Blue Is the Warmest Color: First Time Cannes’ Top Winner Given to Actresses

A tender, sensual coming-of-age drama, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color was the surprise winner of the top award, the Palme d’Or, at the 2013 Cannes Film Fest.

The film was well received by most reviewers in Cannes, and likely will get strong critical support when it plays at the Toronto, Telluride, and N.Y. Film Fests in the fall. How accessible is this three-hour, ultra-detailed romantic epic remains to be seen, when IFC releases it in mid-fall (October 25).

It is noteworthy, that for the first time ever in the Cannes Fest’ history, the Palme d’Or was given to the two lead actresses as well as to the filmmaker (Spielberg, who served as president of the jury, was applauded for that decision). Kechiche was also awarded the FIPRESCI (International Critics Federation) Prize.

Rising star Léa Seydoux (the current face of Prada) has been busy of late, appearing in “Farewell My Queen,” Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” and Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds,” among others. With some luck, careful choice of roles, and good management, she should evolve into a major international movie star. But the big surprise in the picture is the breakout performance of newcomer, Adèle Exarchopoulos, playing a challenging role.

The French-Tunisian writer-director Kechiche has made an impression with “The Secret of the Grain,” but then stumbled with his last film, “Black Venus,” in 2010, a harsh and demanding biopic of Saartjie Baartman, the nineteenth-century South African slave-turned-freakshow-act.

Unfazed by this failure, Kechiche has embarked on his most ambitious and fully realizes work to date. It would be unfair to label “Blue is the Warmest Color” as “lesbian” (the label might ghettoized it), because many of its sharp observations about first erotic lesbian love apply to any erotic first love.

On the surface, “Blue is The Warmest Color” is a genre film, a coming-of-age story revolving around a complex romance. What’s new about the film is Kechiche’s attention to detail and his fresh perspective on youthful desire and sexual awakening.

When the story begins, the heroine, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), is just a precocious high-school girl who, like many girls of her kind, embarks on an odyssey of self-discovery that includes sexual practice and identity.

Refreshingly, the story doesn’t focus on coming out as Adele’s defining experience, but cleverly acknowledges this crucial phase and moves on to depict a more multi-nuanced portrait of female sexuality that not many male directors are capable of.

At 15, Adèle feels that “something” is missing from her life, especially in matters of the heart. Though her handsome schoolmate Thomas (Jeremie Laheurte) falls hard for her hard, an unsettling erotic reverie upsets their romance even before it has chance to begin.

Adèle imagines that the mysterious, blue-haired girl she has encountered in the street slips into her bed and possesses her with an overwhelming pleasure. Indeed, Adele becomes much more intrigued by the older art student Emma (Léa Seydoux) than by any male mate around.

The paths of the two girls crisscross several times, but they actually meet when Emma makes her first trip to a lesbian bar. Their strong physical attraction to each other leads to some graphically sensual sex scenes that would make Bertolucci (of “Last Tango in Paris”) proud and blush. Emma is clearly older, more mature, and more experienced, compared to Adèle, who is still struggling with her nascent sexual identity.

Kechiche has fashioned an intimate epic that relies on the tremendous sensitivity, powerful and authentic acting, and expressive faces and bodies of the two actresses, who are asked to strip their bodies and souls. Step by step, he depicts Adèle’s growth from a sensual youngster to a sexual woman who is in greater control of all of her needs. But Adele’s personal evolution does not take place in a social void, and Kechiche explores the individual journey against the broader and changing contexts of school, work, friends and family.