Among critics, some iteration of the phrase “there’s a really great movie wrapped around all this porn” has been uttered many times in reference to Blue Is the Warmest Color. Sometimes it’s said to be funny. Sometimes it’s said with surprise. Sometimes it’s just a statement.
That statement, though, is not quite on the mark. If you’ve read about Blue Is the Warmest Color, you know it’s filled with long, explicit lesbian sex scenes. (If not, you’ve just been told.)
It’s also one of the most honest portrayals of a young person’s life ever put on film. And really, it’s not about the sex. It’s about everything in a life, and sex is a major part of life. We follow Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) from school and her first boyfriend; to realizing she’s gay; to falling in love; to losing love; to choosing a career; it’s all there. And it’s wonderfully deliberate. Blue Is the Warmest Color takes its time—three hours—and lets its characters live on screen.
The story follows Adèle from her late teens. A typical middle class high school student in northern France, Adèle finds a boyfriend that her friends tell her is the right one for her. And she has sex with him, but it’s not quite right.
One day on her way to school, Adèle passes Emma (Lea Seydoux), a college student with blue hair. Soon Adèle has dreams about her. Next thing she knows, she’s seeking Emma out in a lesbian bar. They find each other, and Adèle finds herself, and even loses herself, in Emma.
It’s an awakening, at times wonderful and difficult. When Emma takes Adèle to meet her mother and stepfather, it’s clear that Adèle is the girlfriend. When Adèle brings Emma home, she’s a friend. There’s also a class distinction between Emma and Adèle. Emma’s family talks about passion, gastronomy (including a clichéd scene in which Adèle is taught to eat oysters), and books, while Adèle’s father tells Emma, who studies painting, that she needs to have a trade or a husband in order to earn a decent living.
It’s a sly angle in the story that Emma, who’s pretentious, if charming and bright, isn’t as good at her profession as Adèle is at hers. Emma lectures Adèle, who becomes a schoolteacher, more than once that she needs to find a higher calling. Adèle loves teaching, a decidedly unglamorous job. One of the most compelling aspects of Blue Is the Warmest Color isn’t that Adèle becomes a different person over the course of the film, but a truer version of herself.
But back to those sex scenes, because everyone is talking about them. One in particular is very long and afterward there is little mystery as to what Exarchopoulos or Seydoux looks like, very close-up, in the nude. But given that Blue Is the Warmest Color is a close-up examination of a life, it makes sense that the sex would be so explicit. Everything else is explicit, too.
I do wonder whether critics would react so favorably to the same movie featuring two gay men as the leads. Or whether we’d care at all about a straight couple.
For my money, Blue Is the Warmest Color’s best expression of human emotion comes when Adèle, days after a particularly bad break-up, has to dance happily with her kindergarteners at a school function. She tries to smile and shimmy in a circle with her students, barely holding back the tears that would be completely inappropriate.
Does she succeed? Do any of us? Or do we go on and on, learning as we go, struggling to keep the tears at bay? Beats me, and Blue Is the Warmest Color doesn’t know, either, but it’s a fascinating film with two perfect performances. Everyone should see it.
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
With Adèle Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux