Controversy swirled around Blue is the Warmest Color almost as soon as the film's very existence came to light. This almost three-hour, NC-17-rated love story about two females — one of whom is 15 years old when the story begins — features what may be the most graphic (and lengthy) sex scenes ever shot for a nonpornographic film. The motives of French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche were called into question — first because he's a heterosexual male and again when his two lead actresses (Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos) complained bitterly to the press about difficult on-set working conditions. The film also won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the top prize at the world's most prestigious film festival. Led by none other than Steven Spielberg, the Cannes jury took the extraordinary step of giving the award to three people — the film's two young stars in addition to the director. Can the movie possibly measure up to the drama of its real-life backstory?
It's not drama but raw human emotion that allows Blue is the Warmest Color to rise above the chatter. Eighteen years old at the time of the shoot, Exarchopoulos plays the younger of the two women and delivers an unhurried, utterly realistic portrayal of an adolescent girl becoming an adult over the course of several years. (Kechiche effectively named the film — translated literally from the original French as "The Story of Adele, Chapters 1 & 2" — in her honor.) Early scenes in which Adele's teenage friends publicly humiliate her for the suspected romance with older art student Emma (Seydoux, a major star in France) are shocking in their cruelty. But the film's main triumph is found in the way it moves beyond issues of sexual orientation and develops a remarkably intimate and universal love story. Shot mostly in close-up, the film never drags despite its length, which is an achievement in itself.
The film's sex scenes are not for the easily offended, and undoubtedly will continue to be a source of controversy. Others may be troubled by the way Kechiche's camera dwells on the bodies of his beautiful stars even when they've got their clothes on, almost as if to invite accusations of exploitive intent. But the couple's physicality is essential to the story of youthful passion. Surprisingly, the film spends as much time in the classroom as the bedroom, as the only thing Adele knows she wants from life is to become an effective teacher of young children. The film celebrates meaningful vocation almost as much as it does sensuality. Making an authentic hero of a classroom teacher may be an even more daring act for a filmmaker than portraying graphic lesbian sex. Controversy is in the eye of the beholder. — KEN KORMAN