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In Emotionally Charged 'Blue,' Sex Is Graphic, But Not Gratuitous

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Blue Is the Warmest Color is a lesbian coming-of-age movie, and its long and graphic sex scenes have already generated controversy. The director, Abdellatif Kechiche, is a man, and at least one prominent female critic has accused him of leading with his own libido — a charge that I vigorously dispute, but of course I'm a man so take that as you will. Here's what I saw: a film that captures the intensity of sexual discovery — and dependency — in a way I've never seen. It's 179 minutes, every one of them charged. It's a remarkable experience.

In French the film is called La Vie d'Adèle for its lead character, Adèle, who was named after the actress who portrays her, Adèle Exarchopoulos. When we meet the character, she's studying literature in high school in hopes of being a teacher. She's also a virgin, and she's touchingly embarrassed when a handsome male student pays attention to her from across a room. They meet cute, begin dating, and then she passes a female couple on the street and her eye is seized by the more butch of the pair — a punky young woman with a big smear of blue in her hair who turns back and looks at Adèle. Later, when Adèle is fantasizing in bed, she imagines not her new boyfriend but the woman with blue hair. So she goes in search of her — tentatively, tremulously — and finds her in a gay bar. Her bluebird of happiness is a painter named Emma played by Léa Seydoux, and the attraction on both sides is instantaneous — and ferocious.

In her early scenes, Exarchopoulos has a kind of expressive vagueness, which sounds like a contradiction but here's what I mean: Her character hides her emotions, buries them deep, so when they do come out Adèle seems so vulnerable that you're frightened for her. The stakes in this movie are crazy-high.

In interviews, the two actresses have spoken bluntly and without affection about their director, who they say made them do take after grueling take — evidently to get something more raw. I can't speak to the process, which sounds horrible, but the results are stunning. Every one of the couple's interchanges is messy and seemingly spontaneous, and, for Adèle, fraught with importance. Losing Emma would mean losing her sense of completeness — even her reason for being.

The extended sex scenes are shot wide rather than close up and in long takes, with the camera sitting back and gazing straight ahead as these women do everything physically possible to connect. As I said, the case has been made that this is the "male gaze" — and exploitive. Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel on which Blue Is the Warmest Color is loosely based, called the longest sex scene, "a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold," and likened it to porn. I find it hard as a straight man to respond to that charge, except to say that sex in most movies tends to be generalized, a bunch of climaxes cut together, whereas these scenes show a process: lovers finding a rhythm and through it, each other.

The problem with Adèle and Emma's relationship is that the lovers are unequal. Emma has had a long line of girlfriends and is poised for success as a painter, while Adèle pursues a quiet career as a teacher of small children and seems increasingly scared that she's out of Emma's league. It's a valid fear. At times, Seydoux makes Emma an enigma — her art comes first. She has a lot riding on the relationship, but not, like Adèle, her very identity.

People who've been emotionally brutalized by long relationships should approach Blue Is the Warmest Color with care. It's potent. It might open old wounds. It might show you wounds you didn't know you had.

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