Nudity in non-erotic film is nothing new. Still, nudity rarely buoys above the drowning censure of “too postmodern,” “offsetting its lacking narrative” or, more bluntly, “pornographic.” Regardless, it invariably ruffles feathers. “Blue Is the Warmest Color” runs a three-hour long marathon that ultimately unpacks much more than unclothed close-ups and homoerotic proclivities. Rather, this bildungsroman about a confused French schoolgirl prefers to illustrate the respective life roles of hunger, education and skin. Sex just happens to permeate profusely into all of these compartments.
“Blue” has been stirring up contention because of its copious graphic sexual sequences — one lasting a sweaty, loosen-your-collar seven minutes. As a result, the Tunisian-born helmer Abdellatif Kechiche (“The Secret of the Grain”) has attracted more press about his directorial practices than the Palme d’Or-winning film itself. Post-release, one of the two lead actresses called the director a “sadistic and perverse manipulator.” This up-in-arms discourse over the filmmaker-actor relationship has clouded the honesty and observation of the film. The nudity is neither auxiliary nor detachable; it instead enriches an otherwise conventional first-love story of age disparity.
Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos, “Les enfants de Timpelbach”) is a shy, pretty 17-year-old with a penchant for classic literature. She has a circle of friends that insists on chatting about sex, boys and sex with boys. Adèle’s self-consciousness is depicted nonstop onscreen as she readjusts her sloppy hair-bun and hikes up her jeans. We get used to seeing her face as the lens often fixates inches away. Her bee-stung lips barely reveal her front two teeth, and her curious eyes penetrate the silver screen. These features suggest a void within her, a hunger.
After her brief sexual fling with the most desired guy in her class, Adèle seems directionless. To add to the confusion, a female classmate, on a whim, kisses Adèle following a “you’re the cutest girl in our grade” compliment. To her own disbelief, Adèle likes it — so much so that she later peregrinates to a lesbian bar. Out of place, Adèle locks eyes with the familiar blue-haired woman across the room. Her name’s Emma (Léa Seydoux, “Midnight in Paris”), she paints professionally and she’s five years older.
So begins the first-love story. Their relationship starts as purely dialogic, mostly Emma versing her new apprentice, for example, in the philosophy of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. This big sister link then turns for the hypersexual — no stone is left unturned on either of their undressed bodies. The intimacy of their verbal exchanges translates into the bedroom, creating robust roots on which their joint bellflower can blossom. Their sinuous odyssey through budding professional lives brings along with it real tears, youthful regret and age-long gazes.
Exarchopoulos and Seydoux act their asses off, conveying an unprecedented mutual trust through deft improvisation and organic gesturing. Exarchopoulos immerses deeply in Adèle’s naiveté — her averting eyes around Emma’s arty colleagues reveal her discomfort. Emma’s unassuming wisdom and intellectual security serve as a foil for Adèle — her gentle half-open eyes fear nothing and embrace all.
The local lens makes us feel like the invisible third wheel, pensive in the other’s eyes or climactic in the sheets. The only reasonable element of the “pornographic” argument is that both actresses showcase flawless skin and frame. But “Blue” wants to talk about skin: Our lead Adèle ventures into untrodden territory vocationally and existentially and, most importantly, sexually. Before meeting Emma, sex merely sated an ephemeral, unthinking desire. Now, it bridges a gap between sentiment and education.