A three-hour epic, "Blue is the Warmest Color" expertly charts a volatile romance

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

First love's seismic qualities have seldom been captured with such abandon as in Abdellatif Kechiche's Palme D'Or winner, a 179-minute sprawl of heartbreak.

Adèle (Adèle Excarchopoulos, left) and Emma (Léa Seydoux).

City Paper grade: A-

First love’s seismic qualities have seldom been captured with such abandon as in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme D’Or winner, a 179-minute sprawl of heartbreak shot on a vast, wide-screen panorama that scarcely strays more than 6 inches from a young woman’s face. Adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel (because even French arthouse movies are based on comic books these days), Blue is the Warmest Color charts the ardent sexual awakening and eventual crushing despair of Adèle (Adèle Excarchopoulos). She’s a book-smart, working-class teenager who can already tell things aren’t clicking with her boyfriend when one day she’s gobsmacked by the sight of butch, blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux). What follows is a rapturous exploration of love, rendered in giddy, almost impossibly shallow-focus close-ups that make the rest of the world go away, plus a few super-heroic sex scenes.

The extent to which these lengthy tête-à-têtes have dominated discussions of the film suggests just how uncomfortable we still are with movie characters behaving as if they have genitals, but it’s worth mentioning that the actresses are a mite distractingly well-lit. Still, they spend more time at the dinner table than in the bedroom, and whether noisily slurping oysters, pasta or each other, the obvious focus here is the voraciousness of these young lovers’ appetites.

Until suddenly, with a single, devastating cut, it’s all over. Halfway through Blue, Kechiche jumps ahead several years and we’re abruptly confronted with a couple that has drifted apart. Kechiche signals his aspirations toward the epic by borrowing Lawrence of Arabia's bifurcated structure and throws in a spaghetti-dinner homage to Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence to tip off just how far we're going to fall.

Excarchopoulos’ performance is something of a miracle, with every raw, unfiltered feeling rippling across that endlessly expressive face. Kechiche’s camera never flinches, filming a fairly familiar coming-of-age tale as if through a microscope, the proximity pumping up emotions so everything feels like it’s happening for the very first time.

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