Steven Spielberg and the Cannes jury loved it. At the closing of this May’s festival, he announced his and his colleagues’ decision to award the Palme d’Or to “three artists: Adèle, Léa and Abdellatif.” Abdellatif Kechiche, director of La vie d’Adèle: Chapitre 1 et 2 (The Life of Adèle: Chapters 1 and 2), now released in the U.S. as Blue Is the Warmest Color, and his stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux rushed to the stage to accept their prizes and exchange hugs, smiles and tears. At a press conference after the ceremony, Spielberg called Blue “a great love story that made all of us feel privileged to be a fly on the wall, to see this story of deep love and deep heartbreak evolve from the beginning. The director … let the scenes play in real life, and we were absolutely spellbound.”
Not every Palme d’Or winner repeats its Cannes success abroad. Have you seen Eternity and a Day (1998), The Son’s Room (2001), Elephant (2003) or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)? But Blue Is the Warmest Color, which is based on a graphic novel, made instant news as the movie with the borderline-pornographic sex scenes. Two actresses — Exarchopoulos as the high school girl Adèle and Seydoux as the older art student Emma — hungrily explore every aspect and orifice of lesbian love in several explicit bedroom sequences. And Kechiche transforms Julie Maroh’s graphic novel into a (graphic) passion poem to Exarchopoulos’ torrential emotional resources. The director even changed the main character’s name (from Clémentine) to his leading lady’s. Clearly, Kechiche saw star quality in Exarchopoulos.
“I am a woman. I tell my story,” begins the Marivaux novel The Life of Marianne, which the 15-year-old Adèle is studying at her Lille high school. In Kechiche’s coming-of-age, coming-out film, Adèle, the modern Marianne, also wrestles with her burgeoning sexuality. She is more comfortable and expert with herself than with a male classmate who pursues and adores her until they have a brief affair that she cuts off.
Aroused by her first lesbian kiss, from a girl who later says she meant it only as a joke, Adèle meets blue-haired Emma, who’s studying fine arts but is already a practiced seducer. Their affair spans about five years, during which Adèle realizes her ambition of becoming a grade-school teacher and Emma secures a few gallery shows (which include sketches of Adèle). Some lovers imagine they will find forever partners; others realize that people’s priorities and affiliations change. Often, the two types converge and collide as one couple. That would be Emma and Adèle.
(MORE: Cannes Has the Hots for Adèle)
The adoration for Blue has not been unanimous. As Stephanie Zacharek itemizes the charges in the Village Voice, complaints “piled in, some from people involved in the making of the movie. On her blog, [Maroh] called it ‘a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn.’ Then Exarchopoulos and Seydoux gave a number of [interviews] claiming that Kechiche’s mode of working was abusive, and that he demanded take after take of difficult sequences, including the sex scenes. Kechiche went on the defensive, essentially calling Seydoux a spoiled brat and saying that the film ‘shouldn’t be released, it has been soiled too much.'”
Born in Tunis and raised in Nice, just down the Riviera from Cannes, Kechiche set his first notable film, L’Esquive (Games of Love and Chance), among rambunctious teenagers who also study Marivaux, and he won notoriety for his 2010 Vénus noire (Black Venus), a biopic of a South African woman who is exhibited as a freak — the “Hottentot Venus” — in early 19th century Paris. That film might also be charged with exploiting the indignities it intends to condemn and defiling its lead actress, Yahima Torres. The 800 hours of footage that Kechiche reportedly shot for Blue, which is essentially a two-person film, would have worn down its stars. Does that constitute an auteur’s meticulous methods — or a man’s abuse of the women working for him?
Kechiche is not the only French director to be accused of criminal badgering. Jean-Claude Brisseau received a one-year suspended prison sentence and fines of nearly 25,000 euros for sexually harassing two actresses while preparing his 2002 film Choses secrètes (Secret Things). His response was to make another movie, Les anges exterminateurs (Exterminating Angels), portraying himself as the victim of his victims. Kechiche is a little more generous to his performers. Toward the end of Blue, at Emma’s gallery show, Adèle meets a fellow who tells her that he quit movie acting because he was fed up with “ball-busting directors.” At least Exarchopoulous and Seydoux can’t accuse Kechiche of that.
Even at Cannes, some critics raised questions about Blue‘s sexual and aesthetic politics. In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote that “the movie feels far more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else … [He seems] unaware or maybe just uninterested in the tough questions about the representation of the female body that feminists have engaged for decades … He’s as bad as the male character who prattles on about ‘mystical’ female orgasms and art without evident awareness of the barriers female artists faced or why those barriers might help explain the kind of art, including centuries of writhing female nudes, that was produced.”
