing that, you won't like this movie. Which at least may save you from having your heart ripped out and stomped on at the end.
"Blue Is The Warmest Color" at three hours long still but scratches the surface of this love story. The running time in your head after, well, let's check in with one another for closure in a few years.
SCORE: 9.6 / 10