Blue Is the Warmest Colour

4 March 2014 Film

Blue Is the Warmest Colour

‘Coming-of-age drama’ sounds like a terrible cliché, but there are few other ways of describing Blue Is the Warmest Colour. In plot terms, the winner of the 2013 Palme D’Or is a simple character study of a French girl, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), from high-school literature class to her early years teaching elementary school children to write, via an intense first relationship with an older, more experienced artist, Emma (Léa Seydoux). Education is a theme here. So, too, are the relentless friendship politics of high school, the thrilling intensity of sexual discovery, first love and its accompanying angst.

If these are the predictable motifs of young-adult cinema, what sets Blue Is the Warmest Colour apart is its unflinching up-closeness. Current coming-of-age films rarely portray  young love without some knowing distance or quirky narrative kink, but the detail and length of this drama’s study of young love (a neat three hours) imbue it with a rare and formidable sincerity.

It is an effect largely achieved through hyperrealist close-ups of Adèle’s face: listening, waiting, asleep and breathing calmly, asleep but whimpering in pain, climaxing, crying. She has a voracious appetite: early on she shovels her father’s spaghetti into her mouth; later, she’s woken from sleep by the ache of desire. If by the end we feel that we know her intimately, it’s because this is about as close to a character as you can get. As a study in the storytelling capacities of the human face, this film recalls the performance of Kristin Scott Thomas in another French film, I’ve Loved You So Long (2008). It reminds us that cinema has other goals beyond entertainment, including a fascination with the body and the emotional truths it might hint at.

Lesbian sex on screen is rarely uncontroversial, and this film has been beset by a critical melee over whether its graphic sex scenes are gratuitous, pornographic, the fantasies of the film’s male director or a progressive milestone in queer cinema. The brouhaha took on a decidedly cooler and more alarming hue when lead actors Exarchopoulos and Seydoux spoke publicly about their fraught on-set experience with writer and director Abdellatif Kechiche. Without brushing these issues aside, seeing the film itself – and see it, you absolutely should – provides a very clear rationale for the protracted, explicit nature of these scenes. They’re indispensible to its passionate, almost brutally intimate but finally spellbinding portrait of lust, longing, pleasure and heartbreak.

» Blue Is the Warmest Colour is showing at selected cinemas now.

Dion Kagan