Reviewed by Nijla Mumin

Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013, Quat’sous Films / Wild Bunch)

2h, 59mins

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche

Writers: Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix

Starring: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Salim Kechiouche

Recovering from an intense love affair can be difficult. Just ask the director and lead actors of French drama Blue Is the Warmest Color, who’ve engaged in a public feud over the last months about the arduous process of making the film, which also won the Palm d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Based on the 2010 graphic novel Blue Angel by Julie Maroh, the film follows Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a precocious French high school student, who falls deeply into a passionate affair with an older art student named Emma, (Lea Seydoux). Experiencing sexual fulfillment for the first time, Adèle forges a strong connection with Emma, but the line between love and lust blurs as they struggle to remain bonded.

A high school scene early in the film introduces and establishes the sexual urgency and global homophobia that dictates the lives of Adèle and teenagers like her. After simply walking home from school with blue-haired Emma, she is viciously attacked the next day by female friends demanding she come out as a lesbian. The scene is tense, shot in close-ups, with anger and accusations hurled at Adèle with a sobering force. She is shown going from passive denial to aggressive defense, and it’s all captured very strikingly on her face.

Director Abdellatif Kechiche works Adèle’s face as a kind of canvas, which mirrors Emma’s nude paintings and sketches of her. Her face and body are given long, close observation by the camera—her mouth, her buttocks, and legs are framed in ways that become more voyeuristic than meaningful at times. There’s a theme of endless sexuality in the film—shots of people kissing may total over twenty, and one’s awareness of this is heightened by the close camera work and shallow depth of field that Kechiche employs. It is his intention for the visual style match the magnitude of Adèle’s burgeoning passion for Emma, and in many cases, it does.

But can passion sustain conflicting class divisions? Adèle and Emma navigate two completely different careers, one as an emerging kindergarten teacher and the other as a committed artist comfortable with the elite. As Emma pushes Adèle to write short stories and “be happy,” Adèle mainly seeks happiness in Emma. Cooking spaghetti and making love become her life’s desires, to Emma’s disdain. This is one of the more developed threads in the story. Adèle has a voracious need to eat and ingest everything, from literature to sex, while Emma wants to create and analyze.

There are long lesbian sex scenes in the film—one clocking in at over six minutes—which have made some viewers angry. (My experience in the movie theater included an elderly woman sitting next to me repeatedly calling the scenes “disgusting” and leaving mid-movie.) Regardless, there is a plausible need for these scenes placed in a movie that rests on the intense yearnings and desires of a young woman. Their purpose becomes increasingly clear in a scene where Adèle pleads for Emma to come back to her after they’ve painfully broken up.  Adèle sucks Emma’s hand, almost devouring it—her face awash with tears and snot—and one sees and feels Emma reunite with their passion, at least for that moment, before falling out of it. This all happens in a public restaurant, but the close-up visual style of the film makes it seem as though Adèle and Emma are the only ones in the dining room.

Again, the passion is their connection. So, the extended sex scenes, endless sensuality, and carnal urges should make sense, right? This is debatable. Are there dramatic beats in love scenes? Can you hit the same beat twice, and if so, does the audience tire of seeing the sex? Passion and sensuality have their place in cinema, but at what point, if employed too overtly, does it become obvious and disengaging?

It is unclear if Kechiche intended to stir these contemplations. Does a Western bias impact our instincts here? What is certain is that the passion and connection between Adèle and Emma was palpable and intriguing for the most part. By the end of the three-hour experience, Adèle’s face becomes imprinted on one’s mind and we come to know her in intimate ways that many directors would never think to explore. The universal joys and dread of entering a passionate relationship are evoked wonderfully in the performances of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux. Love, indeed hurts.

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Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. She has studied film at the Howard University MFA Film Program and the California Institute for the Arts MFA Film Directing Program. Her short film Two Bodies has screened at festivals across the country, including the Pan African Film Festival, Outfest, and Newfest at Lincoln Center. Her writing appears in the anthology Love InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. She also writes for Shadow and Act on the Indiewire Network, and is a newly selected guest blogger for Bitch magazine.  She is a recipient of the 2012 Princess Grace Foundation Cary Grant Film Award for her thesis film, Deluge.