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Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Stars: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux
Running time: 179 minutes
A theatre that holds nearly 560 people, filled to capacity, doesn't seem like the ideal setting to watch some of the most explicit sex scenes this side of an adult movie, yet that was the setting for the first Toronto International Film Festival screening of this year's Cannes Palme d'Or-winning Blue Is the Warmest Color. Tunisian-French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche's NC-17 drama is already notorious for those aforementioned moments of love making. High-school junior Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and the college-aged Fine Arts student she's smitten over, Emma (Léa Seydoux) have quit the innocent flirtations and leering for something more passionate. And Kechiche doesn't shy away from any of it, spending what must've been ten solid minutes in the bedroom with them, his camera never pulling away from their most intimate interactions.
In any other context, this explosion of on-screen intercourse would qualify as pornography. Everyone in that theatre would've felt as if they weren't in Toronto but in a fancier-than-usual 42nd Street peep show. But that's because skin flicks only offer mindless banging devoid of anything resembling emotional connections. Blue Is the Warmest Color, on the other hand, is a 180-minute celebration of love in all of its forms, from joyous to heart-shattering.
As Adèle and Emma express their uncontrollable affections for one another, the shared passion is all over the faces, and elsewhere. Kechiche shows the audience just how intense his characters' feelings are for each other. And in that, the controversial sequence never feels exploitative. It's unfiltered sexuality. The press members in that theatre yesterday weren't being asked to fetishize anything—the proposition centered on accepting the film's honest sensuality. And for many, myself included, the director's challenge was wholly welcomed.
Let's not let Kechiche off the hook so easily, though. Throughout the film he's clearly in love with Exarchopolous'—the film's protagonist and exceptional anchor—body, evidenced by the somewhat ridiculous amount of shots where she's walking away from the camera, leaving her derriere front and center. If Kechice's film wasn't so damn emotionally robust, he'd certainly deserve all of the criticism he's received from some reviewers (and the author of the graphic novel the film is based on), but, to his immense credit, Blue is the Warmest Color is overwhelmingly affecting. Exarchopolous' performance is a thing of naturalistic and expressive beauty—the longer the camera stays on her every movement, the deeper her character resonates.
And, indeed, Adèle is a phenomenal character to inhabit. At the beginning of the flim, she's your average 15-year-old girl—happy-go-lucky, a star amongst her friends, and a proud bookworm. But she's also unsure about her sexuality, a source of inner turmoil that's exacerbated by the courtship of Tommy, a cool, good-looking, all-around nice senior boy. He's all about her, yet the closer they get, the more Adèle can't hide the feeling that "something's missing." It's the sensation that comes from catching eyes with Emma—a blue-haired, confident and open lesbian—while walking across a crowded public street. When one of Adèle's female classmates playfully kisses her it emboldens her to visit a local gay bar where, as fate would have it, Emma is in attendance. They immediately hit it off, their butterflied conversations quickly growing into heartfelt carnality.
It's a shame that the chatter surrounding Blue Is the Warmest Color has focused on the sexual highs, because Kechiche's film truly soars in its quieter moments. Before any bumping or grinding goes down, Adèle and Emma get comfortable on a park bench to discuss Sartre's philosophies as the latter nonchalantly sketches the former's face, and it's delicate, authentic, and touching. It's the moment where the relationship begins to feel real, like something more than your average romantic drama coupling.
Clocking in at three hours long, it's a hugely ambitious work, almost to a fault. A handful of extended scenes don't warrant their prolonged durations—Kechiche has no qualms with letting his characters breathe, giving some of their routine chats with friends and workplace rituals more attention than seems necessary. But his dedication to uninterrupted episodes also grants his actresses the chance to vastly explore every facet of love, from the fiery lust that kickstarts relationships to the frustratingly complacent middle-sections experienced in longterm commitments and the agonizing lows felt when things fall apart.
Genuine to its core, Blue is the Warmest Color foregoes the neatness of a clean ending and lets the characters hurt, and Exarchopolous and Seydoux—whose chemistry forms the best cinematic romance you're likely to see anytime soon—reach towering and devastating levels of emotion in the film's dialogue-and-tear-driven climax.
Leaving the theatre, people were raving about the performances, and how amazingly Kechiche and his cast nailed the complexities of pure, mutually overpowering love. "I wish my daughter was here to see that," said one middle-aged woman exiting inches away from me. That's the right sentiment and proper testament for Blue Is the Warmest Color.