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Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

Drama Rated NC-17

The camera’s gaze is a deeply complicated element in Blue is the Warmest Color, a three-hour French romance that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Who is looking? And how are they (we?) looking? These are questions that continually need to be asked, and if anything is frustrating about the picture, it’s that the answers keep changing.

What’s clear is who we are looking at: Adele Exarchopoulos as Adele, an introspective teen at a crossroads in terms of her sexuality. Following the pressure of her peers, she tries out a brief romance with an older boy, but that leaves her uninspired. An impromptu kiss from a girlfriend suggests other possibilities, ones that become more fully realized when Adele meets Emma (Lea Seydoux), an older art student, and they embark on an intense affair.

This sounds like artsy Euro-porn, I know. (What was that movie on Seinfeld? Rochelle, Rochelle?) And I haven’t even mentioned the lengthy, graphic sex scenes between Exarchopoulos and Seydoux. Yet the movie is, mostly, interested in Adele’s interior life more than her exterior features. And in those moments where the reverse is true (they’re there), Exarchopoulos rightly refocuses the attention with an extraordinarily evocative performance of a confused, conflicted teen.

Consider a relatively minor scene, in which Adele and friends are in a protest march that’s part civil disobedience and part street festival. In distress over that failed school romance, Adele throws herself into the joy of the music at first, until a shadow quickly comes over her face and she joins in on the surrounding chants. Another brief grimace reveals her own awareness that she’s just going through the motions, which leads to shouts of startling rage. In only a few seconds, Exarchopoulos allows a peek into the complicated psychology that lies behind the wildly volatile emotions of your average teenager.

It helps here that writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche, working from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, keeps the camera tightly focused on Exarchopoulos’ face. This is the movie’s signature shot, and the one it returns to most often. (If you don’t find Exarchopoulos’ face to be fascinating, this will be a long three hours.) These close-ups are one way of looking, and they could best be described as adoring. Perhaps it represents the gaze of Kechiche, mesmerized by the beauty and talent of his young actress. Perhaps it’s our gaze, especially if we feel similarly. Or perhaps it’s meant to represent Emma’s point of view (although her attitude toward Adele fluctuates throughout the movie).

Who is looking? And how are they (we?) looking?

Other shots are more problematic in that voyeurism comes into play. Frequently the camera settles on Adele as she sleeps, vulnerable and unaware of its gaze. (The movie’s most exploitative moment, a brief shower shot, works similarly.) And then there are those sex scenes, most curious for how clinical they are. The focus is almost anatomical – largely on what parts are where. For all their explicitness, they reveal nothing about the emotional or intellectual aspects of the sexuality on display.

These lengthy sequences also remove all the mystery from Adele and Emma’s relationship. And it’s an irony of the movies that romances work best when we as viewers don’t experience everything between the couple on the screen. This is especially true when the sex scenes are at once extremely revealing (in terms of physicality) and yet wholly unenlightening (in terms of psychology or anything else).

There is a shot that indicates Kechiche is aware of these complications, and in fact encouraging them. At one point a close-up pans along Adele’s naked body, and just as we’re about to write it off as another moment of exploitation, the camera cuts to reveal that Adele is posing for one of Emma’s paintings. It’s a gotcha! touch that speaks directly to the movie’s slippery sense of perspective.

In the end, just about any scene in which Adele is clothed works far better than those in which she’s not – even if said scene involves her sexuality. (Case in point is the way she communicates with her hair, depending on whether it’s up or down, arranged or messy.) In these moments, Exarchopoulos takes the movie back from those gazing upon her, whoever they may be, and returns it to Adele.

It should be noted that Exarchopoulos’ strength is different from Adele’s. This is, overall, a very sad film, inasmuch as we root for her character. Adele often seems alone, distanced from her parents, her friends, her coworkers and – once the blush of infatuation has faded – even Emma. Blue is the Warmest Color has a comforting title, taken from the hue of Emma’s hair when the women first meet, yet Adele is more often than not out in the cold, a lost youth whose identity – sexual and otherwise – is still in flux.