His brilliantly acted, intensely erotic new film is his greatest achievement yet, the director so fully enveloping the viewer in his protagonist's world, mind, and emotions that I stumbled out of the screening dizzy, exhilarated, and shaken.
Blue Is the Warmest Color covers six years in the life of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos, little known now, but not for long), who, at the film's start is a quiet 17-year-old high schooler living with her middle-class parents outside the northern French city of Lille. The story's catalyst comes in the alluring, blue-haired form of Emma (Léa Seydoux, whose star has now officially risen), a lesbian graduate student and artist from a loving, bourgeois-bohemian family.
The film serves as confirmation that Kechiche, with his interest in people living on the margins of modern France (North African immigrants and their children, inner city youth, and, here, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals), is French cinema's greatest observer of human behavior—and of French society in all its complexities and contradictions.
Indeed, Blue Is the Warmest Color is both a meticulous portrait of an individual and a broader study of the ways socioeconomic differences come to bear on that individual's romantic life. With the most subtle of outsider's perspectives (Kechiche moved to France from Tunisia as a six-year-old) and the lightest of touches, the director shows us how class dynamics become a sneakily toxic force in the relationship between Adèle and Emma; two masterfully staged family dinner scenes capture the dissimilar milieus these young women come from, foreshadowing feelings of frustration, alienation, and inadequacy that will eventually haunt their life together.
Kechiche also proves once and for all that realism (the default stylistic mode of European art cinema) does not have to be austere or punishing; his film is warm and sensually alive, the camera sticking close to the actors' faces and bodies without fetishising them, and alternating objective and subjective points of view with fluidity and control. You get so caught up in the fly-on-the-wall thrill of seeing these characters in their everyday lives that it's easy to forget the tremendous technical craftsmanship involved.
Anchoring Blue Is the Warmest Color, and then lifting it into the realm of the sublime, are two of the best female performances I've seen in years. The 19-year-old Exarchopoulos, with her full lips and sleepy eyes, initially looks like an ordinary, sullen teen. But when she falls in love, she conveys seismic swells of sadness and yearning without the slightest hint of actress-y histrionics. It's a performance of instinct, intuition, and empathy, rather than technique—and it's a wonder to behold.
Seydoux, meanwhile, has always been a charismatic screen presence, but nothing she's done before prepares us for the force and precision of her work here. Though the actress often plays a somewhat passive object of desire, she saunters into this film as a seductress with a sly smile and darting eyes. In early scenes, Seydoux manages the impressive feat of suggesting someone simultaneously reeling in and falling for the person in front of her. Later, Emma becomes increasingly headstrong and ambitious—as uncompromising in her personal life as in her professional pursuits—and when she pulls away from the more modest Adèle, and Adèle responds by acting out, the actresses hit notes of fury and regret that are painful in their authenticity. If the jury is smart, it'll give these two a joint acting prize.