For the last few decades – perhaps even more – articles have popped up with some regularity, wondering aloud if movies are too long these days. As if there were some kind of formula: romantic comedies and slashers have to be 90 minutes long, dramas 120, and French lesbian coming of age sagas a walloping 180. Anything less is a cheat, anything more is just ridiculous.
Then again, maybe there’s something to it. Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color is almost exactly 180 minutes, and it feels like perfection. Reduce the film to its simple plot and you’re left with a straightforward, but perhaps still touching tale of a French teenager discovering her sexuality, entering into her first relationship, and screwing it up through sad, everyday insecurity. But that doesn’t capture the universality of the heroine’s journey, and the fact that days consist of more than just important story beats in our lives. By allowing Blue is the Warmest Color to truly breathe, Kechiche also imbues it with the honesty of actual life. It may be one of the most complete love stories of cinema, and thanks to thoughtful, careful direction and two of the best performances of the year it never feels “long.” Not even for a moment.
Adèle Exarchopoulos is Adèle, a teenager who sees a young woman with blue hair one day. It’s a little observation, a passing glance, and yet it changes everything the way that passing glances sometimes do. Her merely normal romance with a boy her own age no longer satisfies. Her fantasies change against her will. A chance meeting with the blue-haired mademoiselle Emma (Léa Seydoux) is discomfortingly comfortable. Adèle seems to be herself, though she doesn’t know who that is. It takes time, but over the course of a friendly relationship a mutual attraction becomes undeniable. And then they fuck.
Sexual awakening is often glossed over as gross, funny or only interesting in a larger context. Blue is the Warmest Color builds so slowly to Adèle’s first satisfying sexual encounter that the audience resets to a virginal state as well, and can now fully appreciate the enormity of her sexual revelation. The scene goes on, and on, and it’s sexy. It’s allowed to be sexy. It’s supposed to be sexy, because that’s what sex is about. It’s an overpowering release of all the energy Adèle had within her all along, with the right person, and it goes beyond romance. They are explicitly fucking – there can be no better word – and it carries all the dramatic weight that it would carry in real life. It’s the height of drama, and it’s absolutely vivid.
And yet the story continues, because sex isn’t the height of human experience. Sex yields to love, yields to commitment, yields to conflict as Adèle and Emma continue to live their own, individual lives in the same space. Emma is dating a younger woman, and the separation of their maturity levels creates a natural, yet still tragic divide. Adèle doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in her own skin, eschewing personal goals for a practical job, never coming out to her parents after early schoolyard bullying teaches her to keep her sexual identity a secret. Emma sees Adèle’s difficulties but can do little to help beyond encourage her, because Adèle has to make decisions for herself. Sometimes awful, hurtful decisions.
We like to think she’ll grow up. In France, the title is La vie d’Adèle Chapitre 1 et 2. The life of Adèle, the first two chapters. There will be more, perhaps not filmed, but more. The three hours of Blue is the Warmest Color make Adèle a real person, her life catalogued with absolute sensitivity and understanding. The glorious memories, the life-altering moments of poor judgment. Abdellatif Kechiche reserves those judgments; Adèle is free to judge herself, her lover free to make her own assessments. Audiences are limited to whatever wisdom we may bring with us.
I daresay there’s something wholly inclusive in Blue is the Warmest Color, bound to bring back visceral memories of youthful exploration, no matter what the specifics of one’s own personal experience. I would have responded differently to Kechiche’s film ten years ago. I’m confident I’ll respond differently in another ten. And yet the changes will be mine. Adèle’s life will be still presented in all its naturalness every time, capturing the fullness of youth whether you look back on such times with flinching regret or hopeful nostalgia. It’s a pure motion picture experience, one of few. One of the most beautiful movies.