The controversial Palm d'Or winning French romantic drama Blue Is The Warmest Color opens in select cities this weekend, and we had the chance to see it when it screened as part of the New York Film Festival. The film, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, was also adapted from the original graphic novel, Blue Angel.
The film follows the story of Adèle, a high school girl in France who aspires to become a teacher. After a brief fling with a fellow male student, an unfulfilled Adele goes out with a gay classmate and breaks off to a local lesbian bar. It is there she formally meets the blue-haired Emma, an art student who Adèle had previously passed on the street, triggering her appearance in an early-morning sex dream.
And so begins their romance and Adèle's sexual discovery. Adèle has to deal with girlfriends at school, who notice Emma waiting for her and accuse her of being a "dyke." It briefly manages to capture the raw sociopathic cruelty that only teenagers are capable of. Everyone knows that moment, be it through identifying with Adèle, the tormentors, or the bystanders caught in the crossfire too afraid to speak up but too uncomfortable to join in.
There's also an innocence in the newness of the relationship. Emma has the experience, yet Adèle not only carries herself with a quiet grace of one wise beyond her years, but her presence affects a naiveté that extends to and levels Emma.
As they mature their relationship develops, before fizzling out and eventually ending. A scene they share towards the end of the film in a cafe is an unflinching and heartrending portrayal of the momentary revisitation of a broken relationship. Deeply sad and relatable, it disturbingly articulates the truth that oftentimes with a past relationship, the only thing that remains is a rote and desperate physicality; there is a profound longing, a clawing for anything to grab on to, and bodies always respond.
The film received an NC-17 rating in the U.S. for its lengthy and graphic sex scenes. It's the particularities of the sex scenes, not the scenes themselves, that arguably threaten to derail the film. There is an ongoing conflict between the two actresses and the Tunisian-French director, in which they accuse him of poor working conditions. He has responded with accusations that (among other things) they are trying to sully the film. To question the validity of the actresses' complaints against the director, as some are doing, feels dangerously close to victim-blaming.
Say what you will or won't about the sex scenes, but Kechiche, a straight man, is still behind the camera, ordering and directing two young women. The scenes are undeniably heteronormative. As Ross Scarano put it to me afterward, "This movie is pretty contemplative and interested in discovery, but we don't see them discover each other's bodies. They just jump right in and start slapping and grinding." Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel, has called the sex scenes ridiculous.
The film is about three hours long, which is insane, because I'll echo what others have said—you could watch it for another three. In an era where nearly every film runs a bloated 140 minutes, it's refreshing to watch a long-ass movie that doesn't force it. Ostensible markers of time are absent. Three years pass, at one point, and our only sign that we're in the future is a bit of dialogue where a pregnant woman we see earlier now has a young daughter. It feels good (if unusual) to be respected as an audience to that degree; it reminds you that strong filmmaking likes to make you work.
Likewise, there is a marked absence of technology. Two phones, and the sound of a television in the background. That's it. That in itself is destabilizing, not because it is a world without technology, but because it is a world next to the technological, choosing to tell this story in the moments that happen not in the absence of, but in the moments between. Kechiche tells the story in extreme close-ups, studies the faces of his two talented actresses, and sets the film in particular around the eating or cooking of meals. The attention paid to food (aside from the heavy-handed and boring food/sex connections) is another touch that helps situate us in a relatable world.
I don't know if the NC-17 rating will deter many from seeing it, and I'm not convinced that matters. Is it a different movie without the sex scenes? I'm not sure. Will the film stay with you in spite of those scenes? Absolutely. They are probably necessary, in some sense, but they don't resonate. What does matter is that Blue is a terrifically sad, languorous, emotionally complex film on love and relationships, sex and moving on, that speaks to the universal experience of growing up.
Blue Is The Warmest Color opens on Friday in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center.