Blue Is the Warmest Color, which took top honors at this year's Cannes film festival and has been a source of international notoriety pretty much ever since, is a movie about a lesbian, not a movie about all lesbians. But you wouldn't know it from the juvenile press coverage, which started out gawking at the movie's pivotal sex scene, went on to cluck over the possible exploitation of the lead actresses, then of late has convened panels of gay women to assess how technically accurate the sex scenes are. (You know, just like they did with heterosexuals for The Brown Bunny.)
The issue, in part, is that the movie was directed by a male filmmaker, Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche, which always raises the specter of "the gaze" — whether women are objectified and eroticized under a male director's scrutiny. The answer is often yes, and certainly the grammar of film as established by men often reduces women to parts — not in the sense of roles, but of choice cuts. But it's another part of the movie's lead, the remarkable Adèle Exarchopoulos, that Kechiche wants us to study, in a spirit of exploration rather than exploitation: her face.
As Adèle, a French teen starting a painful and exhilarating passage into adulthood, Exarchopoulos gives the kind of performance that engraves an actor in legend, for better and worse. She undergoes nothing less than a transformation from an awkward, unformed kid to an adult shaped and bruised by experience: Over the movie's three-hour running time — which I wouldn't have believed if not for the clock in the Belcourt's lobby — she grows up before our eyes. And throughout the movie, Exarchopoulos' face transmits thought, desire, deceit, even the passage of time (which is partially measured by the change in how she eats from a teen's open-mouthed, unself-conscious appetite). Even when she's sprawled full-body across the screen, naked or clothed, that's where you look. (The Scene's Jason Shawhan spoke to Exarchopoulos recently at the New York Film Festival; his interview can be found here.)
From the instant Adèle passes a blue-haired, boyish art student on a crosswalk, a moment that takes up scarcely seconds of screen time, we sense the movie will eventually belong to them. The relationship that blooms between the heroine and Emma, the artist played by Léa Seydoux (unrecognizable as Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol's chic assassin), passes from curiosity to confusion to lust in long, unhurried scenes that remain utterly involving — not just because both leads are so good, so right, so alert and present in moment, gesture and chemistry, but because cinematographer Sofian El Fani's intense close study of their faces keeps us attuned to them as people.
That's not to say Kechiche is innocent of concerns about the gaze he directs upon the leads. (Nor am I, for that matter.) But since that's the topic of the movie's very first lines of dialogue, and a thread that connects the heroine's public emergence in high school to her subsequent life as an artist's lover-muse-subject, it's a little foolish to suggest he's not aware of it or working to complicate it. His hovering, anxious directorial style (which calls to mind the Dardennes and occasionally Cassavetes at his most unblinking) conveys a teen's sense of always being the focus of unwanted attention, of being a screen for everybody else's movie while trying to project your own.
Blue Is the Warmest Color was adapted by Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, whose widely circulated remark that the movie's sex scenes showed there wasn't a lesbian present on the set has been wielded in much of the criticism. What the movie offers, though, is something better than a committee-approved facsimile of realism: the messy, electrifying interaction of characters we come to understand as individuals. That doesn't just make their couplings more intense; it fuels also the emotional devastation of the film's second half, as they continue to develop in ways that are all the more heartbreaking for seeming wholly true to their natures.
Adèle is going to turn out just fine. It's some of the movie's audience that needs to grow the fuck up.