Human beings are animals. We eat, we sleep, we fuck. That we try to find some meaning in it all is what makes us humans—it’s the sapiens in Homo sapiens. On that score, Blue Is the Warmest Color is interested primarily it what it means to be human, raptured by a young woman’s carnal urges and, simultaneously, by her desire to grow older, to figure out what she likes and what she doesn’t. It is intense, both physically and emotionally, in the sex scenes and in every other scene. Abdellatif Kechiche’s film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May—in an unprecedented move it was awarded not only to the director but also to his two actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. The jury made a wise choice in rewarding such a passionately honest movie about youth and the elusive quest to figure out what makes you you.
You’ve heard about the sex scenes, and yes, they are rather explicit, but they are not superfluous. Quite the contrary. The film is anchored by, according to my totally non-empirical research, a nearly ten-minute scene shared by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux. This scene, which is lengthy in the moment, is the keystone of the film’s plot and also the film’s emotional center—it is when Adèle (the character and the actress share a name) and Emma (Seydoux) consummate their relationship and their sexual attraction, and critically when Adèle’s emotional desires are closest to being fulfilled. There are sex scenes on either side of this one (including one, which you might not have known, with a guy), but in my reading these arose more out of physical need or, in the scene with the guy, Adèle’s curiosity, rather than desire, if such a distinction exists. In Adèle’s first sexual foray with Emma, her curiosity and need marry with her desire, and satisfy it. For a few minutes, then, it all makes sense: The regret and longing of the protagonists from the novels in her high school lit class, and her own insecurities about her friends, her potential lovers, and her future all seem to have been about something, even if Adèle can’t put her finger (or her lips) on anything other than Emma and even if Adèle still doesn’t know what her future holds. She does know that she wants to live her life on her own terms, it’s just that she can’t explain what those terms are—Adèle is often shown at a loss for words when asked to describe how she feels, though she’s adept at making up stories about herself. In bed with Emma, though, she can communicate her messy insecurities and desperation with her body, not verbally. The sex is messy, too, but also profound and beautiful—in other words, it’s human.
In this way, Blue Is the Warmest Color works on two levels, the physical and the emotional. As to the former, well, I doubt that will surprise anyone who sees the film. One of its most striking features is how much time, for a movie that’s three hours long, the characters spend eating—there’s spaghetti, and gyros, and oysters, and each other. I don’t use that last example to be funny, because Kechiche is using his film to emphasize that food is not the only craving that belongs to our voracious appetites. I’m no Latin scholar—I defer to kyra where that’s concerned—but I know a Romance language and don’t think it’s for nothing that the Spanish word for meat (carne) shares a root with the word carnal, which in English is used almost exclusively to refer to sex. Appetite serves as a useful frame of reference for studying Adèle, I think, given her hunger not just for sex with Emma but for learning. It is no coincidence that Adèle frequently asks for seconds at dinner, except after her first afternoon with Emma (but before they have sex). We sense that part of her hunger may have been quenched, and it will be once she and Emma begin their affair. Adèle’s mother senses her daughter’s happiness, too, though she wouldn’t suspect her of pining for another woman.
If Kechiche acknowledges that bonds between individuals are fleeting and inexplicable for the relatively brief time that they materialize—and I believe he does, given how hard it is to understand yourself—he also sees in food a communal power, the power to bring individuals to one table and a shared meal. His brilliant 2007 film The Secret of the Grain (a thousand times better than its lame English title) tails a Tunisian immigrant asking his extended family—including his mistress, because of course—to get along so that the couscous restaurant he plans to open will have success. What interests him here, in addition to the pleasure of eating, are its physical effects—when the food is good, it fills you up. Adèle and Emma share meals, too, of shellfish and sandwiches; Emma even makes a joke about the texture of oysters. Instead of consuming solely food, of course, they’re each also consuming another person, and all of the attendant baggage. To be in love is, in a way, to be full, and when Adèle and Emma fight in the film’s third act, the result is akin to them having digested and regurgitated their suspicions and frustrations the way you would a plate of spaghetti that tasted wonderfully but sagged in your stomach. Eating food is an act of nourishment, elevated when shared with another person. Eating flesh is, in the film’s language, the same passionate act.
