Taking home the Cannes Palme d’Or automatically comes with a lot of baggage. The inevitable questions – “Why did it win?” “Is it deserving?” – can propel a backlash before the film has been seen by anybody outside southern France. It also comes with expectation. Past victors include The Third Man; Viridiana; The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; The Conversation; Taxi Driver; Apocalypse Now; Paris, Texas; sex, lies, and videotape; The Piano; and Pulp Fiction. That’s a hefty string of classics that have had an unprecedented influence on the medium.
Now imagine to both elements above one adds media attention. Not gossipy chatter among bloggers. We’re talking A Clockwork Orange-level controversy, exacerbated by ongoing quarrels between director and star, and yes, about eleven or twelve minutes of lesbian lovemaking. It was into this hostile environment that Blue Is the Warmest Color was introduced to the world, at TIFF and then gradually in major North American cities. The good news? It is close to a masterpiece.
Magnificently intimate and utterly sublime, like Brokeback Mountain crossed with Blue Valentine, Blue constantly surprises with its frank and unvarnished portrayal of a young woman’s burgeoning sexuality. The film contains three scenes of such raw emotional volatility that one feels simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated.
After Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux became the first actresses in the history of Cannes to receive the Palme alongside director Abdellatif Kechiche, I’ll risk repeating the following well-documented statement: both give electrifying performances. In my review of Amour last year, I wrote of Emmanuelle Riva’s efforts that “If I was being impolite, I would say it isn’t even close.”
Screw politeness: this year, it isn’t even close. Exarchopoulos is breathtaking, transportive, transcendent. Using her real first name and a nearly-identical age, she rivets our attention from the start and becomes a full-bodied, richly-textured Adèle over the course of the next three hours. Down to the smallest quirks, like her decision to stack and rearrange her gorgeous hair in a messy pile on top of her head, Adèle is endearing and totally irresistible.
I predicted that most audiences in 2013 would embrace Greta Gerwig and Shailene Woodley, but Exarchopoulos is operating on a different plane. It’s not that we wish Adèle was greater than fiction; we assume her to be. She is beguiling, and we are enamored with her. Desire, lust, self-doubt – all are displayed in the slightest changes on Exarchopoulos’ face. She weeps and screams and fucks, but the soul of her character is reflected in her eyes. As with Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves and Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr., this is acting of the highest calibre. It is a legendary, star-making, and sensational performance.
(The Oscars will eventually reveal this year’s injustice, when Exarchopoulos/Seydoux fail to garner nominations. The fact that Blue is disqualified for Foreign Language Film adds insult to injury.)
Whispers of voyeurism have saddled many of the greatest directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, and Stanley Kubrick. In Blue Velvet, Isabella Rossellini had to endure sexual humiliation and degradation at the hands of Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth. In Dancer in the Dark, another Palme d’Or winner, Björk had to withstand intense pressures on set in the role of a going-blind factory worker given the death penalty. In a similar vein, Kechiche’s supposedly aggressive behaviour does not take away from the exacting beauty he elicits from his muse.
I haven’t yet discussed the already-infamous sex scenes. Condemned by many as pornographic and devoid of true sensuality, these moments are appropriately explicit and artfully staged to resemble painting and sculpture, and to evoke passivity. In addition, the awkwardly strenuous activities serve a function in the larger narrative: they provoke more profound feelings of sympathy for Adèle post-breakup, and provide context and concreteness for another layer of her sometimes self-deprecatory nature.
The entire spectrum of human experience is here: love, sex, attraction, jealousy, betrayal, ambition, loss, rejection, philosophy, artistic expression. In its unique ability to encompass most of what anyone wants in a movie (except those squeamish towards gratuitous sexual content), it is nearly unsurpassed.
In addition to rebuking Kechiche’s demanding conduct towards his actresses (Blue’s extraordinary results go a long way towards silencing these critics), many attacks have been leveled against the film: it is overlong, indulgent, simplistic, and filmed in suffocating closeups. I disagree. It is overlong only if you feel that a well-drawn character study and coming-of-age story does not merit 179 minutes. Its indulgence is minimized by the exuberance of the filmmaking. Long takes have been utilized to similar effectiveness by Béla Tarr (Werckmeister Harmóniák, The Turin Horse) and Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, yet another Palme d’Or winner). Its so-called “simplicity” camouflages significant depth that is further revealed after repeat viewings.
The only pertinent censure is occasional heavy-handedness. For example, the “blue” in the title is hammered home as a visual motif throughout the film, not just in Emma’s dyed hair, but in clothing and sheets and nail polish and door frames. The sun glimmers and disappears behind the radiant heads of the lovers as they kiss and withdraw, kiss and withdraw, during a passionate moment on a park bench. However, these clichés are swallowed by the sheer force of the chemistry between the leads. I, for one, was too enraptured to quibble about stylistic choices.
Blue Is the Warmest Color is well-crafted, but consistently hits its stride due to Exarchopoulos’ talent and fearlessness. When she conveys Adèle’s attempts to move on with dignity despite the crushing isolation she feels – years after the carnal relationship has run its course – and walks away from a gallery opening at the film’s conclusion, it feels as though the world has ended.
Love is like lightning: it illuminates and scorches everything it touches. Rarely has a film been such a devastating portrait of this fact. Fittingly, Blue delights, bruises, and lingers long in the memory.