Blue Is the Warmest Color is a movie about a lesbian, not a movie about all lesbians. But ever since it took top honors at this year's Cannes Film Festival, it has become a source of international notoriety, thanks to some juvenile press coverage. First came gawking at the movie's pivotal sex scene, then clucking over whether the lead actresses had been exploited. And the film's U.S. release has been met with panels of gay women, convened to assess the technical accuracy of the acts depicted onscreen. (You know, just like heterosexuals did when The Brown Bunny came out.)
Part of the problem is that the movie's director is a man: Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche. This raises again the old specter of "the gaze" — whether women are objectified and eroticized under a male filmmaker's scrutiny. A lot of the time, yes. The grammar of film, as established by men, often reduces women to parts — not as in roles but as in choice cuts. But it's another part of the movie's lead, the remarkable Adèle Exarchopoulos, that Kechiche wants us to study: her face.
As Adèle, a French teen starting a painful and exhilarating passage into adulthood, Exarchopoulos gives the kind of performance that engraves an actor in legend, conveying a transformation from awkward, unformed kid to experienced, bruised adult. Over Blue's three hours, the character grows up before our eyes while Exarchopoulos' face transmits thought, desire, deceit and even the passage of time. That's where you look, even when she's sprawled nude across the screen.
From the instant when Adèle passes a blue-haired, boyish art student on a crosswalk, a moment that takes only seconds of screen time, we sense that the movie belongs only to them. The relationship that blooms between the heroine and Emma, the painter played by Léa Seydoux (unrecognizable as Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol's chic assassin), passes from curiosity to confusion to lust, in long, unhurried scenes. These sequences never bore but remain utterly involving, not just because both leads are so good, so right, so alert and present in moment, gesture and chemistry, but also because cinematographer Sofian El Fani's intense close study of their faces keeps us attuned to them as people.
That's not to say Kechiche's gaze is innocent. But his hovering, anxious directorial style (which calls to mind the Dardenne brothers and John Cassavetes at his most unblinking) conveys a teen's sense of always being the focus of unwanted attention, of being a screen for everybody else's movie while trying to project her own. Whatever objectification is at work here is complicated.
Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix have adapted Blue from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, whose widely circulated remark that the movie's sex scenes showed there wasn't a lesbian present on the set has been cited in much of the criticism. What the movie offers, though, is something better than a committee-approved facsimile of realism. Kechiche and his actors give us the messy, electrifying interaction of characters we come to understand as individuals. That doesn't make just their couplings more intense; it also fuels the emotional devastation of the film's second half, as Adèle and Emma continue to develop in ways that are all the more heartbreaking for seeming wholly true to their natures.
Adèle is going to turn out just fine. As usual, it's some of the audience that needs to grow the fuck up.