Already a hotbed (pun intended?) of controversy in some intellectual and cinematic quarters (also in Idaho, where it apparently violates an “obscenity” code), the French production “Blue Is the Warmest Color” arrives in Memphis bearing the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, a book’s worth of contentious pro and con reviews and a rare NC-17 rating for a relatively graphic and almost 7-minute lesbian sex scene that is the impetus for much of the hoo-ha if not for the Palme d’Or, awarded by a Cannes jury headed by Steven Spielberg, whose own movies tend to avert their eyes before the clothes drop and the temperatures rise.
That sex scene comes at the midpoint of an emotional epic that runs a few minutes short of three hours. The length is self-indulgent in the extreme, yet that self-indulgence is inseparable from director Abdellatif Kechiche’s intention. Based on “Blue Angel,” a 2010 French graphic novel by Julie Maroh, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” is known in its country of origin as “The Life of Adele — Chapters 1 and 2,” a title that accurately reveals that the love affair that has received so much publicity is just one (admittedly very large) aspect of a film that is really a portrait of several key years in the life of an aspiring schoolteacher named Adèle (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos). The film’s protagonist is introduced as a high school girl reading a similarly meticulous woman’s story, the 18th-century French novel “The Life of Marianne,” by Pierre de Marivaux, who wrote of “the mechanisms of passion” and “the metaphysics of lovemaking,” phrases that may have been Kechiche’s inspiration. “Ideas take hold of me. I am a woman, and I tell my story,” says one of Adèle’s schoolmates, reading aloud from the novel in class.
Acclaimed French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche's latest, based on Julie Maroh's graphic novel, was the sensation of this year's Cannes Film Festival even before it was ...
Rating: NC-17 for explicit sexual content
Length: 179 minutes
Released: October 25, 2013 Limited
Cast: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Jeremie Laheurte, Catherine Salée, Aurélien Recoing
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Writer: Julie Maroh, Abdellatif Kechiche
Adèle’s first same-sex kiss comes from a classmate with blue fingernails and blue jewelry, but her sexuality is awakened more intensely by her first fateful glimpse of Emma (Léa Seydoux), a somewhat older “tomboy” artist with short hair dyed the blue of a robin’s egg, perhaps to suggest the potential for new life. The movie hop-skips through the fraught relationship between Adèle and Emma that follows, with scenes of sex but more often scenes of parties, dinners and other less intimate events, where the distinctions between the women are predictable if not inauthentic. Adèle’s parents, for example, are nice but bourgeois, while Emma’s are hip and cultured.
So are Emma’s friends, who engage in the types of conversations many of us hear only in French movies. An art dealer pontificates about the “limits of male sexuality” and the “mystical” power of the female orgasm; this scene provided much grist for the mill of Manohla Dargis’ persuasive grinding of the film in The New York Times, although it seems clear the art guy is supposed to be a bit of a pompous ass.
At that same party, a woman gives an update on a scholarly article she’s preparing: “I’m working on morbidity in Schiele’s ouevre.” She dismisses Gustav Klimt as “florid, decorative,” but Emma says she prefers the beauty of Klimt’s canvasses to the ugly nudes in the paintings of his protégé, Egon Schiele. So, perhaps, does this movie’s director. Kechiche (previously best known for his 2007 immigrant drama, “The Secret of the Grain”) eschews atmospheric lighting and obscuring close-ups to stage the sex scene between the women in a way that gives the viewer visual access to the smooth, admirable bodies. This isn’t pornography, however; the sex isn’t as explicit as in an X-rated film, even if the intensity seems authentic. (The noisy soundtrack is probably more disturbing to unsuspecting audiences than the bare skin or physical activity.) Even so, you may wonder what the fuss is about, one way or the other. I know I did. I’m glad there’s a significant movie that spends three hours on a woman’s life rather than on a distant planet or in a comic-book universe; I just wish the movie were more compelling and more distinctive — and less confused.
The movie delivers what is likely an unintentional mixed message. The film asks us to sympathize with Adèle, yet it also seems to suggest the unhappy young woman might be better off if she were to succumb one of her handsome and sincere male suitors, who might be willing to give her the children she says she desires. Instead, Adèle remains fixated on Emma to an unhealthy degree. Early in the film, a literature teacher defines tragedy as “the unavoidable”; if Adèle can’t help her love for another woman, is her sexuality, by the film’s logic, therefore tragic?
Arriving in Memphis with surprising swiftness (the movie opened only two weeks ago in New York), “Blue Is the Warmest Color” is exclusively at the Malco Studio on the Square.