Film review: Blue Is the Warmest Colour

Some of the controversy surrounding this intense lesbian romance from France is understandable. But the acclaim is also well-deserved, writes Tara Brady

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Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Cert: 18
Genre: Drama
Starring: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Jérémie Laheurte, Catherine Salée
Running Time: 2 hrs 59 mins

Once you’ve hacked your way through the jungle of controversy, you will, in Abdellatif Kechiche’s already-notorious, rough-edged romance, encounter a small (though far from short) masterpiece.

That’s not to suggest that this year’s winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or is without its issues. It’s a worry that two straight actors have been asked to pull on the metaphorical blackface as the lesbian leads. The sheer length of the sex scenes occasionally tips those sequences towards the ludicrous. Reports of Kechiche’s pushy behaviour on set do not fill us with warmth. But the sheer emotional oomph of the piece blasts most of those objections into the wings. Only a person of stone could emerge unmoved.

Blue Is the Warmest Colour marks a significant leap forward for Kechiche. Though it has its admirers, Couscous, his previous lurch into naturalism, never quite justified its long occupation of the cinema screen. That musical finale was dubious. The characters were vaguely drawn. In contrast, Blue exhibits a gimlet-eyed focus from its opening sequence.

Derived from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, the picture follows Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a young woman from Lille, as she moves from school to life as a teacher. (All that talk of Adèle reminds us ever so slightly of Isabelle Adjani's obsessed lover in Truffaut's The Story of Adèle H.)


Adèle’s first romance is with a boy. Then she happens upon an older gay woman with blue hair named Emma (Lea Seydoux). The senior partner, a university student and artist, acts as a sort of mentor to Adèle and a passionate romance eventually develops.

There is an intensity and focus to every scene. This results in part from the (sometimes literally) eye-wateringly strong performances by the two excellent leads. Seydoux has a class of amiable swagger that allows her to assume alpha-female status in every encounter.

Exarchopoulos, the less experienced actor, has the more difficult job: she has to mature from a slightly bewildered ingénue to an assured young professional. Accordingly, her posture, tone and timbre alter almost imperceptibly over the film’s surprisingly brisk three hours. The unprecedented honorary Palmes d’Or presented to the actresses at Cannes were well deserved.

Kechiche’s decision to work largely in close-ups adds to the accumulating intensity. When, late in the film, Exarchopoulos is asked to cry, the cinematic onslaught of tears, snot and furrowed flesh matches anything that Imax 3D could manage. Actor and director force complete absorption upon us.

With all this chatter about sex and emotion, it has often been forgotten that Blue Is the Warmest Colour has things to say about French society. Adèle suffers bullying in the early stages when her school-friends catch wind of her sexual experiments. Kechiche uses food – the younger's girl's family favour a scarlet spaghetti sauce – and culture to highlight tricky social distinctions between blue-collar Adèle and the smugly bohemian Emma. For all their professed liberal tendencies, Emma's friends remain condescending about her girlfriend's contentment with life as a teacher.

And then there’s the sex. What to say? Dissenters from the critical consensus have been right to highlight the worrying drift of the male gaze in the near-endless duets of puffing and groaning. (There are quite enough bottoms here, thank you very much.) If the actors were gay, an undeniable tension about veracity would have been dissipated.

Still, though unquestionably over-extended, these outbursts do have a purpose. The sex ultimately becomes mundane and commonplace. The obsessive documentation allows us unusual intimacy with the characters.

By the teary denouement, we’ve invested too much time and emotional energy not to feel quietly devastated.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic