Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Quick Review: Blue is the Warmest Color

The Pitch:

I'm not going to deny that one of the foremost reasons I wanted to see "Blue is the Warmest Color" (2013 dir. Abdellatif Kechiche) was the promise of sexy lesbian funtimes. That magical NC-17 rating didn't hurt matters: I feel like I need to support any movie that gets the MPAA's kiss of death. On the other hand, while I love foreign cinema I am hit and miss with the French: there's a lot of groundbreaking art that comes out of that country, but so much of it is just so darn... French. But it got some great buzz despite criticism for being a bit on the porn-y side. I think it's worth a roll of the dice!

Plot and Stuff:

Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is a high school student pursuing a dream of someday becoming a teacher. While she's a capable enough student, she seems more interested in finding love and/or sex. In the grand tradition of semi-respectable foreign cinema, "Blue is the Warmest Color" charts her sexual awakening at the hands of Elle, a college student and aspiring artist. Their relationship is intense, both emotionally and physically, but will it last forever? If you've seen a French film before, you can probably guess it won't.

What's Metal:

So for the prurient among you, yes, this film contains what must be a solid 10+ minutes of hardcore lesbian fucking. The question on everyone's mind is, is this Art or Porn? A bit of both really. And there's nothing wrong with that. Was the sex "necessary"? No, nothing in art is "necessary". Otherwise it wouldn't be art, would it? I will admit, however, that perhaps five minutes of hardcore fucking may have accomplished the same effect as 10. But now we're just nitpicking, and I'll never turn down a little extra smut (which I hasten to add is extremely well shot).

Still, the sex is only about 1/30th of the film's runtime, and thankfully there's a bit more to justify watching "Blue is the Warmest Color". I admire any film that sets its mind to doing something and sticks to it. The film's original title is "The Life of Adele, parts 1 and 2", and fittingly Adele is the center of every scene in the film. You get to know her pretty comprehensively over the course of these three hours, and her story is one I'm sure a lot of people can relate to, both gay and straight.

It soon becomes clear that Adele is at her core a sensual person, whereas Elle is intellectual.  While opposites attract, in the end they prove to be too opposite to sustain a happy relationship. In the film's first half, Elle welcomes her role as tutor to her younger lover (both sexually and intellectually). But in the second half, set years later, we see that she's never been able to move past that role. Adele wants someone who loves the person she is, not the person she could be molded into. Elle grows tired of her and neglects her. Adele, for her part, is pretty quick to start cheating.

This story is pretty universal in all but the details, and I like how the fact that the main characters are lesbians doesn't end up towering over everything else. Adele has one schoolmate who ostracizes her for being interested in girls, but plenty of others who don't. Of the two, Elle is more open about her orientation, while even years later Adele neglects to mention it to her co-workers out of an abundance of caution. This of course irritates Elle, who doesn't want either of them keeping secrets. In short, there's a lot of great drama there.

What's Death:

There's A LOT of drama there. This is a long movie, and I recommend watching it in two sittings like I did. When you devote a long running time to a simple premise you're gambling that said premise will be interesting enough to justify the broader canvas. But the last 45 minutes of this film in particular really dragged for me. There's only so much sighing, tears and ennui that I can be bothered to sit through. In the end it was a decent story, but that's all it was.

Meanwhile, if it weren't for the NC-17 rated smut-a-thon in the middle of the film, I doubt many people would be talking about this movie. Outside of the frank sexuality this is a pretty run-of-the-mill relationship study. A good one, mind you, but not something that cries out for attention if that's not generally your bag.

I also had pretty mixed feelings about the direction: While Kechiche got some great performances out of his actors, his style is basically an endless series of closeups. I can't imagine seeing this film in theaters, and being overwhelmed by a screen full of face for 180 minutes. The cumulative effect is a little awkward, like I've walked into the middle of a private conversation and I don't feel like I should be intruding.

Then there's his big cinematic gimmick of the color blue representing that intangible, erotic passion for life that Adele seeks: We see it first in Emma's shocking blue hair, and it's artfully employed throughout the rest of the film. Emma eventually stops dying her hair blue, while Adele begins to pick up more and more blue in her wardrobe. It even extends to the set direction, as certain locations or items in the frame will be blue to draw our attention to them. It's effectively poetic, but a bit "film school 101", especially since it calls attention to itself so obviously from the title on down.

Bottom Line: 

I don't regret giving this movie three hours of my life, and if you're interested in it you'll probably feel the same. I can see "Blue is the Warmest Color" totally blowing the mind of a young person, conflicted about love, seeing it at just the right time. For the rest of us, there's a stellar performance by Adele Exarchopoulos and a very believable story of a great, yet doomed relationship told very well. And if you're just here for the smut, skip the first and last hours.