Blue is the Warmest Color— also known as That Three-Hour Movie with the French Lesbians—is not some playful, titillating romp through Sapphic wonderland, where girls tenderly kiss and caress each other on a patch of land somewhere as the sun beams down on them with glowing incandescence.
OK, there's some of that. But this Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or winner is also out to capture a relationship from its ecstatic beginning to its painful, inevitable end. You should know right now that once you get into this, you're in it for the long haul.
The two lovers in question are the confused teenager Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and the older, more experienced Emma (Léa Seydoux). From their first glances at a crosswalk, Adele is immediately entranced by Emma, a blue-haired tomboy. Even when she tries to have a relationship with a boy from school, and during later attempts to get something going with a female classmate, she can't get that ball of indigo out of her mind.
They cross paths again at a lesbian bar, which sets off a friendship that eventually leads into an insatiable love affair. I guess now is a good time to acknowledge the much-discussed love scenes between Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, which could either be seen as insanely gratuitous or awesomely erotic. I'm certain even the most jaded consumers of pornography will be stunned at how far the leads go in showing intimate, graphic sex.
Anyway, after an hour and a half of joyous young courtship, the movie quantum-leaps a couple of years to the pair living a domesticated existence, with Adele teaching kids during the day and serving as a happy homemaker for aspiring artist Emma, who often invites her intellectual pals to the crib for a swinging get-together. With the sensual spark they instantly had now considerably dimmed, Adele begins to worry that her relationship is in the doldrums, which leads her to ponder looking for love elsewhere.
Like seemingly every other movie that's out these days, Blue is adapted from a graphic novel: Blue Angel by Julie Maroh (who has criticized the movie's portrayal of lesbian sex). Co-writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche (The Secret of the Grain) takes Maroh's tragic love story and creates his own epic take on relationships. And, Jesus, is it epic.
For a man who's no stranger to making lengthy sagas (his last film, 2010's Black Venus, is only 21 minutes short of Blue's 187-minute length), Blue appears to be his magnum opus—and I wish I could say that's a good thing. While I hate to be one of those people who complain about a film's length, I do get a sense that Kechiche (who's already starting to get an enfant terrible rep thanks to this film as well as complaints from his lead performers) is a filmmaker who doesn't believe in the whole less-is-more aesthetic. But he really should. The movie is besieged with incidental moments that go on excessively. Even the love scenes begin to get repetitive.
Even though he's on the outs with his actors now, Kechiche gets some astonishing performances out of them. Although the seasoned Seydoux obviously brings a polished confidence to her character, the baby-faced Exarchopoulos controls the whole damn thing from the first frame. With the entire film caught from her character's perspective, Exarchopoulos succeeds in bringing out the vulnerability and pathos in a woman lost in her constant need to be loved. The problems of two people may not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but to these two people, it's the whole damn world!
Blue is the Warmest Color may lure people in with its graphic, Gallic eroticism, but its universal tale of doomed endless love will most likely be the thing everyone will leave out the theater talking about.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Enduring love."