Screens at CIFF: 10/12
World premiere: 23 May, 2013, Cannes International Film Festival

The Palme d'Or winner for 2013, Blue Is the Warmest Color, comes with some serious baggage attached. More than most Palme d'Or winners, I mean.

First, the running time: it's a "lifespan of a romantic relationship" drama that is great at three hours, and would probably be just as great and in the same ways if it was, say, two hours and a half. Two hours and a quarter, even. Maybe I'm wrong about that, for certainly the grand scale of time the film covers justifies that kind of epic treatment, but there are a lot of small moments that are… fine, but the difference between a movie that needs to be three hours long and a movie that needn't aren't a plethora of "fine" moments.

Second, the sex. The explicit, barely-simulated lesbian sex. I am not now and have never been a lesbian, so I really shouldn't pretend like I have a meaningful opinion on whether the sex scenes staged by a straight male director and two straight female actors are meaningfully true to the lesbian experience, but I'll say that the complaints by Julie Maroh, author of the source material, that it's very male gazey seem pretty much spot on, and anyway when a lesbian author looks at the adaptation of her lesbian lovers and tells the world, "that's not how we do it", I'm inclined to at least give her the benefit of the doubt.

What I am is a seasoned film-watcher, and in that capacity, I can say this about the sex scenes: there are too many of them, and at least two of them are too long. Which gets back to the three-hour running time, because if there's one outrageously obvious place to start backing off on that, it's one of the real-time sex scenes that, by expanding to ten minutes instead of just two or three, only really informs us that Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux are good sports, without actually communicating anything about how sex is experienced by humans that wasn't already clear. I can think of one plausible justification for this, which I'm going to hold on to for later.

There's a third thing, one that isn't a talking point like the first two, probably because it's kind of petty and dumb on part to even bring it up: for all that Blue Is the Warmest Color is a handsome title, mysterious and poetic and well-grounded in the film's visual schema, the French title, La vie d'Adèle (The Life of Adèle), is better. It sets up, much more clearly, what the film is actually about - since, unlike you've probably been led to believe, this isn't actually three hours of lesbians fucking, but a bildungsroman about a lesbian woman who, during her life, has sex - while also being well-grounded, symbolically, in the film's screenplay.

That's a whole lot of words to say, basically, that BITWC has flaws, and those flaws aren't tiny, and it feels like one of those Palmes that was given out for reasons somewhat larger than the movie itself. And I say all of this in the hopes of augmenting your expectations better than mine were augmented, for I had some timorous hope based on the hype that this might end up being one of the great films of the modern day. It's not at all, but it is awfully fucking good, and now I'm done saying bad things about the movie from here on out.

The fact is, BITWC is a depiction of adolescent and young adult psychology, primarily as it focuses on romantic relationships, of unyielding intimacy and comprehensive scope. Its protagonist, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is explored through some exquisitely tiny acting and strictly focused directing by Abdellatif Kechiche, whose previous films I have not seen, and so I cannot say if these very close stories of the way that people behave are characteristic of him, or not. What I can say is that in this particular case, Kechiche's relentless closeness, bordering on invasiveness at times, in depicting Adèle's life in its big moments and its little ones results in a particularly novelistic sort of character study, where we get to know the character more through the accumulation of moments that feel, all by themselves, quite insignificant, rather than any that strike with big, momentous "let me now demonstrate who I am" declarations. Exarchopoulos's performance follows suit, underplaying so much and residing for so much of the time in a register of inarticulate reacting that it's easy to think that she's simply not up to the task of carrying a movie, particularly with Léa Seydoux ripping the film apart with sweeping, huge emotional states as Emma, the blue-haired girl that awakens Adèle to her own desires and identity.

Two things become clear that belie this impression: one is that the more time we spend with Adèle, the more we find that we've already learned about her without realising it: and this is a huge credit to the writing and to the performance, both of which have to proceed extremely delicately to allow this kind of subliminal character-building. The other is that the film is told from an extremely subjective point of view that is disguised by Kechiche's apparently godlike camera view (I can't recall if there's a single scene told without Adèle in it, or even a conversation that she wouldn't be able to hear), and the degree to which Seydoux's Emma simply seems more alive and complete than Exarchopolous's Adèle is in fact a reflection of how the character herself views their relationship. To Adèle, Emma is a life force that brings color (literally; consider the English title) to her world, the source of everything vital and feeling. It would make sense, from that perspective, that Adèle would be plainer and less fully-formed; that is how she considers herself. This, incidentally, is the single justification I can think of for those marathon-length sex scenes: they are dramatising Adèle's own response to the events, which are of such enthusiasm and pleasure that she would linger over each detail in her mind, as long as possible (compare her single onscreen heterosexual experience, skipped over by a hasty edit almost the second it starts).

The ways that the film present this all-encompassing relationship are fascinatingly done. Most notably, there is a jump near the middle of the film that skips over years of life, including Adèle's entire university career; it is the time when, we can assume, the women are at their happiest, for when the film lands, the blue that has, to this point, defined all of the imagery of happiness and comfort has been replaced by reds and yellows, including Emma's hair; the relationship has changed considerably, and this being a French movie, we can be sure it's for the worst. The huge gap is easily the most interesting part of the movie, because it allows us to quickly track the way that the characters have changed (and failed to change, as applicable), and to very immediately compare the heady emotions of new love with the straggling desperation of a relationship on its last legs. The actresses go to some impressively bleak places in this back portion of the movie - Seydoux to some extravagantly mean ones as well - and the results are impressively raw and hard-won, leaving a film that effectively puts the viewer through the same emotional wringer (and perhaps this is a reason that the film deserves to be so long).

Based on recent interviews, everybody involved with the production seeming to hate it now, but it was worth whatever misery it took to get there. The life of Adèle is a richly-detailed one told with vivid, contagious empathy, and for all its questionable storytelling choices, it is an excellent work of emotional realism, and as exhaustively thrilling a love story as cinema has lately produced.