Criterion // 2013 // 179 Minutes // Rated NC-17
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Bromley // March 24th, 2014
"I have infinite tenderness for you. I always will. All my life long."
The controversial art house hit Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d'Adèle -- Chapitres 1 et 2) is the rare new release that bypasses the waiting period and is being released directly on the prestigious Criterion Collection label. From festival awards to Golden Globe nominations, critical praise to public controversy, does the movie live up to the hype?
High school student Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos, I Used To Be Darker) is a typically confused teenage girl. She talks about boys, she dates boys, she tries sex with boys but can't find happiness anywhere. One day she sees a blue-haired girl on the street who turns out to be Emma (Léa Seydoux, Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol), an artist who eventually begins a very passionate love affair with Adèle. Like so many love stories, though, this one is fraught with obstacles: disapproving friends, outside temptations and eventually Adèle's own confusion and unwillingness to grow.
There's probably a very good two-hour movie inside of Blue is the Warmest Color, the latest film from writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche (adapted from the 2010 graphic novel by Julie Maroh). Unfortunately, this is not a two-hour movie. It's a three-hour coming-of-age romance that feels more than once like it's taking place in real time, and both the length and the pacing -- along with some of Kechiche's other choices -- make the film feel indulgent. Beautiful at times and often moving, yes, but very indulgent.
The winner of the 2013 Palme D'Or at Cannes (the director and two stars picked up awards as well), Blue is the Warmest Color has the capability to feel real and immediate -- a dizzy head rush of intense first love played against a somewhat political backdrop of art and gay intolerance. Kechiche is good at catching the moments in a new relationship -- both the small and the big -- and there is much of the film that rings true and is always deeply felt. It runs into trouble, though, when it tries to capture every moment; Kechiche's style is so "fly on the wall" that every beat of the relationship is equated with every other beat. In theory, it's a fascinating and unique way to tell a love story -- one that's much more like life itself. As dramatic cinema, though, it's overkill.
Then there are the sex scenes, for which the film was already best known before it started making the festival rounds. They are, in fact, graphic. And long. The movie earns its NC-17. It is not my job to review sex scenes, nor should the film be judged by them. But they are also indicative of one of the major flaws in that like much of the rest of the movie, they too feel indulgent. I'm not a prudish movie watcher, and I recognize that there is something beautiful about the way the two women attack one another -- such is their passion that even their intense physical expression fails to do it justice. But then the scene goes on and on and on, and one has to wonder if Kechiche was simply striving for realism (letting this moment play out just as he had dinner conversations) or just being exploitative. The problem is compounded when the movie returns to the characters having sex several more times despite the fact that no new character information or change in the relationship is being conveyed. Stars Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos publicly spoke out against the working conditions on the set, and it's difficult not to have that in mind as the scenes go on and on and on.
But I'm being too hard on the movie just for not seeing as the masterpiece it had been built up to be. There are still many rewards in the movie, not the least of which are the lead performances by Seydoux and (especially) Exarchopoulos. They are as passionate as their characters and create a love story that feels real even as it begins to show some major cracks. The photography is beautiful (and not just because of how much the camera is in love with Exarchopoulos) in an observational way. The film is allowed to breathe -- and then allowed to breathe some more until it starts to feel flabby. And as good as Exarchopoulos is, I only wish we had gotten to know more about Adèle as a person. I applaud the movie for allowing her to be young and flawed and making her more a human being than a movie character, but I didn't feel at the end of three hours that we understood her very much. Yes, she is confused (and not just sexually, though that is certainly implied in more than one instance) and that confusion leads to drama. But coming-of-age dramas typically allow us to see our protagonist come of age. For much of the movie, Adèle's stasis is part of the point. Eventually, though, Blue is the Warmest Color ought to make a point of its own point.
Criterion's video presentation is, not surprisingly, very strong. The digitally shot film gets a 1080p transfer that's never show but always very beautiful, making the most of a photographic style that appears to emphasize naturalism on the surface but which hides some carefully place stylistic elements in plain sight. Detail is consistently rich and image is (obviously) free of defects. The lossless 5.1 audio track (in the original French with English subtitles; no English dubbing is available, not that anyone would want it) does a good job of capturing the naturalism of the sound design and layers background atmosphere with subtlety and care. Nothing about the A/V presentation is what you would call showy, but that doesn't make it any less stunning.
Despite being released by The Criterion Collection -- the label that basically invented home video special features -- this Blu-ray of Blue is the Warmest Color has no real special features, aside from the theatrical trailer, a TV spot, and the requisite liner notes booklet. There is a reason for that, which is...
...Criterion has already stated that a "special edition" of Blue is the Warmest Color will be released at a later date, meaning this disc is only for those who want to see the movie. If you're a fan and you know you'll want this in your library, wait for Criterion's usual deluxe version with the supplemental features. If you're just curious and want to check the film out, best to give it a rental first.
Indulgent, but worthwhile.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
Running Time: 179 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated NC-17
* TV Spot
* Official Site
* Facebook Page