Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, the two young actresses who star in Blue Is The Warmest Color, deserved to share the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year with the director, Abdellatif Kechiche. In fact, I think they might have deserved more of a share than he did. Kechiche’s range of expression isn’t much more expansive than Christopher Nolan’s; his camera has a hammerlock on the girls, and most of the film’s storytelling relies on reading their faces, and, to a lesser extent, their bodies—which the director likes to have wiggling on top of one another, in the buff. In this context, I don’t think that the NC-17 material is pornographic, exactly, but it sure is an easy way for the movie to generate publicity for itself in a critical environment primed to hail girl-on-girl booty-slapping progressive. The shrewdness of making an art film with explicit sex scenes between two gorgeous women in 2013 and passing it off as radically broadminded (Kechiche to Reuters: “Everyone who is against … love between two people of the same sex must see the film”) reminded me of Beyoncé releasing her surprise album earlier this month and bemoaning that music these days is “all about the single, and the hype is so much that it gets between the music and the artist and the fans”—as if the surprise stratagem wasn’t a different form of hype that just so happens to have saved her millions of dollars. I think there’s more to what Kechiche is doing than that—but maybe not enough more.
The French title translates as “The Life of Adèle, Parts 1 and 2,” and I think I liked Part 1 better. In these scenes, Adèle (Exarchopoulos) is about 17; she has a pretty, gamine, chipmunky face, hair she must soak in a deep fryer, and a jaw that hangs down stupidly, as if her lower teeth were dumbbells. Adèle is not stupid, but she seems as intent on closing herself off as she is on opening up books. Nothing seems to draw her to her female friends; she doesn’t break the mold at family dinner, which her parents spend speechless, slurping spaghetti, in thrall to the TV; and when she finally gives in to the advances of a meatheaded but kind upperclassman, she’s terrified to find herself going through the motions, and that those motions produce no heat. When she confesses these perceived failings to Valentin (Sandor Funtek), her gay best friend, one can tell that she isn’t falling on her words here for want of trying; suddenly, she notices the ickiness of her hair. Funtek conveys his character’s gayness very subtly, and though out-and-proud Valentin offers Adèle some consoling words, it’s impossible to tell just how much he knows, even if it’s quite possible to induce how little she lets him know. Curiously, the gay club he takes her to is lighted mainly blue, but the lesbian equivalent into which she strays is the warmest, mellowest yellow. The blue is in Emma’s—Seydoux’s—hair as she approaches Adèle at the bar. I think the closed-in camera achieves intimacy with the adolescent girl here; I think it does so, and gives the lie to her solipsism, when Adèle brushes past her old friends to meet with older Emma in the school parking lot; and when she denies, later, what they met for.
The blue in Emma’s hair is artificial, but the blue in her Buddha eyes is not, and the dissonance alone is striking enough to pierce Adèle’s heart. She’s studying to be a painter, and her butch look is an invention: the chassis of an android from some better time and place than Adèle’s lower-middle-class naturalism. (This isn’t always the case, but Emma’s blue hair sends the opposite signal that a collar of the warmest color would.) Emma is the aggressor, the buyer of Adèle’s drink, and she senses that Dorothy has wandered in from Kansas. They talk Sartre and art, sketch (Emma) and get sketched (Adèle); and we see them suddenly transition from a kiss in the park to bliss in the bed in what Richard Brody calls “one of the most jolting cuts in the recent cinema.” But I disagree with him that the “intermediate stages of seduction or proposition” are skipped. It’s an earned release, for the girls and for the viewer—a resolution to an hour’s worth of ardor that radiates without getting lost and yet is finally found. (He is correct that “the sexual teasing of anticipation or [the] buildup of undressing” aren’t there, but that’s a different story. Adèle is too serious for teasing foreplay; what makes her sexy, perhaps, is her absence of wit, her absolute, unconscious liberation from the world of wit, which is to say: the world.) No, we don’t see them take their clothes off; but Adèle has been naked since Emma laid eyes on her, a meet-cute in a dream that Adèle later made wet.