The movie is based on a graphic novel [You can see some NSFW pages here] by Julie Maroh which centers on Adele, a closeted high school senior. When we first meet her she's testing the boyfriend waters and feels like she's faking it. She falls for a blue-haired college girl Emma at first sight which further confuses her. Eventually the two women begin a torrid long term affair with all the sex, love, and relationship drama that that implies.
We've seen gay coming of age tales before but Blue is… is a considerable cut above since it has the patience and audacity to really wallow in its heroines confusions and lusts. Teenage feelings need weepy submersion for authenticity; in the living you're just drowning in them! (Adele's first trip to a gay bar, for example, is so patiently explored that a rush of feelings came back to me about mine that I'd mostly forgotten.)
Director Abdellatif Kechiche's camera relentlessly stares at the young actress in tight closeup whether she’s feeling, crying, eating, talking or thinking (and in roughly that order). The camera only gives Adele/Adele a little bit of space if she’s masturbating, sleeping, or f***ing and it wants a better view. It’s tough to tell sometimes if this erotic drama is a self-indulgent leering mess or a far more sobering work of art about first loves and sexual awakenings.
But this one can say for certain: it’s bold and the actresses are on fire… and not just sexually.
Adele Excharpoulos has the rare gift of complete naturalism onscreen. She merely is… which can be oddly disconcerting since the film’s French title The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 & 2, dares to suggest that we’re watching a biopic in progress… and the actress and her character have the same name. Léa Seydoux, a rising international star (You may have already seen her in the great Farewell My Queen or as the sexy assassin in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), gives a more traditionally acted performance but she's no less brilliant for it. She's barely recognizable having adjusted her whole body language and look to play this butch out and proud blue-haired painter.
If the film doesn’t live up to the “masterpiece” hype coming out of Cannes where Steven Spielberg’s jury went wild for it, it does justify the unprecedented decision to give the Palme D’Or which is only ever given to the film’s auteur (French for author, an important point) to the director AND the actresses. I'd have been tempted to go one further and give just the actresses the prize and leave the writer/director drooling from his seat. (For such an acclaimed film it is curiously short on visual ideas and weirdly unshaped in its storytelling).
Still and all, this map of surprising lust and first love is gripping for all three of its hours. Adele's journey doesn't have the thrill of self-actualization that can comfort gay audiences in simpler coming out movies. Adele's journey runs deeper moving past her sexual identity (that is what it is after all) and into her actual character, which is far more personal. The girl, and thus the movie, are troubled.
See, it’s not just the oysters, the chocolate, the pussy, or even the love. From teenager to adult, Adele remains a bottomless pit of need. What will she fill herself with next? Blue is the Warmest Color has the nerve or the audacity (take your pick) to not speculate despite zeroing in on every other thought or impulse she’s had for years. Instead the movie merely watches her walk further and further away, finally escaping the camera if not herself. I guess The Life of Adele Chapter 3 happens off screen. But she'll be hard to shake. Adele is so real and vulnerable by the end of the film that she's earned your sympathy, worry, and "infinite tenderness"
The Guardian recently suggested that gay films are marketing themselves differently now, no longer always trying to hide the gayness of their characters or normalize them to appeal to straight audiences. That's positive change. It's difficult to imagine a film with gay male sex scenes as explicit as the gay female ones in Blue is… becoming an international arthouse sensation (see the weekend box office), winning Steven Spielberg's blessing and becoming the toast of Cannes. A good correlative is the gay thriller Stranger by the Lake, (discussed right here) which also premiered at Cannes. It won critical respect (with stronger direction if not stronger acting) but hasn't stayed in the news. Its explicit sex is shadowed and over in seconds and nothing like the 7 minute brightly lit sex scene in Blue Is… and it certainly won't sell as many tickets if it ever manages an arthouse run. Sex sells… as long as it's girl-on-girl.
Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.