Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review: "Blue is the Warmest Color"

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Runtime: 179 minutes

Ever since taking the Palme D'Or at Cannes earlier this year, Blue is the Warmest Color has become mired in controversy. Though director Abdellatif Kechiche and his two stars embraced tearfully on the Croisette, a series of interviews leading up the US opening have brought out their share of bad blood. These exchanges have nabbed headlines, but to focus on them so intensely does a disservice to Kechiche's film, and the work of his actresses, with whom he shared the Palme in an unprecedented decision from the jury. Controversy or not, Blue is the Warmest Color is an intimately observed portrait of first love and heartbreak that proves that great work can come out of testy relationships. 

As in the director's other films, Blue is intelligently attuned to the mindsets of its characters. Seemingly ordinary dialogue scenes are allowed to play out far longer than one would expect, and it works in the film's favor. Though the film is a character study with little true narrative, it takes up three hours. That sounds daunting, but Kechiche's script - adapted from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh - captures protagonist Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) with breathless efficiency right off of the bat. Though posters for the film have played up co-star Lea Seydoux's blue-haired art student Emma, Blue is Adele's story without question. 

And unlike Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain, a film that suffered from an empty lead character (despite a vibrant ensemble), Blue takes off quite quickly thanks to Exarchopoulos' radiant performance. Along with Saskia Rosendahl in Lore, Exarchopoulos's work is one of the year's best break out performances, along with one of the year's best overall. Adele's sexual awakening is coupled with her discovery of her first love. Under Kechiche's guidance, the young actress effortlessly sinks into the role, never once hitting a false note in moments big and small. 

Matching her beat for beat is Seydoux. Though the film is told from Adele's perspective, Emma is never lost in the shuffle. As the second most prominent character, Kechiche and Seydoux never turn her into a mere sounding board for Adele and her developing sexuality. She's her own woman, fully capable of love, hate, tenderness, and jealousy. When things start to go south in the relationship, the film refuses to demonize either. Kechiche's camera may spend more time on Adele, but it never neglects Emma's own humanity. In the later, emotionally wrenching scenes, you can fully understand both sides of the couple's arguments, even though only one of them may be actually guilty. 

This attention to character comes through so strongly that by the time the much-discussed sex scenes appear, it's hard to feel scandalized. Kechiche may be indulging in what's known as the "male gaze," but because we have such a sense of who Adele and Emma are, the sexual moments never feel exploitative. As visually graphic as moments are, they remain moments shared between human beings, rather than two sex objects being trotted out simply to satisfy the lusty thoughts of certain audience members.  

The work on all fronts in Blue are so effortlessly effective, that it's nearly impossible to think about the headline-grabbing arguments that are practically being used to promote the movie at this point. Blue is the Warmest Color shouldn't need bitter arguments to generate interest. It's a beautifully rendered portrait of first love featuring two of the year's best performances. The film feels so complete, and so thoroughly earns every minute, that it truly feels like an epic depiction of emotional intimacy. More than any mud slinging, that's what deserves to the talking point when it comes to discussing this character-driven triumph. 

Grade: A-

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