Watching Blue is the Warmest Color is an awfully carnal affair. French director Abdellatif Kechiche’s controversial, three-hour coming-of-age love story jumps from close-up to close-up of characters eating, kissing, touching, tonguing, crying, and butt-slapping, all passionately and voraciously, often with little else in the frame.
It’s also arguably exploitative at times. As many other critics have noted, its sex scenes are as lengthy as they are explicit; the author of the graphic novel upon which Blue is based has dismissed them as inaccurate pornography. Some have accused the film of being an advanced exercise in the male gaze; a queer romance filtered through straight people’s imaginations of what that should look like. Co-stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux say they’ll never work with Kechiche again because of his on-set bullying, and it’s hard to ignore the film’s voyeuristic tendencies considering how much screen time it devotes to watching Exarchopoulos’s character (also named Adèle) fall fast asleep, mouth agape, lost in dreamland (not unlike how she looks when awake).
So is Blue is the Warmest Color indulgent? Absolutely, but in fact, the ways in which it's most indulgent aren’t all that titillating. Despite all the buzz about its sexual content and off-screen squabbles, the seemingly most gratuitous parts of Kechiche’s film, which took the top honor at Cannes, are the least sexy. Kechiche’s affinity for extreme and often uneventful close-ups may demand a lot of patience at the surface level, but those scenes also help connect the audience to the characters in ways that are all the more rewarding.
The movie cozies up to Adèle quickly and doesn't let go, watching as she rides the bus and longingly stares out the window over and over again. It’s fitting that Adèle’s first date with the older, out art student Emma (Seydoux) finds her studying Adèle’s features for a portrait: The first act of the film largely does the same. The camera pauses on her blank stare in school, too, where she logs plenty of hours throughout the film’s six-year window, first as a student, then as a teacher herself, organizing nap time and administering dictation tests to first-graders—thrilling stuff. And while one of the film’s love scenes lasts a long seven minutes—or 10, 15, or 20, depending on whom you ask—it’s nothing compared to the film’s drawn-out displays of everyday monotony.
Many of these scenes are as beautifully shot as they are, frankly, boring. But they also serve an important purpose, establishing an emotional baseline that’s necessary to appreciate the film’s most affecting character developments. All that time spent getting inside Adèle’s head is the price of admission for one the year’s best performances.
Before she meets Emma and all her blue-haired bravado, there’s a naive uncertainty about Adèle, a wistful teen who wanders through life looking like it takes all her concentration to remember to keep breathing. Once their worlds collide, that look is replaced by in-the-moment vivacity that might have gone unnoticed had Blue skipped its “before” and focused only on “after.” Just as the sex scenes will likely elicit visceral reactions among the audience—the scenes are as sexy (attractive women convincingly getting turned on) as they are unsexy (so much saliva, so many noises typically left out of Hollywood love scenes)—they detonate a physical transformation in Adèle, too. Viewers can’t fully comprehend what Emma brings out of Adèle until they’ve seen her go from totally disengaged (at school) to orgasmically ecstatic (in the bedroom) to completely empty (whenever they're apart).
These evolutions are crucial. Many months later, when Emma hosts a dinner party for her artist friends, Adèle puts on makeup, makes an elaborate meal, and ditches her usual sloppy-teenager bun. This is Adèle trying on her grown-up costume—a change viewers might not notice if they hadn’t watched unadorned, babyfaced teenage Adèle messily eat meal after meal under a floppy up-do. It’s also a point worth lingering on: At the party, Adèle seems out of place among Emma’s hip, intellectual posse, a perception that’s confirmed as it becomes one of many factors driving a wedge between her and Emma. By contrast, the shots of Adèle teaching get more and more tedious as the film drags on, but it’s in the classroom, when she’s working with young kids, that Adèle seems most at ease, most confident, and most grown up.
Blue’s relaxed approach works beautifully elsewhere throughout the film. The audience knows little about Adèle’s home life and family at first, merely observing as they munch on spaghetti and swap glances in a dimly lit dining room. But viewers meet Emma’s family even before Adèle is introduced to their oyster-swallowing, affluent life of intellect and luxury, and the difference in upbringings and socioeconomic class—some of the forces that later help pull Adèle and Emma apart—are immediately palpable just from the wider shot and the small displays of affection that never occur in Adèle’s household. Whenever the camera abandons its usual close-ups, it jarringly conveys a sense of surveillance that, in some scenes, accurately and unsettlingly foreshadows what’s about to unfold.
Kechiche’s style is the long-game approach to the storytelling principle of Show, Don’t Tell, and it's effective—for the most part. All of these moments would feel more worth sitting through if they added up to something more devastating. For all of its explosive climaxes, Blue’s finale is hardly fraught with tortured looks or gut-wrenching combinations of emotions splashed across its actresses’ faces. It avoids the brutality it embraced earlier, opting to end on a note more exhausted than open to interpretation. Maybe that’s because, despite the many nuances of Exarchopoulos's expressive face, Blue is the Warmest Color is quite a simple story at heart: Girl meets girl; girl falls in love with girl; relationship with girl disintegrates for a handful of reasons that, if not immediately obvious, become so soon after. Or maybe that's because, like its slow build, Blue needs a comedown to show just how volatile young love can be.