Lesbian Sex, Brutal and Surgical: Blue is the Warmest Color

10/23/2013 4:00 AM |

Blue is the Warmest Color
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche

Ever since this Palme d’Or winner debuted in spring, passions have flared regarding its graphic lesbian sex scenes, in which the two main characters feverishly demonstrate the variety of ways they might join their bodies. One of these sequences in particular—the film’s several-minutes-long centerpiece—just keeps going, giving audience members ample time to contemplate why the bedroom lights are on and the window is open. In other words, cowriter-director Kechiche (loosely adapting a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, who has called the movie’s depiction of lesbian sex “a brutal and surgical display”) does not make narrative economy a priority; this story of first love is intimate in scale but, at three hours, epic in length.

Kechiche follows his protagonist, Adèle (newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos), all the way from high school through her early years as a teacher, a period defined by her romance with the more poised and sophisticated painter Emma (Léa Seydoux). In particular, Exarchopoulos’s portrayal of the struggle to contain the grand passion in navigating the demands of professional and family life is frequently moving. Adèle (broadly receptive, but prone to making safe choices) and Emma (more privileged, and more fiercely devoted to a creative life) are not perfect in themselves—or, necessarily, for each other—but they are people you come to admire. Their gradual self-realization, both helped and hampered by their relationship, feels distinctly hard-won.

Blue might often be so perceptive, but it’s not particularly well-proportioned. Much of the criticism has run along the lines of Maroh’s, focusing on Kechiche’s purportedly leering male-gaze setups, but less remarked upon has been the awkwardness of his attempts to sustain an atmosphere sensitive to sensual delights, so that the film’s open style takes its cues from Adèle’s achingly visceral, head-on engagement with the world as she grows into it. The lingering close-ups proliferate: Adèle sleeping in bed, splayed out on her stomach; Adèle surrendering herself to the music on the dance floor; Adèle scarfing down spaghetti and slurping oysters. Kechiche spends far too much time simply reaffirming this resilient young woman’s coming of age as a banquet that’s constantly careening off course, both for better and for worse. It’s off-putting that a film of such emotional energy should so often feel adrift.

Opens October 25