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Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

Girls on Fire

Context Warning: If you plan to see this movie, and want to go in pure, please skip to paragraph six.

Blue is the Warmest Color has a lot of things working against it that may, sadly, keep many people from seeing one of the year's best films--or at least seeing it for the right reasons. Let's start with this year's Cannes Film Festival. Face it, because we're not talking about a brand-name American director, the number of people state-side who know (or even care) that Abdellatif Kechiche's drama won the Palme d'Or is probably less than the opening-weekend attendance for Machete Kills.

Hell, I'd wager my brief-but-illustrious movie-reviewing career that were you to ask twelve random people the question, "Are you excited to see that award-winning, three-hour, subtitled movie about French lesbian teenagers?", the responses would be equal parts eye-rolling, blowing raspberries while pantomiming a double-thumbs-down, and curiosity as to what kind of lesbian teen movie they'd be in for.

Ask a thirteenth person walking out of an art-house theatre, and they might launch into a diatribe about the bullying tactics Kechiche allegedly employed during the ten-day filming of Blue's infamous seven-minute sex scene. Actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos have made some pretty chilling claims against the director. It's hard enough to sell genuine intimacy on camera--even without the complication of a crazy person barking orders outside the frame.

The movie is also based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, who began writing her epic work at age nineteen. I freely admit to being tired of hearing about teenagers' love problems, as expressed in pop culture. From Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus to Twilight and three-quarters of the CW's programming lineup, we're inundated with simplistic ideas about relationships, penned by and for people who are barely old enough to have serious ones. And how's this for a sweeping generalization: high school students don't have serious relationships. They have hormone-clouded dry runs that, if they're lucky, will half-prepare them for a life where googly eyes and makeout sessions are shot dead in the street by full-time jobs, mortgages, and possibly kids.

Hey! This soapbox is so tall, I can barely spot my review from up here!

When sitting down to watch Blue is the Warmest Color as part of the Chicago International Film Festival a few weeks ago, I knew nothing of the controversy or the awards. I'd only heard about the run-time and the critical acclaim Seydoux had received for her performance. It's weird thinking about the movie now, because I don't know if or how the tertiary stuff would have shaded my perceptions going in. I'm glad to have experienced Kechiche's masterpiece fresh, and I suggest you do the same.

Yes, I broke out the "M" word, and have no regrets in doing so. While not the most complex or plot-heavy film of the year, Blue is certainly one of the sharpest and most honest. Exarchopoulos stars as Adèle, a shy high school student living in Lille. She's bored with her parents and her catty circle of friends, who are constantly pushing her to go out with cute boys. One day, she passes Emma (Seydoux) on the street, and is arrested by the blue shock of hair flopping over her eye. Emma has other qualities, too: a carefree attitude to complete her punk motif, and a smile so powerful that it snaps the chains of Adèle's repressed sexuality on the spot.

Adèle tracks down her mystery girl at a club, but is too shy to do anything but watch from afar. Luckily, Emma has no such hang-ups and introduces herself as an art student. The ice doesn't so much break as gradually melt, and it's a credit to the performers, the director, and co-writer Ghalia Lacroix (adapting Maroh's comic) that the girls' conversation is utterly believable and captivating. Suffice it to say, the girls get together, despite Emma's not quite having ended another relationship. Their courtship is marked by ditching school, loving conversations in the park, and meeting each others' parents.

The ensuing dinner scenes in particular offer an eerie road map of the girls' lives, which we follow for the next several years. Emma's folks (Anne Loiret and Benoît Pilot) are fun, hip, and unbelievably proud of their free-spirited, creative daughter. They practically welcome Adèle to the family. Adèle's parents (Aurélien Recoing and Catherine Salée), on the other hand, have no idea what their daughter has been up to, and see Emma as a random, older friend. In a classic case of nurture stifling nature, Emma seems destined to pursue her passions, while Adèle pokes at the edges of contentment. She allows herself only moments of happiness, in secret, and will spend half a decade struggling to admit her most primal feelings to herself.

From here, Blue is the Warmest Color unfolds as a real relationship does, and not as most relationship movies do. Emma and Adèle wrestle with careers, domestication, and infidelity, but you won't find any easy answers here, no tearful reconciliations as a swelling score lets us know everything will be okay. That's not to say the film is downbeat; it's just complicated in some of the same ways that Kevin Smith muddied the waters with 1997's Chasing Amy (though Kechiche's film avoids the foul-mouthed, audience-cushioning witticisms Smith employed while exploring a topic that was definitely taboo in that era).

One of the biggest complications is the meaning of sex in Adèle and Emma's relationship, which brings us back to that seven-minute romp (the first and longest of three, as I recall). This intimate encounter may be the most graphic and elaborate I've seen outside of actual porn. If the behind-the-scenes rumors of the filmmakers using fake vaginas are true, everyone involved deserves both an Oscar and some kind of science endowment. Through sheer fearlessness and professionalism, the actresses make us believe in their tingly, higher-level sexual excitement; more than just hot bodies rubbing together, we see a spiritual bond being formed right before our eyes. Sure, the scene goes on a couple minutes too long, but I'd imagine few people complaining about seven minutes of mind-blowing stimulation in real life.

The girls' lovemaking, like their relationship, wanes over time, and becomes less important to Emma in the face of realizing her artistic ambitions. Adèle's dreams are far less complex (she wants to be a grade-school teacher), and afford her a lot of time to be alone and lonely. As matters devolve, we see each person abandon their rich past, trading intimacy for proximity--and soon, not even that.

Whatever perils went into making Blue is the Warmest Color, Kechiche deserves major praise for crafting a gorgeous and moving film with a pair of leads so naturalistic as to be easily mistaken for documentary subjects. And aside from some nasty homophobia on the part of Adèle's high school clique, the story doesn't care about sexual identity: had the main characters been a straight couple, their problems and triumphs would have been equally relatable. If that's the key to advancing true diversity and social acceptance (known in some dark circles as "the gay agenda"), count me in. As Kechiche can likely attest, the process can be difficult, and even controversial, but the results can be downright beautiful.

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