There’s no question that the male eye has been trained for centuries, probably millennia, to view the nude female form as both an art object and an erotic trigger. (Perhaps the female eye as well: Before they first make love, Emma and Adèle visit a museum and see paintings of nude women.) Clothed or disrobed, Exarchopoulos, 19, and Seydoux, 28, are good-looking young women; the sight of them coupling, or “writhing” nude under Kechiche’s direction, could rouse the appreciation of any heterosexual male (or homosexual female?), and not just for purely aesthetic reasons.
But in the history of watching, the spectacle of two women kissing and touching each other’s bodies offers less variation than the same sporting of two men, who have extra utensils to play with. If the film were called La vie d’Adam and showed male actors engaged in sex as vigorously as the Blue stars, the reaction of most critics, and of Spielberg’s jury, might have been a little more finicky.
Instead of wondering why there is so much whoopee in Blue Is the Warmest Color — and it’s actually not that much: about nine minutes in the nearly three-hour film — one might ask why there is so little in most other movies. Considering that sex is an activity almost everyone participates in and thinks about even more, it’s startling and depressing to think about how few movies connect their characters’ lives with their erotic drives.
The practical answer to this question it that people no longer pay to see sex in movie theaters, as they did in the ’70s for art-house dramas (Last Tango in Paris) and porno chic (Deep Throat); they get it on their home computers for free. But directors can still find much to explore, and Kechiche is one of them. Unlike the slick, deodorized sexcapades in late-night Cinemax movies, the graphic scenes in Blue express the personalities of Emma, who’s in charge, and Adèle, who’s truly, madly, deeply in love. Amour fou was rarely so fou, so fevered, so lovable.
By focusing on Adèle’s turbulent obsession with Emma, Blue comes close to earning the commendation that Lionel Trilling bestowed on another controversial work, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: that it “is not about sex, but about love … This makes it unique in my experience of contemporary novels.” It happens that Nabokov was relatively demure in his description of Humbert Humbert’s tumbles with the young Dolores Haze; Kechiche is relatively bold in his depiction of the Adèle-Emma tryst. But Adèle experiences every feeling, not just her sexual urges, with a volcanic intensity. Throughout the film it is her emotions that are naked, her soul that Exarchopoulos allows the viewer to penetrate.
(MORE: Whatever Happened to Movie Sex?)
Often photographed in extreme closeup, her giant brown eyes and pert nose running at the slightest provocation, with one strand of hair forever bisecting her face or landing between her full, open lips, Exarchopoulos is a solidly built young woman who resembles a more vibrant and giving Jennifer Lawrence. She takes Adèle on the journey of discovery, from a teen who gobbles candy bars as an antidote for her misery to a woman in her mid-20s who attempts one last play for the elusive Emma. The actress’s gift — so ferocious, it’s almost a curse — is to be able to telegraph each of Adèle’s emotions on her face, instantly and in the boldest shades. When she first kisses Emma, Exarchopoulos flashes the incandescent smile of a child on Christmas morning.
Seydoux, whose filmography ranges from intimate French works to supporting roles in big-time English-language movies (Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the Tom Cruise–Brad Bird Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol), represents the controlling force of Adèle’s passion. When Emma first kisses the girl, Seydoux shows a sly smile that carefully gauges the kiss’s impact; we read her thoughts and Adèle’s feelings. She has less luck with a climactic fight scene with Adèle; Emma must be the wounded scourge who drives Adèle into an aria of desperate tears. Years later, when the two meet, Emma says, “I have infinite tenderness for you, and will my whole life.” Exarchopoulos seduces, indeed assaults, viewers with that same tenderness.
After one lovemaking session, the future teacher Adèle playfully asks for a grade from Emma. She gets a 14, which in the French school system is good but not great; 16 to 20 is très bien. Just a 14, Adele asks? “You still need some practice,” says the smiling Emma, who must be a hard marker, based on what we’ve seen. Adèle, ever the enthusiastic student, promises, “I’ll give it all I’ve got.”
Both Adèles, the character and the actress, have an overwhelming amount to give. For three hours, Kechiche puts the audience on a ride nearly as exhilarating and exhausting as that endured by Adèle and Emma, Adèle and Léa. The film is like a tough exam that everybody aced. The director, the actresses, the moviegoer — we all deserve a très bien.