Review: Blue is the Warmest Color

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The concept of handing out awards at film festivals seems to be a double edged sword. On the one hand, no matter what prize a certain film is awarded, it immediately receives a publicity boost, and creates awareness among the filmgoing public. On the other hand, to have a small jury single out a film not yet seen by the public at large can inflate expectations as to that film’s quality. In the case Blue is the Warmest Color, there are even further elements that contribute to the public narrative of this year’s Palme d’Or winner. From its frank subject matter and unrestrained sex scenes earning it a NC-17 rating, in addition to the fallout between the actresses and the director following Cannes, the talk of the quality of the actual film seems to have been lost in the conversation. So, when the controversy is stripped away, and all that remains is the film, what is there to say? Blue is the Warmest Color is perhaps a little too insistent with some of its aesthetic and storytelling choices, but with two immensely raw performances at its center, its microcosmic exploration of love makes a lasting impression.

Adele (Adele Exarchopolous) is like any average girl in high school. She bundles up in the late fall, nearly missing her bus, but remembers to have her hair in order before she walks through the front doors. She’s a fairly well rounded student with an interest in literature, yet also chit chats with her friends at lunch about the slim pickings of guys in her class. One in particular, Thomas, has an eye for her, to which she acquiesces. When Adele is on her way to meet him for their first public courting, however, her eye is caught by a flare of neon blue, the hair of a woman several years her senior crossing the street. Unable to shake the image from her head, her relationship with Thomas never gets off to the right start. Overwhelmed with conflicting emotions, Adele barely says anything, but her face tells us everything. It isn’t until she wanders into a lesbian bar that she happens to run into Emma (Lea Seydoux), the same woman that drew her in at first sight. With the first gentle, playful inquisitions, Emma finds something burning within Adele, and the two begin to meet with regularity, forming a spiritual and physical union. It may seem that Adele has found her happy ending, but as the film reveals, her journey is only beginning.

The tale that Blue is the Warmest Color tells is nearly three hours in length, so the film is clearly content to allow scenes to breathe and play out in near real time. With this approach, director Abdellatif Kechiche gets a precise pulse on the subtlety of the moment whether its the nervous first encounter, or later scenes of subtextual tension. That attention to detail also applies to the two’s sexual activities, which are somewhat overwhelming in intensity. The scenes are insanely explicit in nature, especially the first, a sequence that lasts well over five minutes. Its length borders on near exploitation, but proves to be a stark contrast from Adele’s passionless attempt with Thomas earlier in the film. Despite the protraction of several scenes, Blue is the Warmest Color maintains a steady pace for its length, even if editing feels restless at times. One of the more troubling aspects of the film, however, is its persistence with close ups. Kechiche rarely allows any scene pass without resorting to images of his actresses from the neck up, save for, obviously, their scenes of passion. Perhaps it’s a way of putting the audience in the same headspace as Adele, but repeating the effect often feels claustrophobic. Yes, there is much to read in the facial expressions of these actresses as Bergman would surely attest, but what of their body language? As powerful a tool as the close up is in cinema, the excessive use here leads to a lessened impact.

Of course, the heart and soul of Blue is the Warmest Color belongs to its actresses, neither of whom were major  stars previously, but more than make the case for themselves here. For the emotional peaks and valleys she must navigate, Adele Exarchopolous is simply unforgettable, with an earthy, rounded gaze which speaks volumes to her internal turmoil. At such a young age she needs to carry the weight of the three hour film on her back, and she does it effortlessly. Although featured less than her counterpart, Lea Seydoux is equally captivating, not only for her exotic yet cooly intellectual disposition, but also for her marked emotional maturity. All of the other supporting performances feel natural as well, and though some of the ensemble feel underused, particularly both sets of parents, their inclusion in the narrative weaves a broader tableaux. Indeed, for any of the film’s faults in technical execution or narrative choices, it repays in spades with two of the most resonant performances of the year. Whether Steven Spielberg’s Cannes jury rightfully awarded Blue is the Warmest Color the Palme d’Or is for another discussion, but there’s no denying that the actresses that accepted the award with their director were more than deserving, portraying modern love in all of its abandon, passion, and heartbreak.

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~ by romancinema on October 27, 2013.

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