Remember being a teen. Remember the gossip amongst your friends about who had a thing for you, the awkward dates, the stolen kisses. Remember the crushes that came and went all too easily, and then recall the arrival of something else entirely: first love. Remember the overwhelming feeling of getting that close to someone, skin on skin and heart to heart, for the first time, in blissful ignorance of the fact that sometimes feelings and people change.
“Blue is the Warmest Color,” winner of the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes film festival (and originally released as “La vie d’Adèle”), captures all that, but especially the intimacy of lovers; teenage Adèle, exploring her sexuality falls head over heels for the more mature and self-confident Emma. The physical side of their relationship is placed front and center, but the film itself is also an act of intimacy, as director Abdellatif Kechiche uses a vocabulary of tight close-ups that seek to erase the distance between spectator and actress.
Seventeen year old Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a bookish, reserved teen, almost unaware of her own budding sensuality. Her clique at school talk of nothing but boys, but a brief romance with a classmate leaves her rather underwhelmed. A playful kiss from a girl she knows, however, leaves her wondering whether she might bat for the other side. When she meets blue-haired, older, flirty, and decidedly dykey Emma (Léa Seydoux) in a bar, though, she feels the pull and follows it.
The attraction between the two is all-consuming, and while Kechiche has been criticized (by politically correct cranks, mostly) for the numerous and lengthy sex scenes in the film, they are absolutely integral to the story. They show how desire can paper over the fissures in a relationship. We sense these fissures in just about every other scene: Emma runs in an arty crowd, bordering on pretentious, and has chosen a completely “out” lifestyle, causing friction with Adèle’s more middle-class ambitions — she teaches kindergarten upon graduating from school and hides her sexuality from disapproving parents. Gradually these cracks open wider and when they do, get ready for some of the rawest emotions you’ll see on the big screen this side of a John Cassavetes film.
The proper word to describe what Kechiche is after is not realism but truth. The holy grail for this sort of observational cinema is a performance so heartfelt that it ceases to be performance and becomes life lived before the lens. His camera is so close, so intimate to Exarchopoulos and Seydoux for so much of the film that the naturalistic performances they deliver are all the more astounding.
The shoot went on for months, with a single sex scene alone taking 10 days to film. The grueling process later led to some bickering in the press between the director and his actresses, but never mind that, just look at what they achieved on screen: a film that crackles with the electricity of real attraction and heartbreak.