How much is too much? That's a question that often gets asked when discussing films, especially films with controversial scenes. There are times when a discussion, on what is otherwise a great film, can be completely derailed because of a particular scene that stands out way more than the rest. And when the scene is extremely violent or sexual, it raises that question: how much is too much? For me, the question is slightly different. See, I think a film has the potential to go anywhere it wants to go, but it has to earn its way there. When Dennis Hopper's character in "Blue Velvet" huffs gas and stares between Isabella Rosselini's legs while saying "mommy"... that's a scene that will really stick out to anybody. Does the film earn its way there? For me, absolutely yes. The film successfully created this world where a character this deranged can exist. It was very carefully orchestrated and it's particularly unsettling and disturbing. Ultimately, it works.
A much better example, comparable to the film I'm about to talk about, is Irreversible's 8-minute long rape scene. Now here, the answer is much murkier. The film is unsettling in so many ways and you can argue that its rape scene is particularly effective because of how ugly and vulgar its depicted. But then you ask yourself, why must it be 8 minutes long? Why not 5? Or 2? At what point is the point getting across? Do we, as an audience, deserve some ounce of mercy? Gaspar Noe, the director of Irreversible, would probably answer no. And you know what? Fine. That can be a valid answer, but what does that mean for the actual film itself? Are you not doing your film a disservice when one particular scene is the only thing being talked about? With Irreversible, you could argue that the 8-minute rape scene is so powerful, so uncomfortable, so unnerving that it makes the rest of the movie "suffer" by comparison. Then again, that could also be the point. Watching the movie's main character, played by Monica Bellucci, later have more tender scenes with her significant other---it's completely marred by the fact that we know her character will later get raped. For me, while the scene itself is very unnerving and something I don't want to ever revisit, I understand its placement and how it serves the rest of the movie.
This brings us to the movie I'm supposed to talk about, Abdellatif Kechiche's "Blue is the Warmest Color." This three-hour French language film is largely a very moving, intimately-detailed romance drama about a teenage girl's first love. Thanks to the long running time, we really get to live with the film's main character, Adele (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) as she goes to school, hangs with friends, eats with her parents, has a brief fling with a guy, etc. Adele wants to be an elementary school teacher and seems to have all the steps figured out in order to become one. Soon, however, she will meet a blue-haired girl named Emma (played by Lea Seydoux) by chance and her life will be changed forever.
Through Emma, Adele experiences her first true love in all its beauty and ugliness. Again, the film's relaxed pacing allows for this romance to really blossom and the tension that exists between Adele and Emma is as real as it gets in the movies. You can really feel there's something between them when they have small talk in a bar. Something about Emma really throws Adele for a loop, and it throws us for a loop too, thanks to the way the movie's filmed.
Abdellatif Kechiche made a very conscious effort to shoot in as many close-ups as possible. While, for a three-hour runtime, it has the tendency to feel excessive and restrictive, it definitely works as a whole. We see this world so intensely through Adele's eyes that it makes her romance with Emma, at times, feel almost too intense to bear. When Adele winds up doing something later on in the film that will forever break Emma's trust with her, her attempt to reconcile with Emma is one of the most heartbreaking scenes you will see all year. There is a raw emotional honesty that both actresses bring to their roles which makes it all feel so believable and Kechiche's close-ups definitely underlines that.
A 180-minute romance film allows time for some true subtlety to take place. We get a great sense of both characters' emotions and the film goes to places other romance films tend to skip. There's a great confidence that exudes in the way the story is told here, nothing ever really feels too stretched out because of how emotionally expressive both Adèle Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux are. The film takes time to highlight Adele and Emma's social differences. In Emma's world, everyone is accepting and happy of the lifestyle she's chosen, but Adele's world is not quite the same. When her friends first catch wind of the possibility that Adele may be a lesbian, it does not go over very well. Adele loves Emma, but is careful to keep those feelings in check when they're hanging out with her parents. There's a nice set of scenes where we spend time with Emma's parents and Adele's parents. In the scene with Emma's parents, Emma's mother and stepdad know what the deal is between the two lovebirds. But with Adele's parents, Emma is merely known as a "philosophy tutor". What's great about these scenes is that they are merely parts of a whole. The film isn't about what Adele's sexual identity means to everyone else, it's about what it means to her. The film goes through great pains to emphasize that this is her story, that when she messes up, you're going to side with her even when she's wrong. Through her lens, we are learning her sense of what's right and wrong. How other people perceive her is important, but ultimately, the film is about how Adele feels about her own sexual identity and she's given the time and space to work that out on her own.