The film also stresses the rise and fall of Adèle’s emotions, and in particular Adèle’s maturity and liberation. It is this arc, this emotional story, that coexists with and ebbs along side the near constancy of Adèle’s physical experiences, for Adèle can feel physical pleasure more often than her confusion and searching would permit her to feel truly at peace. The film is completely her story, captivated at all times by a singular question: What is she thinking? So much of the film is shot in close-up, enough to watch Adèle’s eyes dart around a room or a situation that she’s just entered, trying to harness the myriad thoughts and questions that a sighting of faces old and new awaken. Like every teenager, Adèle is a contradiction, one who strives for independence but is scared about what that entails. From her friends at school to Emma’s artistic and almost suffocatingly intellectual circle, Adèle flutters in between and around different groups of people but can’t quite grasp how to fit in—her mates at school resort to peer pressure as a defensive tactic to hide their jealousy, and Adèle doesn’t speak with the cultivated worldly experience that Emma’s friends profess to have in spades. This independence is something for which Adèle has wished—she loves to read not so that her teacher can impart to her what he think the text means but so that she can indulge and rely on her opinions—but, now that it’s been granted, offers a lot of loneliness. It’s no surprise that Adèle still wants a mentor and a guiding influence.
In Emma, Adèle sees both her mentor and the source of her potential liberation. One of their first conversations concerns Sartre, with whose philosophy Adèle is only mildly familiar—Adèle may have read him, may not have totally understood him, but is immediately attracted to hearing Emma relate the importance of being true to oneself and of shedding yourself from the pettiness of others. These thoughts resonate with (and within) Adèle, and it is ironic that the potential source of her own liberation is, in fact, another person. If Blue Is the Warmest Color charts the path of Adèle’s liberation and her emotional maturity, and if she reaches a more liberated or mature state by the film’s end, as I think she does, then her development does not come without a cost. Part of that comes from the irony that I just outlined—here Adèle has met somebody who causes her to try new things and think about life in a new way, but in opening her own doors she has also opened some in Emma. Adèle briefly fulfills her own desires, but so too has Emma, and they are attached. If they truly seek liberation, then their needs might eventually overwhelm what the other has to give, despite the ultimate satisfaction that they might share. The fierceness of their independence and of their passion for each other are not necessarily as compatible as their intertwined bodies might suggest. Kechiche uses a technique that reinforces Adèle’s liberation, and its consequences: While much of the film is shot in close-up, scenes often end with a shot of Adèle from a distance, after another person has taken leave of her. Independence does not come without breaking away from other people, or without pain.
Blue Is the Warmest Color is an ecstatically and painfully honest movie, one that lays all of its cards on the table. It is honest about the affection and primal urges that sex can arouse. It is honest about the confusion of being young, of thinking you know what you want only to discover that you want something else entirely. It is honest about the irony that each of us are independent and unknowable but cannot live without other people, for better or for worse.
It is honest, too, about how it was made. Aside from the sex, the film’s makers have added to its surrounding controversy because of what was undoubtedly a demanding shoot. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux have stated that they would not work with Kechiche again—Seydoux described the five-and-a-half-month shoot as “horrible.” Kechiche responded by suggesting at first that the film should not be release and essentially calling Seydoux a fame-seeker before backtracking. Other crew members have leveled complaints about working conditions. This all makes sense, though—the movie is so intense that it could not have been a joy to wake up every day and think about the wringer through which you would have to put yourself. Kechiche’s style is spontaneous—it’s almost completely shot with handheld cameras—which makes the act of shooting these scenes easier, but not the act of making them, because the cameras allow for so many angles.
Critically, though, the film is aware of this—one of Emma’s friends, in flirting with Adèle, mentions that he left the acting business because the directors were so crazy. Kechiche isn’t the only one; you don’t have to look any further than heralded directors like David Fincher and Terrence Malick to read anecdotes of demanding shoots and actors who won’t renew their professional relationships. Cinema is an intensely, intimately voyeuristic medium—above all it is concerned with the act of watching another person, and is at its best when it succeeds in letting you enter that person’s life for a couple hours. That we are witnesses to Adèle’s sexual explorations is an extreme example of that voyeurism, but it is not unique to Blue Is the Warmest Color. Why the film had to have been such a chore to make is also why it is so stunningly beautiful—its insistence in honesty in sex and in relationships, from which a more timid film would have shied away. I don’t care that Exarchopoulos or Seydoux don’t want to work with Kechiche again; in fact, I don’t see why they should. I’m just glad that they did not shy away from these roles and were fearless in their performances. I’m fucking hungry.