Currently setting arthouse screens ablaze is Cannes’ Palm d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color, the French film about a passionate, multiyear love affair between the young Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) and the older, more experienced Emma (Lea Seydoux). The film is an alternately joyous and painful account of first love, mostly shot, unrelentingly, in close-up. The first half, in which Adele comes to realize she’s gay and pursues (and is pursued by) Emma, is joyous; the second half, in which it all falls apart, is achingly sad. It earned a rare NC-17 because it has “explicit” sex, but it’s even more explicit emotionally.
The sex bits, which are the film’s primary marketing point, bring us to the subject of the “male gaze.” Superficially, it must be noted that the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, is male, and his camera is, from the second shot in the movie, unashamedly in love with Exarchopoulos’ ass. He has a sense of humor about it—which you may or may not share—going so far as to include a long scene at a museum where Emma and Adele gaze at women’s naked asses in great works of art. On a deeper level, does the film represent the lusty sex between the women as a lesbian filmmaker would? Beats me, but I suspect not. The love scenes are, to the film’s credit, sex positive in a way that a lot of male-directed porn isn’t, but they’re also idealized in a way that doesn’t seem true—especially the depiction of Adele’s first-time sex with Emma. (Then again, the law of averages suggests that someone has to get it right the first time.)
This isn’t a movie about lesbians per se, however. It’s a movie about love, sex and sensuality. It isn’t just fucking that Kechiche’s endless close-ups linger on; it’s smoking, eating, drinking and sobbing. (Ecstasy, Tears and Snot would have been a great alternate title.) The movie throbs like a passage from D.H. Lawrence.
Kechiche and his collaborator adapted Blue from a graphic novel, which, from the synopsis available on Wikipedia, was a good deal more interested in the particulars of lesbian life—and a lot more neatly plotted. In the film, the various particulars of each woman’s life seem to come out of the blue because we’re only close to their emotional and sexual life together. (It comes as a surprise to learn that Adele wants to be a teacher, which leads to a lot of dreary, idealized classroom scenes.) Blue Is the Warmest Color introduces aspects of life in the closet, and the effects of societal, parental and peer pressure (and support) on gay youth, but these, as noted, prove irrelevant to the filmmaker’s prime interest. The question is, of course, is l’amour enough?
Not for two hours and 59 minutes in a cinema, it isn’t.