An erotic odyssey from Abdellatif Kechiche becomes the most universally adored film at Cannes 2013.
Aside the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, Abdellatif Kechiche's realist erotic saga, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, is probably the most universally beloved of this year's Cannes competition titles, and it's very easy to see why. A chronicle of sexual rites of passage, this sprawling (yet microscopically intimate) diptych follows the apple-cheeked Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) through a period of agonising and exquisite self discovery. She toys with hetrosexual love, but when she finds herself simulating emotions to please her boyfriend, she washes her hands of him with the intention of hooking up with a companion of her own sex.
It's a very traditional, even clichéd story of young romance won and lost, but Kechiche makes the material his own through his typically bold editing choices. In films such as The Secret Of The Grain and Black Venus, the director was known to hold on to shots and scenes far beyond their natural breaking point with the intention of heightening the emotions being experienced by his characters. Sometimes this tactic works, such as in the famous dinner scene in The Secret Of The Grain in which Kechiche refuses to move on before he's sapped every last ounce of feeling from his characters. Sometimes, though, it falls flat, such as the finale of Black Venus which comes across as a director purposefully rubbing our faces in the shit and not letting us come up for air.
Blue Is The Warmest Colour achieves the most perfect manifestation of this abiding stylistic tic, as it doesn't simply allow us to monitor the genesis and fall-out of conversations and actions, but pushes Kechiche's central thematic concern: the pleasures of the flesh. This isn't just through its series of explicit sex scene (more on which later), but in the way he photographs Adèle talking with her mouth full (the erotic potential of food is one of the film's main sub-themes), or in extreme close-up at moments of high drama.
So following her initial experimentation, Adèle spots Emma (Léa Seydoux) as a kind of sexual apparition as they briefly catch each other's eye while traversing the street. Later, when Adèle has plucked up the courage to visit a local gay bar, Emma crops up again, and this brief romantic spark is finally allowed to burn brightly.
And burn is does, specifically in the intrepid and gloriously prolonged sex scenes in which Kechiche whisks up a veritable maelstrom of erotic release. No position is left undocumented as we're given a near-realtime visualisation of this frantic, gymnastic exploration of the erogenous zones. It's an overwhelmingly beautiful scene that never comes across as smutty or leering. Props go to Kechiche for taking this vital episode to its absolute precipice, but the real heroes here are Seydoux and Exarchopoulos for their willingness to meld entirely with the desires of their characters.
Even though there are many moments to savour here and the performers are never less than stellar, Kechiche's search for a florid kind of naturalism is occasionally corrupted by his constant recourse to literary precedents. A French lesson on Marivaux’s novel La Vie de Marianne carelessly signposts the themes of love at first sight as the teens air their romantic predilections, plus the lazy depiction of the girls' parents (Emma's are enlightened and intellectual, Adèle's are ignorant and tasteless) offers a class counterpoint that's far too on the nose.
Some of the motivations behind Adèle's actions, particularly those later in the film that are simply chalked up to "emotions", are a mite hazy and Kechiche clearly hopes that we'll overlook these tiny character jumps in favour of relishing the textures of each lengthy scene. Yet the world we see in the film feels entirely authentic, with episodes in schools, bars and bedrooms all coming across as painstakingly researched and realised.
Even at three hours, the film's runtime flies by if you're willing to invest just a little in Adèle's adventure. It's been mooted for the Palme d'Or, and is the out-and-out critical darling among trade paper review aggregation. And it is a lovely movie, albeit one which is so thorough and single-minded in intent, that it doesn't really leave anything much to ponder after the lights have gone up.