We fear sex in the movies almost as much as we love movie violence. Every week, there are plenty of films that peddle violence in all its forms. But we have to turn to foreign films (or Showtime or porn) if we have any interest in thinking about or exploring the physical act of love. Show a woman getting the flesh torn from her back by an overseer's whip and you'll be showered with praise; show a woman's non-boob lady parts and you'll be slapped with an NC-17 rating.
In spite of its pedigree, Abdellatif Kechiche's French-language Blue Is the Warmest Color, which won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this spring, is destined for the art-house ghetto because of its MPAA rating and its frank depiction of human sexuality. But Kechiche's cultured mini epic is just as valuable as a portrait of a specific young woman during a specific period in her life.
That young woman is Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who we first meet when she's finishing high school. Like Beowulf or Antigone, Adèle is simultaneously there and not there as she goes about her day. She loves literature and has good taste in movies and music. But those pleasures apparently aren't enough; as her girlfriends remind her, she hasn't been with a guy yet. There are two reasons for this. First, she can't find any guys she's interested in. Second, whenever she thinks of sex, her erotic dreams involve Emma (Léa Seydoux), a young, blue-haired woman with whom she once shared a passing glance.
The fantastic Exarchopoulos is on screen constantly, thinking about her life and rearranging her great tempest of hair to match her moods. To heighten this intimacy, Kechiche's camera frequently frames Adèle's face in tight close-ups during most of her daily activities. We see her eating with gusto, sleeping heavily, and crying stormily. (The only bodily fluids shown in this film are tears and snot.) Blue seldom leaves Adèle as she grows up and learns how to manage her enormous emotional and physical appetites.
But she gets to indulge in those appetites first. The film's four distinctive sex scenes and the two or three fleeting glimpses of female genitalia gave Blue its NC-17 — a rating which, among other things, ensures that a movie featuring some of the year's smartest, most realistic teenagers is now off-limits to teens themselves. But the first sex scene is the only one where Adèle is with a man. It ends with Adèle staring off in space, breaking the awkward silence to utter a melancholy, "It was great."
Adèle and Emma are with each other during the other three sex scenes, which flout most of the clichés that mar so many contemporary cinematic sexual encounters. There's no romantic music drowning out the gasps, groans, and moans of the participants, and there's little in the way of romantic lighting. There's just two people sweating, writhing, and working very hard to get each other off.
I wish other movies respected sex and love enough to treat it as seriously.
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Opens Friday, November 8th
Studio on the Square