An alert, inquisitive 17-year-old, Adèle (Exarchopoulos) is hungering for fireworks, fatedness, the coup de foudre of the great literature she adores. She stumbles into just that, in a glancing encounter with Emma (Seydoux), a blue-haired art student in her 20s. It takes some time for Adèle to track her down – at one point, she trails a group of lesbians to a bar, a funny but plausible course of action for an outsider looking for the door into an unknown world – and eventually Adèle and Emma meet again. Soon enough, they’re inseparable, and in love.
As people in love are wont to do (well, and people not in love, too), Adèle and Emma bang like there’s no tomorrow. The explicit, marathon sex has been the subject of much controversy, and titillation, since the film took the Palme d’Or prize at Cannes in May. Google the backstory, if you’ve got a few hours to spare, but the most salient point may be that Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel on which the film is loosely based, had this to say: “It appears to me that this was what was missing on the set: lesbians.” Additionally missing is genuine, erotic heat, which the film posits is the bedrock of Adèle and Emma’s relationship. Director Abdellatif Kechiche (The Secret of the Grain) obsessively choreographs their lovemaking into a flipbook of positions, all scored to the same orgasmic breathing and with no acknowledgment of the real-life direction that accompanies sex – the “yes, there” and “ouch, my hair” intimacies. Most of the film is filtered through Adèle’s point of view, but the sex scenes – and another crucial scene, a Latin dance that keeps cutting to close-ups of Adèle’s gyrating hips – move us out of Adèle’s first-person headspace into third-person. They become about someone else’s arousal, not Adèle’s, and that feels like a betrayal.
Kechiche is fascinated with process. He lets the camera roll long on mundanities – a spaghetti dinner, a trip to the beach – that subtly reveal character and conflict. He doesn’t spell it out, and he doesn’t need to – not when Exarchopoulos’ face is an open book. There’s no understating her titanic, lavishly textured performance that takes us from a teenager hitching up her jeans and ever fiddling with her hair to the been-through-the-wringer near-grownup at film’s end, still a little unsure in heels. Blue Is the Warmest Color has its wobbles, but Exarchopoulos will knock you sideways.