So, as you see, there is so much to treasure about this film. While, by the end, all we are really seeing is a coming-of-age story, it's so intensely told that it feels very fresh and different. Rarely do you see a teen romantic drama feel this intimate. Rarely, in most other films are the characters given room to explore such feelings in such subtle ways.
And this is why the film's depiction of its graphic sex scenes are so damn puzzling. Sex scenes should merely complement a film, they should not envelop the film as a whole. "Blue is the Warmest Color" is certainly given room to explore Adele's sexuality. We are given intense glimpses of everything else in her life, why wouldn't we explore her sex life as well? That is definitely understandable. It's not the sex scenes themselves that are a problem, it's how different they feel from the rest of the film. While the rest of the film moves about in a relaxed, subtle manner, the sex scenes here are very graphic and is depicted as being very much what it is: sex. Generally, that's fine, but in our central scene, the sex goes on for about ten minutes. For ten minutes, we watch Adele and Emma get very intimate with each other and, for what it's worth, it definitely seems like it's a very eye-opening sexual awakening for both characters. Unfortunately, we can only derive that from this scene. We don't really feel that. There isn't much to feel here, as a matter of fact. The way its depicted, thanks to the sheer length of the scene, really does walk beyond a specific line. Not some invented line that all cinema can't cross, but the movie doesn't feel as if it has earned such a lengthy sex scene. The importance of the scene is what it means to Adele and there are many ways to convey this experience. But, Kechiche eschews that in favor of giving us borderline-pornographic sexual positions that, at the end, does nothing for the audience except titillate (or point and laugh at its ridiculousness). The scene winds up taking the audience out of the movie briefly and.... that's a problem.
What makes things even more problematic is how the author of the graphic novel, in which this film is based on, points out that the sex scenes are more cartoonish than anything else. As the author puts it, it's as if the filmmakers' only source of inspiration were pornographic lesbian sex scenes. And while obviously, I cannot consider myself an expert on realistic lesbian sex, it does seem odd that Kechiche would shoot this sex scene (among the others) in this particular way. The other sex scenes kinda have a similar problem, but can be excused because they're much shorter. And honestly, if the central sex scene was shorter as well... there'd be no problem overall. But the fact remains that it's ten-freakin-minutes long and there just comes a point when it's no longer serving a real purpose to the story. It no longer feels like a powerful sexual discovery for the film's lead character, at a certain point it's just a couple of young girls engaging in sexual acts. I never thought I'd go the prude route here, but Kechiche's methods here borders into creepy Larry Clark territory (see the films "Kids", "Bully", and "Ken Park" if you don't know what this means). And part of me feels sorry for the actresses because you can't always tell how some directors are gonna shoot certain scenes. Obviously, they knew what they were getting into but there are different ways of shooting sex scenes and it just seems like Kechiche chose the most revealing, straight-forward method possible. It feels like lesbian sex from a male's point of view.
Luckily for director Kechiche, as a whole, the movie is mostly a success in its intimate portrayal of teen first love. What matters most here isn't the two leads' sexual identity. Adele's first love just so happens to be a girl. The movie never makes it a point to determine that she's strictly a lesbian, and in the end, we're left to question where she may go from here. Ultimately, she seems lost, having experienced this intense first love that was rewarding in so many ways, that lasted up to her 20s. In some ways, she has the whole world ahead of her, but on the other hand, she's left to ponder whether any future romances could ever match her romance with Emma. I love the way the film leaves us guessing. There is no exclamation point nor definitive statement here, Adele's life will go on. The film does a wonderful job showcasing how so many of these types of relationships often end in ways where so many things are left unsaid, so many questions remain unanswered. When most relationships end, especially the type Adele has with Emma, it tends to end with a frustrating ellipses, not an exclamation point. That sentiment is most definitely felt here.
In the end, "Blue is the Warmest Color" feels like a film that's simply decided to make one bold move after the other. It wants to go deep inside the lives of its principal two characters, and for the most part, it's extremely rewarding. It's not a completely smooth ride, and its direction is sometimes misguided (and quite nearly, derailed), but overall "Blue is the Warmest Color" is most definitely worth the trip.
Update 10/31: After further reflection, I've changed my mind on the grade. This really is a great movie, and I'm penalizing it too much based on my own reservations on the main sex scene, which really isn't as damaging as I initially felt. In other words, just see the movie! It's great.
I almost never ever change grades, but I felt it was important to do so here. Blue will easily make my year-end best list.