When we hear the word ‘epic’ in relation to cinema, we tend to think of grand spectacle, of widescreen vistas and battle sequences. It’s rare that we see ‘epic’ encapsulated in the form it is in Abdellatif Kechiche’s mesmeric relationship odyssey Blue is the Warmest Colour. Here, the spectacle comes in the form of little glances and smiles; the vistas are often as simple as the curve of an armpit; and the battle sequences are deeply personal, wrought in tears instead of bullets.
This depiction of the love between high school student Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and older, bohemian Emma (Léa Seydoux) is frank and unhurried, not afraid to indulge in detail, and thoroughly remarkable. It is both erotic and deeply romantic, yet unafraid to invest itself in wider considerations. It also features two of the very best performances of the year.
Exarchopoulos and Seydoux have such believable chemistry on screen that they make an awful lot of cinematic relationships look worryingly like what they are: pretending. Kechiche’s direction often lingers on them simply looking at each other, but it works because they work – they’re lost in each other, and we’re lost in them. There is a simple and remarkable beauty in the moment when Adèle first meets Emma’s eye while crossing a road, and is almost literally swept off her feet. She hovers in the road, unsure what to do; and even at this point it feels there is something fated in the two lovers’ eventual meeting. It’s as convincing a portrayal of ‘love at first sight’ as you’ll see.
Adèle is the primary character here, and we follow her from high school to the beginnings of her career as a teacher, taking on hetero and homosexual experiences along the way. She has a voracious appetite for learning, for food (an endearing physical side to the performance) and, it turns out, love. There is a sense throughout that Adèle is drinking in life, subsuming it into herself in the most innocent and matter-of-fact way. This is expressed most vividly through her sexuality, but not exclusively. We see her as a sponge, soaking up experiences and flooded by them, and in a sense this is how we watch the film. As a result, she feels like an extraordinarily rounded, believable protagonist. Emma, meanwhile, is on her way to becoming an artist, and there will be tensions explored in their differences in mentality; some through personal choice, others through their different backgrounds. There will be conflict, but not perhaps where we might expect.
The film’s sex scenes are extended and explicit, which has sparked a great degree of debate in various quarters, and consternation in others, much of which I understand but do not necessarily agree with. There have also been suggestions from the actresses that they felt the director pushed them too hard during these scenes, which are long and took weeks to film. All I can attest to is how I felt about them, and I believe first and foremost that they, in keeping with the rest of the film, are frank, unhurried and convincing. The central lovemaking scene, I accept, is perhaps a little overextended, but I felt that any overindulgence was diminished by the fact that the film makes such an effort, and succeeds so admirably, in creating two fully drawn out, empathetic main characters, that watching them having sex felt like a natural expression of their passionate relationship, and an extension of the themes of the film. Some eyebrows have been raised about the fact that the film is directed by a straight man who has cast two beautiful actresses in his lead roles, but I struggle to find any cynicism in the film’s depiction of sex, and much of this is down to the measured and loving way with which it approaches its characters. As a result, the scenes feel intrinsic rather than incongruous. I believe that the film is what it is, and that if it had been directed by a gay, female director, but happened to have the same actresses in the lead roles, the issue of the casting would not have been raised.
Adèle and Emma have stayed with me since I left the cinema. The film is a difficult one to forget, and thinking back over its runtime, one feels as if one has lived a surrogate life, and shared in its poignancy. Kechiche’s film is a beautiful, epic portrayal of love, with two sensational performances. Exarchopoulos in particula r is outstanding, and it will be a crime against humanity if she does not scoop up the acting gongs come awards season. Blue is the Warmest Colour is one of the year’s best.