My girlfriend had a loose arrangement to text her friend Gemma during the section of Blue is the Warmest Colour that she described as “potentially awks”. That way she would have something to occupy her if things became too uncomfortable.
In the event, as luck would have it, there was no reception last night in screen six at Cineworld Fulham Road, so the longest of the three long sex scenes – seven bum-slapping minutes, according to some weirdo who timed it – had to be confronted head on, so to speak, without the shame-saving distraction of the iPhone. We just had to sit there, silently, like everyone else in the auditorium, as if it were perfectly normal to watch with strangers – and each other – while two young French actresses get naked and lick each other all over, nose to toes, stopping off at various points of particular interest in between. (It would be interesting to see how audiences outside England, where shoulders are generally more relaxed, react to the film: is there wolf-whistling in Sweden, cheering in Brazil?)
Blue is the Warmest Colour is the film that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and has since caused a considerable rumpus, at least in the smallish world of grown-up cinema. Both actresses – the relatively experienced Léa Seydoux and the newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos – initially basked in the warm glow of critical kudos on the Croisette, but have since spoken against their treatment during the making of the film; Seydoux is still angry, or perhaps embarrassed, while Exarchopoulos seems to have come round. The director, Abdellatif Kechiche, incensed by all this, has railed against actors in general, and even suggested the film should not now be released, since it has been sullied by the controversy: many (mostly male) critics love it; a few (mostly female) observers have taken issue with the mere fact of a middle aged heterosexual male director casting his eyes, and in the process ours, quite so closely and slowly over nubile female flesh. And anyway, say some feminists, what can a straight man know of lesbian love and sex?
In truth, the sex – while certainly explicit by the standards of mainstream cinema – is hardly shocking by comparison with what many of us have seen on the Internet. And while the naked sequences may last longer than they do in most films, fifteen minutes still only accounts for a fraction of a three-hour movie. What the sex scenes are – and why they may seem troubling to some – is intimate, exceptionally so. But then the whole film is intimate. It is an intimate study of intimacy. And, as a close-up depiction of the exquisite pleasure and pain of first love it is superb.
This is not a film review so I won’t bore you with the plot, not that there is much of that to bore you with. In France, where it was made and is set, the film is called La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 et 2, which nails it precisely: it is about the first chapters in the life of a young woman, who falls for another young woman. It details their love affair, over a number of years. It is sinuous, sensuous (as enraptured by food and music as sex) and seductive. But most of all it is an exercise in pure cinema, a love affair between the camera – and by implication, the audience – and its leading lady, the extraordinary Exarchopoulos, the focus held tight on her ever-changing face for what feels like hours, and not a moment wasted.
We see Adèle in company and alone, dancing and sleeping, as a schoolgirl and later as a schoolteacher, in control and out of her depth. It is a major performance from a young actress (she has just turned 20) who deserves all the attention she’s getting.
There’s still time to catch Blue is the Warmest Colour at the cinema. Go now. It is a film that demands to be seen on the big screen, in the dark, with no phone signal.