Blue is the Warmest Colour – film review

Film critic James Rocarols delivers his verdict on Abdellatif Kechiche’s lesbian drama Blue is the Warmest Coluor (La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2).

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme D’Or-winning drama arrives on these shores preceded by controversies that can’t help but colour one’s experience of the film. Both lead actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux have complained about Kechiche’s rigorous, ultra-realistic working methods which demanded numerous lengthy takes of the film’s pivotal sex and fight scenes. A stunned Kechiche responded by stating that the film should be withdrawn from release, before later changing his mind and challenging the actors’ version of events. And all this controversy still shows no sign of abating: Seydoux cancelled her appearance at the London Film Festival press call.

It’s a great shame because Blue is the Warmest Colour is a riveting, affecting and incredibly naturalistic relationship drama that will count as one of the quickest and immersive three hours you’ll ever spend in a cinema. As suggested by the film’s original French title, La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2, the film is a chronological account of a teenager Adèle’s (Exarchopoulos) sexual awakening and first adult relationship, from her original realisation that she prefers girls over boys, to her awkward attempts at experimentation and her eventual initiation of a relationship with an older art student, Emma (Seydoux).

We follow Adèle through every embarrassing, joyous or heartbreaking moment with an intimate intensity as Kechiche insists on filming dialogue scenes in extreme close-ups. The effect means that Exarchopoulos’ face fills the entire screen for much of the film and we watch in unforgiving detail as it bursts into blushes of embarrassment or ruptures into streams of mucus during her many sobbing scenes. Exarchopoulos’ performance is phenomenal and deserves every accolade going; over the course of three hours we seemingly watch Adèle’s entire physical and emotional transition from girl to woman.

It’s no wonder that Exarchopoulos would feel exposed from seeing the finished film (even though Seydoux has been the more vocal complainant). It takes some courage to bare oneself so completely onscreen at such a young age, and she might be forgiven for fearing that the film leaves her with little withheld mystique left to play with for the rest of her career.

Adèle and Emma’s relationship forms the crux of the movie and their explosive sexual energy is captured in some of the longest and most intense sex scenes ever seen in mainstream cinema. They’re fully justified in the context of Kechiche’s strategy of forensically documenting the entirety of Adèle’s emotional life, and they never seem gratuitous. But it will be interesting to see how the lesbian community reacts to these scenes and whether Kechiche will have to defend accusations of representing female sexuality from a male perspective.

It’s certain that the furore about Kechiche’s treatment of his actors will rumble on, but how should it affect our appreciation of the film? On the one hand the sex scenes are so intimate and intrusive that you do feel sympathy for the actors if he really did insist on dozens of dozens of takes. But it must be said that these wouldn’t be the first actresses to complain about a tyrannical male director once they see the edited results of a soul-baring shoot.

While Maria Schneider may the precedent that springs to mind with her accusations against Bernardo Bertolucci over Last Tango in Paris, it’s not always sex scenes that cause ongoing frictions – Björk never forgave Lars Von Trier after he put her through the emotional wringer in pursuit of Dancer in the Dark.

In a way there’s a side of us that has some sympathy with the notion of suffering for great art, at least to a certain degree. Otherwise the transformative exploits of actors like Robert De Niro, Daniel Day Lewis and Christian Bale wouldn’t garner so many press inches. It would be impossible to look upon this film and imagine that it wasn’t an extremely arduous production for all involved; but shouldn’t some temporary hardships be sanctionable in the service of a film that will last forever?

When it’s this good, certainly. But what would be unacceptable is if the actors felt exploited or their trusts violated in any way during production and only time will tell if more details do indeed emerge.

Anyone who’s seen Kechiche’s last-but-one film, Couscous, will be aware of the director’s distinctive cinematic vision and that this film’s approach to sex is consistent with it. He envisions his films as highly charged sensual experiences in which he tries to invoke the pleasures of food and the transporting rapture of dancing, music and sex. Food is obviously one of Kechiche’s main concerns and he uses it symbolically in ways that are both clichéd (oysters) and more interesting (a series of spaghetti bolognese meals stand to signify Adèle’s growing refinement and sense of maturity).

What’s new about Blue is that Kechiche has expended just as much effort in delivering realistic dialogue scenes as he has with concocting his signature dish of earthly delights. The schoolyard scenes are just as convincing as anything in, say, Laurent Cantet’s The Class and the argument scenes are just as realistically compelling as anything by the Dardennes brothers. But unlike those directors Kechiche has attempted to achieve a sense of realism in all aspects of the human experience, leaving no stone unturned. He may have left himself open to criticism as a result, but his film is an unforgettably raw and real experience.

Blue is the Warmest Colour is released in the UK on November 22, 2013.