If you prefer films that hold you at a comfortable distance from the action, never daring to impinge on your personal space, then the cinema of Abdellatif Kechiche may not be for you. This is a director who couldn’t care less about your privacy bubble. The probing lens of his camera aims to get you so close to the action that you feel as if you’re sharing in the same sensations as the characters as they down mouthfuls of spaghetti (licking their knives in the process) before devouring one another. Words like “erotic” and “powerful” are feeble adjectives to describe the visceral charge of Kechiche’s three-hour romantic opus, “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” a picture so staggeringly authentic that it causes most movies to appear staged by comparison.
Winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, not to mention raves from jury president Steven Spielberg, Kechiche’s film has subsequently been dogged by controversy fueled in part by the words of his film’s two leading ladies, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, who have opened up in various interviews about the difficult shoot. Kechiche’s perfectionism required production to expand far past its original end date, with the actresses forced to perform endless takes of exceedingly intimate scenes. Since festival hype often ends up overpowering artistic merit, much of the buzz swirling around “Blue” centered on its lesbian love scenes, as if the entire film was one long, exploitative wet dream conjured by its leering creator, a theory that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Yes, the sex is uncompromisingly graphic, but it’s also entirely consistent with the tone and intent of the picture as a whole (it also comprises a very slim portion of the film’s running time). Kechiche is masterful at crafting the sensation of life as it’s experienced within the moment. Feelings of undeniable intensity consume his characters at moments when they are at their most vulnerable, causing them to act on impulse for better or worse. Viewers of any sexual orientation are bound to find themselves relating deeply to the budding lust and hormonal angst of the film’s teenage heroine, Adèle (played by Exarchopoulos), as she falls head over heels for a blue-haired painter, Emma (Seydoux). What lends an even greater excitement to their initial encounter is the hour that precedes it, which enables the audience to understand Adèle purely on her own terms, as she experiments with her sexuality, while finding her encounters with boys strangely lacking.
“It is me and it isn’t,” says Adèle upon gazing at a sketch of her face, which turns out to be the first of many drawn by Emma, who embraces the young beauty as both her lover and muse. That line beautifully encapsulates the ways in which our minds tend to perceive objects of infatuation, blurring the line between idealized fantasy and ever-imperfect reality. Getting lost in a dream will inevitably blind one to the cracks as they start to form, quietly rupturing the façade of perfection bit by bit. Seydoux is subtly wrenching during her dinner with Adèle’s parents, lying through their interrogations about her fictional boyfriend before laughing it off during postcoital snuggling. Watching Exarchopoulos navigate through her conflicting desires, leaping at opportunities before wobbling back in regret, is one of the year’s most profoundly moving and rewarding cinematic experiences.
With her hypnotically icy features, Seydoux has long been one of my favorite French actresses, but here she defies every possible expectation by hitting notes I never dreamed she could reach. When she looks at Adèle with amorous hunger before lightly kissing her on the cheek, the tension is so palpable you can taste it. And when she yells at Adèle in tear-streaked agony, it’s impossible not to feel seared by her rage. The film’s great revelation, of course, is 19-year-old Exarchopoulos, an utter marvel of a performer who previously perfected the art of adolescent tantrums in films such as Nolwenn Lemesle’s “Pieces of Me” (which screened at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival). Under Kechiche’s direction, Exarchopoulos exquisitely portrays the arc of her character’s wide-eyed naiveté as it gradually morphs into hard-won wisdom, charting her growth from student to teacher. Show me two performances from this year more astonishing than those delivered by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, and I’ll show you Ben Affleck’s Best Director Oscar.
Sure, Kechiche has always fetishized the sensuality of youth (the climactic belly dance in his 2007 gem, “The Secret of the Grain,” comes to mind), and naysayers have every right to argue about the purity of his intentions. Yet the director makes no secret of his obsessions, and actually acknowledges them during an especially provocative party sequence, as male fantasies of female pleasure are discussed along with parmesan cheese. Regardless of what occurred behind the scenes, the sublime magnificence of Kechichie, Exarchopoulos and Seydoux’s achievement is undeniable. Both actresses have gone on record saying that they are proud of the picture, even though they wouldn’t ever care to make it again. I’m sure Shelley Duvall can relate. Though Kechiche’s painstaking genius may have been hell to endure onset, it has produced a timeless masterpiece destined to outlive every last shred of controversy.
“Blue Is the Warmest Color” opened Friday, November 1st at the AMC River East 21, Landmark Century Centre Cinema and Century 12 Evanston/Cinearts 6.