What causes a relationship to flourish? How does the spark upon that first glance lead to a lasting bond that’s able to overcome many – if not all – obstacles? And how do those passions play out in the bedroom? Along comes the French import Blue Is the Warmest Color to answer these questions in sprawling, strikingly frank fashion.
This three-hour lesbian romance, which nabbed the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, hits South Florida screens at an opportune time, and not just because Illinois just became the 15th U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage. In a year filled with perceptive coming-of-age films from across the globe, this might be most satisfying, a raw and tender portrait about dealing with that head-on collision of contradictory feelings that hits you like a freight train, all while you’re still trying to figure out who you are in the first place.
Based on the graphic novel by Julie Maroh, Blue is told from the point of view of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a smart, occasionally sullen but well-adjusted high schooler living in Lille. She’s studying French lit but ultimately aspires to be a schoolteacher. (How many teenyboppers do you know who have a poster of Buena Vista Social Club hanging on her bedroom wall?) Her doe-eyed face, which bears a slight resemblance to the young Virginie Ledoyen, is a question mark framed by an unruly strand of hair, her inquisitive gaze calling into question everything that surrounds her, from the boy who shows a genuine interest in dating her to her friends’ irksome prying. “He’s cute, but he’s not Brad Pitt,” she tells the peanut gallery regarding potential boy toy Thomas (Jérémie Leheurte).
And then one day, while crossing the street, Adèle locks eyes with Emma (Léa Seydoux). Older, confident Emma, with her serene confidence and turquoise-tinted locks. So how about that boy, the one who’s into her? They go out, make out … and then Adèle goes home and touches herself, but she’s not thinking about soft-spoken Thomas, but about the mystery woman she saw on the street, slyly smiling back at her. “He’s not the problem,” Adèle confesses to gay bestie Valentin (Sandor Funtek). “I feel like I’m missing something.” During a cigarette break, a female classmate who proclaims to be into other girls takes her aside and kisses her. Adèle’s kissed a girl. And she likes it.
Plotwise, you think you know where Blue is heading, how those gossipy buzzards at the schoolyard will descend on this nubile tabula rasa and make her life miserable. Director Abdellatif Kechiche (The Secret of the Grain), to his credit, disposes of the typical coming-out stuff fairly quickly. His real interest lies in the intense love affair that ensues once Adèle and Emma cross paths again, this time in a lesbian bar. “Why are you here all alone?” Emma asks. “I don’t know. I came in here by chance,” Adèle replies defensively. “There’s no such thing as chance,” counters Emma, thus introducing the concept of predestination, which appears to fascinate the characters as well as Kechiche, who co-wrote the literate screenplay with Ghalia Lacroix.
An up-and-coming painter finishing her fine arts college degree, Emma, who is dating another woman when she starts hanging out with Adèle, finds in this well-read girl with the toothy grin, not just a captivating subject for her work, but a lover who can keep up with her behind closed doors. And this is when Kechiche thrusts viewers into bed with the couple, as his camera explores his actresses’ contours while they convey their characters’ layers of carnal fulfillment. Blue‘s extended sex scenes are not for the prudish, but their explicit nature never comes across as exploitation, because Exarchopoulos and Seydoux’s NC-17-rated couplings yield a more profound understanding of their relationship than a more discreet depiction of their intimacy would have. Their nakedness is far from merely physical.
Years go by imperceptibly in Kechiche’s film, and Emma’s objections about Adèle’s choice to pursue a teaching career instead of honing her writing abilities take their toll. Kechiche again rises to the challenge of portraying relationship strain without making it feel tired or clichéd, leading to a wrenching fight between the lovers that drives home the word that kept going through my mind while I was watching this film: honesty. It’s there in the frequently handheld camerawork that latches on to Adèle and rarely loses sight of her face. It’s there in the dinner conversations between the couple and their respective families, where small talk conceals volumes of unexpressed feelings. It’s there in the way people walk in and out of our lives and leave an enduring impression their absence cannot begin to take away.
Blue Is the Warmest Color has made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Reports of conflicts on the set led to a very candid interview on The Daily Beast where both lead actresses, while promoting the film at the Telluride Film Festival, described Kechiche’s shooting conditions as “horrible.” What’s followed since then has been a blistering war of words, mostly between Kechiche and Seydoux, creating the kind of media noise that cheapens and trivializes their deeply felt collaboration. The novel’s author also took to her blog decrying the film’s seven minute sex scene as voyeurism, and criticizing the fact that none of the leads are lesbian in real life. To which I say, let’s be thankful this straight guy and those straight girls made such a nuanced tale of Sapphic amour fou. Yes, it’s a straight male gaze behind the camera, but one whose clear-eyed compassion has resulted in one of the best movies of the year.
Whereas jealousy and mistrust rear their ugly heads in Blue Is the Warmest Color, the star-crossed lovers in Thor: The Dark World have more of a long-distance problem. The follow up to the interstellar 2011 yarn bringing the iconic Marvel Comics superhero to the screen returns the otherworldly hammer-wielding deity to Earth, this time to save his human girlfriend, scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), from alien invaders who look and behave like rejects from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It also replaces the preceding film’s director, Kenneth Branagh, with TV vet Alan Taylor (The Sopranos, Game of Thrones), but instead of giving his own spin on the endearing characters, the new hired hand goes through the Marvel Universe motions in workmanlike fashion. I know we’re not supposed to expect much originality from the source material, which itself was inspired by Norse mythology, but a little more flair would have worked wonders.
Branagh turned the conflict that developed between Thor (Chris Hemsworth, who goes shirtless again), his backstabbing adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and their estranged dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins, dutifully reciting his lines) into King Lear lite, The Twelfth Night with action smackdowns. Taylor, on the other hand, seems to pick and choose from a hodgepodge of pop culture sources – a little Lord of the Rings here, some Empire Strikes Back there, a dash of the Predator movies to give it a little edge – but without giving the content its own identity, and also indulging in some mind-numbing large-scale destruction that gave this reviewer Man of Steel flashbacks. It’s a shame, because the last 20 minutes of Thor: The Dark World feature a clever battle in which the characters fight each other while traveling back and forth through different dimensions, a sequence that brought to mind, strangely enough, the climax of Disney/Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. The cast has palpable chemistry, but they’re working with material that’s conspicuously not worthy of their talents. Kudos, as always, to versatile Irishman Chris O’Dowd, who steals both scenes he’s in as Foster’s dinner date.
Thor: The Dark World opens Friday, Nov. 8, in wide release. If you go, make sure to stay all the way to end of the end credits. (Also, the 3D is far from essential; see it in 2D.) That same day, Blue Is the Warmest Color courts controversy – and your affections – at Regal Cinemas South Beach. The film is also scheduled to open at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com) several weeks later.