The original French title for Blue is the Warmest Color, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival, translates to The Life of Adèle (Chapters 1 & 2), which I find to be more fitting and indicative of the whole film. Blue is the Warmest Color refers to the sapphire-blue hair of lesbian college student Emma (Léa Seydoux), which immediately catches the eye of the still-closeted high schooler Adèle (the coincidentally named Adèle Exarchopoulos) as she’s slowly discovering herself and her sexual orientation. The American title suggests that it’s a film of sexual attraction more than anything else, but really it’s the story of romantic longing and its aftermath, hence La vie d’Adèle. Perhaps more indicative of the film than that is the inclusion of the subtitle Chapters 1 & 2, which indicates what is both the film’s greatest structural strength and its only major flaw: that it’s actually two distinctly different movies brought together as one large, sweeping, three-hour portrait of a woman’s life and her first love.
Chapter 1 shows Adèle in high school, as she realizes her dissatisfaction with men and slowly but surely falls for the aforementioned blue-haired beauty. Emma’s parents seem to be okay with both girls’ sexual preference. Adèle’s parents, meanwhile… well, it’s implied that they may have some reservations, even if we never discover if they find out or not. Chapter 2, meanwhile, takes a significant leap forward in time (wisely never specifying just how much time has passed) and details the lovers’ romantic downfall, as they’re forced to confront the growing separation that comes with a long-term relationship.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Blue is the Warmest Color–outside of its graphic, prolonged sex scenes–is just how conventional its two different love stories are, homosexual or otherwise. For a film that’s been garnering this much controversy, it’s a rather standard film with a very traditional, if lengthened, structure.
What elevates it are its leads. The chemistry between Exarchopoulos and Seydoux is so rich, palpable, and fully realized that I truly felt like I knew variations of these people in my own life, or even in myself. Their lust and eventual heartaches toward each other are so raw and expressive that the film’s three-hour runtime flies by. They both command the screen, especially Exarchopoulos, who is in almost every frame. Seydoux has less screentime, and is at first just an object of desire, but even she eventually introduces many layers to her character and delivers just as nuanced (albeit not as showy) a performance.
Yet despite its perfect pair of performances and engrossing drama, I was never very involved on an emotional level. This is mainly due to director Abdellatif Kechiche’s mostly naturalistic approach to the film’s visual direction, which isn’t quite the best fit for a film that’s this expressive and even fantastical at times, as it ultimately distances the audience somewhat from its characters’ emotional strife. The film’s most powerful moments are when he lets those moments flourish, either through the performances (such as a brutal verbal fight), or through its visuals. A perfect example of its visuals complementing the drama’s more subjective viewpoint is an impossibly gorgeous moment in which Adèle lets herself drift off into the ocean, the sapphire blue waters brilliantly evoking the blue of her lover’s hair, encompassing every part of her body.
The rest of the film, however, is mostly shot with Greengrass-esque handheld camerawork and close-ups, which not only doesn’t mesh with the film’s subjective approach, but also makes the story’s more conventional aspects feel that much more ordinary and steeped in formula. This problem isn’t terribly prevalent in the film’s first half, which effortlessly conveys the ecstasy of first love and the complications with discovering your sexual preference. It isn’t until the second half that it starts to arise as a problem. Instead of being entirely emotionally invested in the drama, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the use of formula and cliché instead. The actors mercifully save the film from this fault, and other critics have been more celebrating of its visual style, so your own mileage may vary.
Still, something must be said for a film that’s three hours long and remains this consistently engaging. For a while, I was completely immersed in these characters’ lives, even when it was somewhat faltering on an emotional level. I knew these people, and I was a witness to both the birth and death of a beautiful romance. In spite of its missteps, Blue is the Warmest Color is a captivating romantic drama from start to finish, and its two leads only make it better.