“Blue Is the Warmest Color” is proof that the cinema’s greatest gift to us is the close-up. No other medium gets so physically near to human experience as it unfolds in time; no other technique teases us with revelations of intimacy and every so often delivers. In Abdellatif Kechiche’s three-hour epic about a young woman’s coming of age — the top prize-winner at last May’s Cannes Film Festival and a scandale ever since — the camera hardly ever seems to leave the face of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) as it moves from pouty adolescent sensuality through physical ecstasy to a slowly hardening distress. If the filmmaker could somehow push past the barrier of his heroine’s skin to capture her madly firing neurons, you feel he would.
If he had, though, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” would be a different movie, and maybe not the one Kechiche intended. The public brouhaha surrounding this film has to do with three lengthy and explicit sex scenes that fill out the second hour, between Adèle and her older art-student girlfriend Emma (Léa Seydoux), but the movie is more properly about our larger appetites — for love, connection, life fully and vibrantly lived — and how, at the end of the day, we still end up hungry.
When the movie opens, Adèle is a bookish teenager, ravenous to take a bite out of experience. “Blue Is the Warmest Color” hangs around her classrooms and schoolyard, observing the catty byplay of her friends, a relationship with an earnest older boy (Jérémie Laheurte) that tips into sex and then falters. Adèle wants something more: She wants Emma, the blue-haired mystery girl she spotted in a public park — a rapturous movie moment of lust at first sight — and can’t get out of her head.
These early scenes are extraordinarily sympathetic to the confusions of youth, with cinematographer Sofian El Fani hovering daringly close to Exarchopoulos’s naive beauty. At times, the camera is content just to watch the girl sleep, either hoping for a glimpse of her dreams or simply marveling at this accidental odalisque. The original French title of “Blue Is the Warmest Color” is “La Vie de Adèle” -- “The Life of Adèle” — and Exarchopoulos gives us Adèle’s life force, tentatively at first and then in big, greedy gulps. If the movie deserves to be remembered for anything, it’s for this performance, risky and raw in ways not easily quantified.
Adèle finally meets Emma when the younger girl unintentionally-on-purpose wanders into a gay bar; and their initial conversation, followed by the slow dance of courtship and first kisses, is remarkable for the way it conveys the hermetically sealed pleasures — the sounds, the sunlight — of new love. It’s with the sex scenes that “Blue Is the Warmest Color” develops static, not because they’re “shocking” (which they’re not, really) or overlong (which they are) but because they’re aestheticized. Kechiche films the scenes in long takes with medium closeups; the emphasis is on emotional and physical desire finding explosive release, rather than the mechanistic calisthenics of porn.
Still, this is a voyeur’s airbrushed view of two women making love, not quite far enough from the tastefully intertwined limbs and slow dissolves of an old David Hamilton movie on late-night Cinemax. It’s not messy enough, either with these characters’ specific personalities or the funk of real life.
Would this movie look, sound, be different if a woman had made it? If a gay woman had made it? The question is both irrelevant and not. (For what it’s worth, Julie Maroh, author of the original graphic novel, has diplomatically disparaged the film on similar grounds.) Kechiche wants to deliver a heightened experience, to flood our senses with Adèle’s, but his movie only goes so far, and whether that’s a failure of filmmaking, imagination, or gender is anyone’s guess.
The last hour of “Blue Is the Warmest Color” follows the heroine’s life during the years after she and Emma break up; Adèle becomes shellshocked and stalled, and so does the film. It’s as if the director had given up trying to get under her skin and contented himself with recording the character’s weepy, occasionally grotesque flailings. There’s not much tragedy to any of this (although Exarchopoulos is still very affecting) and not much point either.
The most unflattering read would be that Kechiche has already had his way with Adèle — narratively speaking, of course — and now wishes she’d just go home. A more sympathetic take would be that this talented filmmaker has retreated behind the screenplay’s maunderings about the eternal mystery of womanly desire, all of them voiced by men, none of them second-guessed by the female characters. If you don’t really understand women — or don’t even want to — it’s easier to just call them a mystery and let it go at that. For all the close-ups, that may be why “Blue Is the Warmest Color” never gets close enough.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.