IFC Films describes "Blue Is the Warmest Color" as "The story of a young lesbian couple's beginning, middle and possible end." While that's reductive, it does nominally describe the three-stage rocket that is Abdellatif Kechiche's three-hour film.
But let's not bury the lead: It's also an NC-17 film with a seven-minute sex scene that has made it cinema non grata in Idaho.
Natively titled "La vie d'Adele, Chapitres 1 et 2," this French film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, an honor that also officially went to leads Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. Both romance and sexual odyssey, Kechiche's film takes the point of view of Adele (doe-eyed Exarchopoulos), who's 17 going on 18 and bi-curious, if not simply gay-repressed. After a literary lesson in the power of a "love at first sight" glance (via Marivaux's "La Vie de Marianne"), lo and behold, Adele experiences one for herself in passing the provocatively blue-haired Emma (Seydoux) on the street.
Before long, the two meet again and strike up a conversation that's charged with possibility. Out-and-proud Emma has a few years on the tentative Adele, which sets the scene for a gentle sexual education. Despite intimations that Emma is a wild child on the lesbian scene, she instantly intuits, and welcomes, the need to try a little tenderness with Adele.
Kechiche (whose last domestic import was 2007's "The Secret of the Grain") captures that moment when the rest of the world goes away; he and his cast are totally successful at evoking the first blushes of emotional intimacy (chased by the physical intimacy of that sex scene). The film's own emotional intimacy is its strongest asset: Kechiche gets in close with tight close-ups that afford us the almost "possessive" privilege to be right there, as close as Adele and Emma are to each other, as each spills into the other's eyes and soul.
After that beginning, the film's middle explores the complications to Adele of embarking on a lesbian relationship: meeting Emma's cheerily accepting parents, dodging the truth as Emma meets Adele's seemingly unready parents, and enduring the third degree she's given at school by her "friends." (One of the film's interesting cultural assertions is a double standard of accepted gay male versus repellent lesbian female.) Adele's inability to care less about these social stigmas contributes to a bisexual confusion.
Wisely, the film's complicated "possible end" concerns itself less with sexual orientation and much more with the universal strains of a naturally aging relationship: jealousies, differing needs, divergent directions by which to drift apart. Earlier in the film, a teacher of "Antigone" ominously notes, "Tragedy is the unavoidable," a preparation for a rift that may or may not take between these two people who love each other but may not be able to share their whole lives with each other.
The literature Kechiche self-consciously references demonstrates his own priorities to tease out the provocative and liberating properties of art. Add extraordinary, emotionally generous performances, and "Blue Is the Warmest Color" grasps enough moments of truth to justify its extensive reach.
Rated NC-17 for explicit sexual content. Two hours, 57 minutes.