Blue romantic drama is good not great

Blue is the Warmest Color is a good movie. It won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and it’s being universally praised as a masterpiece. The two leads Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos also shared the award at the festival and to be fair they’re both excellent. But it’s hard not to see the nod as both a hip one (this film is being over-praised now and I doubt will be remembered in the long run) and a reward for the film’s graphic (and completely non-gratuitous) sexuality.

It’s a fairly straightforward love story and coming-out tale like a mildly pretentious art house version of a teen romantic drama. (It moves into more adult territory chronologically speaking but never loses that initial sense of young people learning to fall in and out of love.) Adèle (Exarchopoulos) is a thoughtful high school student spending her days with her nose buried in a book. She tries to date and sleep with boys but something feels off. Then she catches a glimpse of Emma (Seydoux) a blue-haired queer art student. She’s instantly attracted to Emma with her open sexuality and swagger. Emma is like a lesbian gatekeeper introducing Adèle to a world of art philosophy and gender politics. They fall deeply in love and become each other’s all-consuming passion. But as the years pass the women find the faults in their relationship growing larger and larger.

Easily the film’s strongest asset is its pace. Director Abdellatif Kechiche draws the film out to three hours and it’s utterly absorbing. It’s all food family and work with the years melting into each other. Adele becomes an elementary school teacher while Emma finds success with her burgeoning art career. The film often feels natural and realistic with the women effortlessly guiding their characters’ lives and emotions. It’s also very cold and queasy as if you can see Kechiche rigidly trying to mould the women’s emotions by hand. A film this “realistic” and proscribed has to follow a certain set of rules. The effect is like a classier French version of Degrassi High .

There are a few outlier negative opinions surrounding the film. The criticisms: that a man is directing a story about lesbian love; that the sex is unrealistic; that it strays too far from the source material. Those opinions as always will depend on how close you are to the source material. (And how many theory classes you’ve taken in university.) The naysayers have a point though. A lot of people will be going to the film solely for the purported intensely graphic lesbian sex scenes whether they’re realistic or not.

The “real” part I dunno — the actresses used prosthetic stunt vaginas for the sex scenes (I couldn’t tell) and I’ve been reading comments from lesbian viewers who say the sex is both sort-of real and honest and/or totally fake. Scissoring they say is a total fiction just as I suspected. Does it matter? One of the film’s fatal flaws is that it does — the film is at pains to appear utterly completely realistic. (And here I tend to side with Werner Herzog who argues that realism is the enemy of cinema.) There’s also a digressive conversation about oysters (wink wink) that I’m sure lesbians would never have. The film does get a couple of things right heartbreakingly so: you never get over your first real love and there’s nothing more painful than someone saying they don’t love you anymore.

Like I said Blue is the Warmest Color is a good movie just not a great one. It has moments that are romantic and alive and just as many that are arch and constrictive. It’s captivating nonetheless. But I can’t help wonder why it’s 2013 and a film about two lesbians is yet another coming-out story and that most of the discussion surrounds the sex: how much and how realistic. For such a politicized film it’s telling that the most interesting scenes are those hiding in the margins like Adèle teaching her classroom full of kindergarten kids how to read. Now that’s a movie I would gladly watch again.