A couple of years ago, my friend and fellow Metro Pulse film reviewer Nick Huinker asked an interesting question in this very column space: “Are we ready yet to be grown up at the movies?” Nick was writing about Shame, director Steve McQueen’s grim take on sex addiction, but he could just as easily have been referring to Blue Is the Warmest Color, which rolled into Knoxville on a wave of controversy thanks to its notoriously graphic lesbian sex scenes. The sequences account for less than 15 percent of the film’s three-hour running time—far more screen time and creative energy are devoted to the movie’s many dinner scenes and even classroom discussions—but it seems the answer to Nick’s question is “sorry, no.”
And it’s not just those with delicate sensibilities who are fretting over it what is ultimately a very small part of a very ambitious film. Queer outlets have been just as wrong-headed; one magazine even assembled a panel of lesbians to watch the sex scenes and hold forth on how accurate they are. Please tell me that sounds creepy and weird to you, because it sounds very creepy and weird to me.
Anyway, it’s a childishly reductive approach to discussing a sophisticated and remarkably perceptive film. If any movie has cataloged the birth and death of first love so insightfully, so genuinely, and so completely devastatingly, I don’t think I want to see it.
The film turns on a love affair, but it’s really a character study of one young woman. When we first meet Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), she’s a 15-year-old high-school student in Lille, France. She begins dating a kind, handsome boy and sleeps with him, but can’t figure out why she’s bored with him. A chance encounter triggers a slow awakening; Adèle passes a blue-haired girl on the street one day and can’t stop thinking—and fantasizing—about her. She eventually tracks down Emma (Léa Seydoux), an art student who is several years her senior, in a lesbian bar, and the two begin a courtship that soon blossoms into a fierce and lengthy love affair that will define much of Adèle’s life.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say the film eventually becomes an autopsy of sorts. Anyone old enough to be legally admitted to the theater will know the kind of breathless, breakneck passion that exists between Adèle and Emma really can’t last. Since the film spans a decade of the women’s lives, we’re there for both the initial fall—hopeful, thrilling, ecstatic—and the final, fatal moment of impact when it finally hits the ground and shatters. We see the cracks form. They’re hairline fractures at first: small concerns born of the girls’ radically different backgrounds and aspirations; the first time their electric passion for another begins to flicker. The movie isn’t as grim as the book upon which it’s based—in Julie Maroh’s 2010 graphic novel, the break-up drives Adèle to a fatal drug addiction—but it’s no less devastating in its ability to conjure so thoroughly those memories of an ill-fated first love. If the film doesn’t leave you feeling a little bit broken, you’ve either been very lucky or very lonely. And yet, there’s not the slightest inkling of contrived, Hollywood-style manipulation. The emotions on display here, and the memories they evoke, feel like the real thing.
Also unlike the book, where the story is told from Emma’s perspective, director Abdellatif Kechiche and screenwriter Ghalia Lacroix keep the older girl at arm’s length. The film’s French title, which translates to The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 & 2, is more telling. Adèle’s relationship with Emma doesn’t begin in earnest until a full hour into the movie, and we follow her for a considerable length of time after the relationship has come unraveled. It might be one of the most intimate and perceptive character studies ever committed to film, thanks in large part to a remarkable turn by newcomer Exarchopoulos, whose performance deserves every ounce of the praise it’s reaping.
As for the lesbian-sex elephant: Yes, those scenes are every bit as graphic as you’ve heard, and they go on for what seems like a very long time. The film’s NC-17 rating is entirely earned, at least according to the standards set forth by the MPAA. I’m not sure the scenes are entirely necessary, but I’m just as reluctant to deem them gratuitous. If this age of restorations and director’s cuts has taught us anything, it’s that great movies can be undone by relatively minor changes, so perhaps the scenes are exactly as long and as explicit as they need to be. Honestly, I don’t care, because Blue Is the Warmest Color is a great movie and it will continue to be a great movie whether knickers are twisted or left relatively unbothered.