Say this for “Blue is the Warmest Color,” the Cannes award winner that is as famous for its long, explicit sex scenes as it is for its honors and actresses: It earns the NC-17 rating the MPAA imposed on it.
This overlong, somewhat sad-faced account of a lesbian romance, from its beginnings to its end, features what has already become the most notorious lesbian sex scene in screen history: 10 minutes of grappling, groping and bare-skin slapping that flirts with pornography.
The movie surrounding that epic moment of titillation? A bit slack, repetitious and sometimes frustrating. “Blue,” titled “La Vie Adele” in France, is a 100-minute movie straining to break out of a three-hour-long argument for tighter editing.
We meet Adele (Adhle Exarchopoulos) as a 17-year-old high school junior with a lot of girlfriends given to frank talk about boys and sex. In a long first act, we see the bookish Adele, all mussed hair and lips that default to a sort of depressed pout, deal with the confusion she feels amid the peer pressure to hook up.
Thomas (Jirimie Laheurte) is interested. But he doesn’t do it for her. Adele’s erotic dreams are about the girl with the short, blue hair she glimpsed in a crowd. And when she finally meets Emma (Lia Seydoux of “Farewell, My Queen” and “Midnight in Paris”), Adele learns what chemistry is all about.
Emma is a college fine arts major who wonders if Adele is “a straight girl who’s a little curious.” But she likes her “type” – young, inexperienced. Adele lures Emma out of her long-term affair, and Emma teaches Adele all about being gay in France – pride parades, introduction to the “art” crowd, the works. And she instructs the younger woman about sex.
The second act of the film sees them cohabitating, Adele now teaching school, Emma an artist on the rise. The adoring Adele may say (in French with English subtitles) “I am fulfilled with you,” but the camera catches the hints of jealousy, infidelity and the like – the “late nights at work,” the revenge hook-ups.
The only intolerance that turns up in this enlightened French world comes from Adele’s mean-girl teen peers. Her parents accept her, she has a gay pal (Sandor Funtek) who’s sort of a Hollywood rom-com cliché, and shyness and uncertainty aside, her transition into this world is mostly drama free.
Director and co-writer Abdellatif Kechiche pours most of his effort into the signature sex scenes. Everything else exists to establish Adele’s character, her pragmatic life, her state of mind. And there’s too much of that, too many scenes that don’t advance the story and too many that go on and on after making their point. There are lengthy conversations and lengthy meals. We never visit Adele as a student or later as a teacher in a scene that doesn’t go on for endless minutes beyond what was needed. Even the sex scenes betray a lack of understanding of “How much is enough?”
But Exarchopoulos is a revelation, wearing her neediness, vulnerability and arousal with every muscle in her face, her posture, even her hair. It’s an utterly naked performance, literally and figuratively.
You can see where a director might become so besotted with his star that he’d be reluctant to trim her scenes and her star vehicle to a more digestible length. But that doesn’t excuse it. That robs “Blue” of some of its pathos and warmth, if not its heat.