Blue is the Warmest Color demonstrates a pervasive, relentless commitment to realism that works at times, but overall left me feeling drained and underwhelmed. Director Abdellatif Kechiche's camera locks in on a French teenager named Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and follows her for several years. She seems like a normal-enough teenager, albeit prettier than most. A boy at school is into her, and it's like when Juliet gets set up with Count Paris: She looks to like, if looking liking move, but it's not moving for her. In fact, Adèle has a thing for the blue-haired girl she locks eyes with crossing the street one day. We see Adèle getting off to a fantasy of the blue-haired girl and then weeping. It's hard to film confusion over sexual identity in any true or convincing way, so at this point I'm thinking: So far, so good.
Adèle runs into the blue-haired girl a second time. Her name turns out to be Emma (Léa Seydoux) and a tender friendship begins. Emma is a confident art student who seems to zone in on Adèle like a target. After their first meeting, Emma stops by Adèle's school to swoop her up. Her friends see the whole thing go down and are quick to put the pieces together, but then, you don't need to be a detective. Emma and Adèle sit on a park bench and talk about art and literature, but they're thinking about something else. The fact that Emma already has a girlfriend hangs in the air as a problem on the verge of being solved.
There's a particular style of filmmaking at work here. Instead of a concrete script, the actors improvise from a storyline. The director displays a commitment to framing the story with close-ups and medium close-ups, most of them aimed at Adèle. It's a stylistic choice that works sometimes, but mostly feels claustrophobic, and it limits the story. At one point, Adèle tells Emma that she admires the films of Kubrick and Scorsese, and I caught myself thinking, "Oh, what I wouldn't give to be at a screening of The Shining right now instead." I longed for set pieces and wide expanses.
You might expect a coming-out scene, but it doesn't happen that way. Adèle's friends at school confront her about her sexuality and she denies everything. She convincingly introduces Emma to her parents at dinner as just a friend. Flash forward to what must be a couple of years later, and Emma and Adèle are living together. What happened in the interim between Adèle's friends and family would be interesting to know, but these details are beyond the scope of the film.
If it sounds like I'm giving the entire plot away, in fact, I've only described what's happened up to the halfway point. An hour and a half into the film, I realized with a sinking feeling that we were only just now starting to climb the summit of the story arc. This is the Meet Joe Black of lesbian love stories. (Both films are too long, is the joke.)
Much has been said about the film's handful of sex scenes. One-time University of Montana visiting writer and queer authority Eileen Myles famously raged on Twitter that these scenes are insultingly tame and unrepresentative of what lesbian sex is actually like. I think she's overreacting, but I too was pretty shocked to see a queer film directed by a straight man that had the audacity to include scissoring. As my anonymous lesbian informant confirmed for me, "I mean, we do it sometimes. But it's not the main event."
Finally, for a film that's so committed to realism, I found it grim, indeed, that in three hours no one manages to say anything funny. Once, a girl makes a joke about a worm in a pasta bowl being at a gang rape, but that's stupid. She's got no delivery.
I didn't like this film, but I have to concede that my complaints are largely a matter of taste. The movie is well-acted, and I admired the murkiness of Adèle's sexuality and the subtleties of Emma's manipulation. If you can take in the nuance and manage not to be bored, I salute you. You're a more patient filmgoer than me.
Blue is the Warmest Color continues at the Wilma.