Watching "Blue Is the Warmest Color," it's as clear as day: The young actresses sharing top prize with their director at the Cannes Film Festival subjected themselves to several months of moviemaking hell to achieve the emotional, sexual, physical and psychological rawness informing this nearly three-hour love story.
More on that, and on the film's constantly regenerating controversy, in a few paragraphs. First, the film itself, which is strong and honest enough to stoke a terrific argument about whether the end, in this instance, justified the means.
Titled "Blue Angel" in its 2010 graphic novel form, the characters and basic situation created by Julie Maroh take on their own expansive lives in the movie, directed and co-written (with Ghalya Lacroix) by the Franco-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche. It is a simple story in outline, beginning when Adele is 15 and living in the northern French city of Lille with her working-class parents.
She's a literature devotee, with plans to become a teacher. In one class early on Adele is seen listening, intently, to an extended discussion of Pierre de Marivaux's novel "The Life of Marianne." One student reads from the text aloud: "I could not say what I thought of him, nor of myself." Adele likewise does not yet know who she is, or where her heart is taking her.
She loses her virginity, disappointingly, to a male classmate, in a quietly painful sequence. At this point in the story Adele already has had a chance, wordless street encounter with Emma, about a decade older than she — an artist with bright blue hair and a roving eye. Later, breaking off from her group of friends on a club crawl, Adele ventures into a gay bar, wondering, hoping, she'll run into this woman who has gotten under her skin. She's there, all right, and from there the film illustrates their subsequent, multi-year relationship, and what happens after the end.
Who is Adele? Is she, as Emma characterizes her at the start of things, an underage "straight girl who's a little curious"? Or something else? Director Kechiche keeps the amorphous makeup of Adele's sexuality an open question, though "Blue Is the Warmest Color" is what it is: a sexually explicit coming-of-age chronicle involving two women. Since its Cannes premiere, the film has stirred up a flurry of controversy for the cheeky duration of its centerpiece bedroom scenes, and for the methods by which Kechiche got what he wanted out of the leading actresses. Newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos, now 19, is wonderful as Adele, incapable of false moments or actorish dissembling in any situation; as Emma, Lea Seydoux, at 28 a seasoned pro, by contrast, stays with her (even when the character is against her, and hurting) every step of the way.
The film was shot in sequence, and by the end, the inner life of Adele has been well and fully explored, often non-verbally, thanks to a collaboration of unusual intensity. "Horrible" is the word Seydoux uses frequently in interviews to describe working with Kechiche. The director spend 10 days filming the most detailed and extended of the sex scenes, which (as the actresses have said in interviews) involved genital prosthetics in some shots. There was also a lot of non-faked contact. Many critics, female and male, straight and gay, see in these scenes a profoundly and distressingly male-centric voyeurism at work. Many across the board see something else, in sync with the film's rhythmic patience and dramatic focus as a whole. Author Maroh, who has expressed her unhappiness with the film, has said there was only one thing missing from the shooting set: "lesbians."
At a garden party thrown by Emma and Adele, one of the guests goes on about female pleasure as it relates to artistic expression. "Men try desperately to depict it," he says, but they'll never really get it. The scene has the ring of a preemptive strike — Kechiche's way of acknowledging the criticism to come, but pressing on. In recent weeks Seydoux and Exarchopoulos have become sworn enemies, coming very near to legal blows over the film. It's hard not to sympathize with Seydoux when she describes the difficulty of doing fight scenes with a director screaming "Hit her again!" over and over until he's satisfied.
The sex scenes in "Blue" strike me as...a lot, let's say. But they don't throw the film out of whack; the sensual life of these two guides their relationship, and I think certain critical descriptions of the way Kechiche films the actresses has been misleading. On the other hand, I wonder if a female director (gay or straight) would've done more to smooth out Emma's transition, rather sudden and blunt here, into a careerist, controlling, handily less sympathetic character. I wonder, too, if "Blue" must work to overcome a psychological thinness germane to so many graphic novels.
Even with its limitations it's one of the necessary films of 2013. Writing about a previous Kechiche film, "The Secret of the Grain," I said it's "a sign that a filmmaker is onto something if you love hanging out with the characters, as they eat and drink and talk and reveal little bits of themselves through everyday action." However it came to fruition, even if the director's working methods are galling, the same — thanks to Exarchopoulos and Seydoux — goes for Kechiche's latest.
"Blue is the Warmest Color" -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: NC-17 (for explicit sexual content)
Running time: 2:59; in French with English subtitles
Opens: Friday at AMC River East, Landmark's Century Centre Cinema and the Century 12/CineArts 6, Evanston.