Blue Is the Warmest Colour, a long film about two sincere young women and their sexually rapt affair, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and is considered by many to be infinitely plain and true and honest. They are right. Others mock the film’s seven-minute, omni-orgasmic sex scene, claiming it is ruinously pornographic and suspiciously male-orientated (why must both actresses be quite so physically perfect?) and thus as sleazy as the sort of thing offered up in most commercial pictures. They are right too. But only in as much as the “the sex scene” is pretty much always a duff idea artistically. Only 3 per cent of sex scenes ever filmed have actually been any good, and the rest of them we endure with a kind of uncomfortable, amused sympathy.
In fact this infamous, too-smooth-limbed scene feels like a rather absurdist interlude in a film where the women mostly keep their boots and gloves firmly on, stomping about being buffeted by fate and fallen leaves in suburban streets and parks. Soon after Cannes, both lead actresses, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, denounced the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, as an exploiter, yelling that the film is nothing but an expression of his dark peccadilloes. Clearly neither has considered the career of Hitchcock.
Of course, none of this matters. Cinema is littered with exhausted actors, and directors using the screen to work through their problems and lusts. What matters is that Blue is very good, very touching, concentrating on young love and averagely bad decisions, with every moment hinging on the presence of the younger actress, Exarchopoulos (18 when filming), whose character is also called Adèle. She is solid and normal and yet at the same time exquisite and intuitive, with the self-esteem and freshness of a child and a completely artless way of offering her love or falling to pieces when it fails, like the shell of an egg cracking when the chick stirs inside.
Kechiche claims he cast her because of the way she ate a lemon tart when they went for lunch after her audition (“her way of chewing was very much within her senses”), and most of the film has that lemon tart all over it. The camera follows Adèle, close to her face, trying to puzzle her out. She always seems to be thinking about something out of reach. Godard (who devoted several films to celebrating his wife and muse Anna Karina) once said: “I want to be able sometimes to make you feel far from the person when I do a close-up”, and it seems this is what Kechiche is going for here. Looking and yet never quite possessing. The effect is that the camera brilliantly demonstrates how love feels: the slightly paranoid, deeply hysterical and hugely inaccurate super-concentration on one other person to the absolute exclusion of everything else. I can honestly say I’m not even sure where this movie is set. Somewhere near Lille?