NEW YORK — After a film wins the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, its international rollout usually consists of soft-pedaled interviews and much obligatory back-patting about the mutual brilliance of all parties involved. Not so with this year’s winner, Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” In this as in other respects, it chooses to buck the familiar.
The Palme d’Or celebration has unexpectedly been followed by an extended standoff between Kechiche and one of his two stars, Léa Seydoux. She said in interviews with The Daily Beast website and the British newspaper The Independent that she felt “like a prostitute” during the film’s graphic sex scenes, and that the experience on set was “horrible,” describing Kechiche’s shooting more than 100 takes of a single 30-second sex scene. Kechiche characterized the film as “sullied” by Seydoux’s comments and suggested it might be better if it not be released.
The 52-year-old director had already made a name for himself in France with warm, emotionally generous films like “Games of Love and Chance” and “The Secret of the Grain.” “Grain,” a bittersweet, multi-character family chronicle set in the Mediterranean port city of Sete, had used food as a flexible metaphor for bonds of love and familial attachment. One sensual pleasure is now logically followed by another, with “Blue Is the Warmest Color” a sort of undeclared sequel. “I think I express a certain fascination for faces as they’re eating and expressing and experiencing all this pleasure while they’re eating,” says Kechiche of his earlier work during a recent visit here for the New York Film Festival. “And I dared to go further in this film by showing pleasure through the body.”
The new film, whose French title translates as “The Life of Adèle,” is a romantic Bildungsroman at epic length. Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) goes from attending high school to teaching elementary school, from romantic innocence to experience, over the course of its three hours. She also discovers her sexuality, first with a male classmate, and then with blue-haired painter Emma (Seydoux). The sheltered Adèle spots Emma while crossing a busy street and is immediately, visibly smitten. “She tells herself, I want to live something with this girl. One night, one life, one week, I don’t know,” says Exarchopoulos, also here to promote the film. The sight leads Adele to a night at a lesbian bar, to a relationship with the mercurial Emma, ultimately, to a front-row seat for the steady ascent of Emma’s career.
Asked if he had been taken aback by the actors’ complaints, Kechiche is blunt: “It’s not the actors, it’s one actress. Even if she tried to bring the other one into it, I don’t think she really managed to do it. When I learned about it, I really experienced it as something of a shock. But I quickly started to ask myself some questions. What had pushed Léa to spread such lies? To work so hard at sullying me and the movie? And it was such a contrast to her attitude during the shoot and at Cannes.”
“Blue Is the Warmest Color” pushes past a happy ending to a sad one, and past a sad ending to an indeterminate, messy one. A high-school romance becomes a lesbian-awakening story, which becomes a breakup story about two people torn apart by success, which becomes an account of burning through your illusions to reach something denser, and more lasting, underneath the surface. “For me, it’s like life,” says Exarchopoulos. “Sometimes it’s boring, sometimes it’s raw, sometimes it’s so passionate, sometimes it’s humiliating, sometimes it’s art, sometimes it’s natural.”
The rawness is visible onscreen as well, in the brutal arguments between Adèle and Emma, and most prominently in the film’s extended sex scenes. Exarchopoulos remembers that Kechiche warned her and Seydoux from the outset about the wire-walking of such public exposure. “I want to make [for] a kind of introspection in their bed,” Exarchopoulos says of Kechiche’s directive to his actors. “It’s important for my character to discover what the feeling is when you offer yourself, and you really abandon yourself.” The intense erotic encounters eschew the mood music and elegant lighting of most films’ sex scenes. “Natural love is sometimes ugly, but you are so involved that you just have the pleasure of the body,” says Exarchopoulos.
“There’s something in me that wanted to get closer and closer to the faces,” Kechiche says of the transition from “Grain” to “Blue.” “I think I went from a group to two characters, and if I take that further, then ultimately really focusing on one.” Kechiche surreptitiously studied his actors while they ate and relaxed in the hopes of gleaning shards of personality that could be used onscreen, like Exarchopoulos’s hungrily licking her knife in an early family dinner scene.
Exarchopoulos and Seydoux were instructed to improvise their dialogue (a major reason why they shared in the Palme d’Or). Kechiche would regularly shoot dozens of takes for a given scene, or take the cast out at night to hip-hop concerts and nightclubs. “He likes to work in a weird state how you are not really conscious,” Exarchopoulos says of Kechiche. “When you make many, many takes you lose yourself. He wants you to abandon yourself, to not control anything. To be really instinctive.”
Exarchopoulos, who had also taken part in Seydoux’s controversial Daily Beast interview, played down her costar’s critique. “It’s hard to make a journalist understand how much a human adventure can be difficult,” she says. “It’s normal that sometimes you have conflict. You always have. And you can’t control when it explodes.” But she also agrees in part with Seydoux. “I think all actresses are prostitutes. It’s lying to yourself to not say that,” she notes. “You have to smile, you have to wear a dress, you have to make yourself a hypocrite sometimes. To sell yourself. I discovered this part of the job, and for me, this is a kind of prostitution. But making a movie is not.”
In talking about the contretemps with Seydoux, Kechiche sounds like the heartbroken Adèle, reeling from a breakup. “This whole discourse should not have occurred,” he says. “I was very much out for her best interests. We were rewarded by the greatest name in filmmaking, Steven Spielberg [head of the Cannes jury], we had everything to be happy, and to savor all the beautiful things that were happening to us. Léa expressed so much joy and so much gratitude for receiving the Palme at Cannes when we were together. That all that would be destroyed by words that weren’t thought out is extremely regrettable.”
Saul Austerlitz can be reached at email@example.com.