For a film based on a graphic novel, it’s fitting that Blue Is the Warmest Color opens with the discussion of another novel, La Vie de Marianne by Pierre de Marivaux. The 18th-century author cleared a path for romanticists like Jane Austen to delve into an examined life that balances reason with emotion, a theme director Abdellatif Kechiche also examines in his fervid, coming-of-age love story.
In her high school French lit class, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the film’s heroine, reads Marivaux’s romance about another heroine. Adèle’s teacher provokes a class dialogue about love at first sight and the inevitable tragedy that love, and life, holds. Paralleling the discussions, we learn that Adèle lives a modest teenage life with her parents in a working-class town in northern France: taking the bus to school, sucking down cigarettes with friends and finding her greatest solace in reading and writing in her journal alone in her room. With the camera never far from her face, we also learn that there is a deep, restless sadness in her childlike gaze.
Under the pressure of her friends — who resemble a pack of gossiping jackals — Adèle acquiesces to the advances of a boy, going through the motions of dating with a hollow smile on her face. She confides to her one true friend, a sweet young man who confidently embraces his homosexuality, that she feels like she’s “faking it.”
Enter Emma (a masterful Léa Seydoux), and the film explodes into a tender, sensual and turbulent love affair. The cobalt-haired university art student hits Adèle like a warm wave as they spot each through a crowd of smoking teens, a fleeting scene executed so expertly that I have no doubt it will go down as one of the best love-at-first-sight moments in cinematic history. What follows is a fever: a fever of love and companionship, a fever of sexual awakening and infidelity, a fever that finally breaks into a cold sweat of inevitable tragedy that the human condition doles out in endless supply.
Blue is not a sad film, but it is a serious one. Kechiche’s relentless, unflinching and unapologetically authentic examination of the toll that infatuation, passion and pleasure can take on a young mind and heart is achingly beautiful and universally relatable.
However, that uncompromising ethos has also gotten the director embroiled in a scandal with the lead actors, which inescapably colors the three-hour film. After the movie’s premiere at Cannes, Seydoux and Exarchopoulos called out Kechiche for his “moral harassment” during production, vowing never to work with him again. What could be brushed off as a showbiz squabble stirs up apprehension when you learn that newcomer Exarchapoulos was only 19 when she and Seydoux shot some of the most explicit sex scenes ever shown in a feature film — scenes that Kechiche had them redo again and again, spanning weeks of filming.
Whether this crosses a line with viewers or not, Blue has indisputably crossed a line, pushing the limitations of a love story to its most beautiful, ugly and uncomfortable extremes.
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR: Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. Screenplay by Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix, based on the book by Julie Maroh. Cinematography, Sofian El Fani. Editing, Jean-Marie Lengelle, Albertine Lastera, Sophie Brunet, Camille Toubkis. Music, Jean-Paul Hurier. Starring Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Salim Kechiouche, Sandor Funtek and Catherine Salée. Quat’sous Films, 2013. NC-17. 179 minutes. Four and a half stars.