January 27, 2014

Blue is the Warmest Color … and a Fierce, Fiery Movie

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This semester at Cornell Cinema, a Contemporary World Cinema film series will be screened, beginning with Blue is the Warmest Color on January 31. Other selections will include A Touch of Sin, Faust, In Bloom, and The Broken Circle Breakdown.

The three-hour romance Blue is the Warmest Color premiered at Cannes this past summer, where it was unanimously awarded the Palm d’Or.  A clue as to why this film could have received such a glowing response lies in the image on its poster: two girls broadly grinning, conveying something close to sheer vivacity. In other words, these girls are alive.

So is the film. Far from being the controversial, protracted indulgence its stigma could suggest, this movie is a bucket of cold water in the face. It’s jubilantly electrifying for nearly all of its 180 minutes. No, it doesn’t need the whole three hours, as some critics have argued but its broad strokes are never anything short of vibrant, thrilling, and daring.

It’s a story of first love equally as fervent and as beautiful as Romeo & Juliet. Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is a high school teenager wrestling with her sexual orientation when Emma (Lea Seydoux) floats into her life and injects it with an intensity hitherto unknown to Adele and mainstream viewers of traditional love stories.

Adele Exarchopoulos is revelatory. She seems like a little girl one minute, imbued with a deep innocence and naiveté about the world, and a wizened, heartbroken adult the next. The film owes the majority of its success to just how compelling this young actress is to watch. She is one of those rare performers who can make any action — fixing her hair, rubbing her face, the way that she walks — pop off the screen. Her body language alone is staggering, and can carry the entire story without her speaking one line. Exarchopoulos was 18 at the time of filming, and she delivers what is decisively one of the year’s best performances by a leading actress.

The same can be said of her co-star, Lea Seydoux, who is more familiar to American audiences due to her small parts in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Inglourious Basterds. She is seductive, wrenchingly honest, and tinged with a sting that’s unseen in Adele; she possesses an ever-so-slightly threatening quality under that crop of blue hair. The thing that bonds these actors is the ability to communicate volumes with economical gestures.

There’s a third character in this movie, never seen, but equally important as the two leads. It is Kechiche’s camera, which the filmmaker wields in a manner that’s entirely unique and unlike any other way a director has observed a blossoming love before. Wherever we are in the film, Kechiche’s frame always seems to contain some small, intimate detail that is immediately profound and worth a thousand words. Moreover, his refusal to shorten the scenes of lovemaking between his leads is resoundingly correct. Yes, these scenes are erotic. As Mick LaSalle of The San Francisco Chronicle put it, “if you don’t find them erotic, you’ve probably been dead for at least a week.”

That’s not the point — Kechiche and his actors are trying to define what it means to love, through the motion of bodies. This is a film about bodies and the way that bodies speak, move, and behave in all senses when they have a drug like love coursing through the veins. What could easily be redundant in literature and has already become seedy and worn out due to porn movies is a geyser of fresh air in the hands of these three artists.

When the French say, “I miss you,” they mean it in the literal sense, that a piece of them is missing, and they cannot survive without it. This French movie drives home that very idea, and powerfully radiates a tone many American filmmakers don’t yet have a handle on. Emotionally raw, bursting with energy, and possessed of an aching longing that exists in the lead performances, it could almost be a cinematic encapsulation of life itself.