We’re so used to seeing Millennials jumping in and out of each other’s beds – from “Gossip Girl” to “Friends with Benefits” – that it’s easy to start to think these experiences leave no mark. Abdellatif Kechiche’s greatest achievement in his new film “Blue is the Warmest Color” is to remind us of just how intense adolescence is, both emotionally and physically, in part because everything is still a discovery. He does this by shooting largely in close-up, making us privy to intimate emotions, and by inviting us into every facet of the heroine, Adele’s (Adèle Exarchopoulos) impassioned life: we watch her lost in a book, daydreaming in class, eating voraciously, fantasizing while masturbating, sleeping, crying while snot drips down her face, interacting with friends, family, and lovers, and engaging in sex.
This is a film about first love experienced and lost, but the fact that Adele is in high school when she first falls is what colours her relationship with the blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux). The first time they speak is at a lesbian bar that Adele wanders into, where she sticks out as the ingenue. When she admits to Emma, with some embarrassment, that she’s still in high school, I was reminded of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” when the seventeen-year-old Tracy (Muriel Hemingway) had to beg out from dinner with her boyfriend (Woody Allen) and his forty-something friends to do homework. But while Adele is more mature than her classmates, she’s still very much a naive girl, not the wise and mature-beyond-her-years type that Tracy was.
Although she bonds with Emma over books – reading for pleasure may be enough to make you an outcast in high school, eager to meet anyone who shares this interest – it starts to become clear that this may not be enough to sustain a relationship. Even one with passionate sex. The fact that their relationship is so compelling and emotionally resonant is a tribute to the terrific, raw performances by Seydoux and Exarchopoulos, which won them the Palme D’Or at Cannes, usually only given to directors.
Adele’s relationship with Emma starts on uneven footing. As an art student at the university, Emma seems grown-up and exotic, and she gladly takes the role of mentor. Adele’s reluctance to come out is in part because she fears being teased by her friends: they’re still at an age when being even a little bit different is enough to make you the target of cruelty. When Adele dines at Emma’s house, she comes as Emma’s partner, but when Emma dines chez Adele, she masquerades as Adele’s philosophy tutor. Adele’s parents are more working class than Emma’s, yet it’s unclear whether her secretiveness is because she expects her parents to be close-minded or if it’s merely a product of her youth.
The film is as much about feeling connected to someone as it is about feeling disconnected. Watching Adele dance in different situations lets us gauge her comfort level. Without Emma, she dances with abandon, whether at her birthday party at home or among colleagues from work. But when she throws a party for Emma’s art show, where Adele not only cooks but is the subject of Emma’s paintings, she couldn’t be more out of place and uncomfortable, unable to converse easily with Emma’s friends: her dancing here is awkward and abortive, as she tries to seem like she’s having fun.
The recent trend to subject audiences to three-hour relationship films – “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her” and “Blue is the Warmest Color” – is somewhat baffling, considering these talk-heavy films are already a niche market and a tough sell, no matter how good they are. Like “Eleanor Rigby”, “Blue is the Warmest Color” could have been shorter and tighter. Although I suppose one argument for the length is that adolescence seems like an interminable emotional boiling pot, but as the film’s French title, “La Vie d’Adele- Chapitres 1 & 2”, reminds us, this story forms just chapter one and two of Adele’s life.