The title of Abdellatif Kechiche's new film is Blue Is the Warmest Colour, but its full French title is rather different – La vie d'Adèle - chapitre 1 & 2. Such a title suggests that this is simply the first instalment in Adèle's story, but further chapters now seem very unlikely given the acrimony that has surrounded the film ever since its moment of glory at the Cannes Film Festival. The film has generated heated debated wherever it has screened, with much of the discussion focusing on one particularly long sex scene, while the stars and director have been busy sniping at each other in the media over Kechiche's apparently brutal working conditions. All of this attendant noise means that it will now be hard for any viewer to come to Blue Is the Warmest Colour with fresh eyes.
Fortunately, for all of Blue Is the Warmest Colour's three hours, everything else simply fades into the background. The film is not without its problems, and discussions over the approach used by the director are certainly worth having, but the first thing to say about Blue Is the Warmest Colour is that the film hit me like a train. It is a blast of pure emotion that aims to replicate the feeling of actually being in love. It's messy and unpredictable, consisting of dizzying highs and wrenching lows, and prone to making misguided choices governed by the heart more than the head. It's simultaneously a draining, frustrating and thrilling experience.
The film is an adaptation of Julie Maroh's graphic novel, in which the young lead character was called Clémentine. Here she is named Adèle and she is played by Adèle Exarchopoulos, whose inhabitation of the character is so complete it's easy to understand why her name was used instead. Adèle is 15 years old at the start of the film and Kechiche immerses us in the ordinariness of her teenage experience. She is an attentive student in class, she has a voracious appetite at home (this is not a film to watch on an empty stomach) and she is beginning to traverse the difficult territory of teenage romance. At the prompting of her friends, Adèle has a promising relationship with a male student and even loses her virginity to him, but the experience leaves her dissatisfied and yearning for something more; something akin to whatever she feels when she briefly exchanges glances with a blue-haired woman in the street, for example.
That beautiful stranger is Emma (Léa Seydoux), and if what she experiences with Adèle can't be described as love at first sight, it at least sparks a curiosity and attraction that quickly blossoms into an all-consuming love affair. Blue Is the Warmest Colour charts the ups and downs of this relationship across a number of years, as Adèle grows from a teenage girl into a young woman, and while it doesn't handle these transitions as elegantly as Mia Hansen-Løve's Goodbye First Love (which dealt with very similar themes), it has a raw, propulsive quality that's difficult to resist. Kechiche has clearly mined his hundreds of hours of footage for the most expressive, intense and intimate moments, and he benefits from having two lead actresses who are capable of communicating an extraordinary depth of emotion by exchanging a single electrifying glance.
Something magical happens to Blue Is the Warmest Colour whenever Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are together on screen. The film is structured around three extended set-pieces, which see the film hitting astonishing heights of emotional intensity, to the point that the intimacy Kechiche has achieved sometimes feels uncomfortably intrusive. The first is that much-ballyhooed sex scene, in which Adèle and Emma energetically enjoy each other’s bodies for a number of minutes. This sequence has been criticised for its apparent break with the overall aesthetic of the film, and for the director’s apparent eroticisation of the girl-girl scenes. But I think the scene feels out of place within the film because it represents a moment of heightened sensation for Adèle, and a moment of pure connection between the pair. It reminded me a little of Vicky’s dance in The Red Shoes; a moment of ecstatic bliss that lifts the character out of herself, and a peak that she might spend the rest of her life trying to recapture.
Instead, like most love affairs, Blue Is the Warmest Colour dwindles into disappointment and recrimination as those moments of ecstasy dry up. The two subsequent tumultuous encounters between the pair are a terrifyingly real breakup sequence and a heartfelt but futile attempt at reconciliation, both of which are attacked with total conviction by the actresses. It’s not often that you get the opportunity to see acting this naked, immediate and spontaneous, and Blue Is the Warmest Colour frequently hits you with a power that can leave you reeling. At other times, however, it can feel as unmoored as Adèle herself, with Kechiche’s indulgent approach to story construction leading to the occasional longueur, and giving us justifiable cause to wonder if the three-hour running time is entirely necessary. But Kechiche’s mantra appears to be “Go big or go home,” and even in its less compelling sequences, Exarchopoulos is a constantly wondrous screen presence; utterly guileless and present, and capable of giving us access to Adèle’s inner life in quiet moments.
A lot of Blue Is the Warmest Colour feels that way. Kechiche’s direction can be heavy-handed and his symbolism occasionally feels far too on-the-nose; not only in the use of the colour blue, but in individual scenes such as Emma teaching Adèle to eat oysters, which can’t have seemed like a good idea at any stage. But these two wonderful women pull us in every single time, and at its best, Blue Is the Warmest Colour feels like the most vital, involving and emotionally true examination of young love that has appeared on screen for many years. The film made history at the Cannes Film Festival when Steven Spielberg’s jury awarded the Palme d’Or to Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in addition to Abdellatif Kechiche. In truth, I suspect the actors are a little more deserving of the prize than the director.