Nov. 12 2013 08:40 PM

Controversial Palme d'or winner from Cannes is an epic of emotion and heartache

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Adele Exarchopoulos (left) and Lea Seydoux

Despite most recent reports, Blue is the Warmest Color is actually a superb French film and not simply a destructive wave of controversy waiting to engulf your news feed. Abdellatif Kechiche's three-hour lesbian melodrama has been plagued by incessant public bickering among its makers ever since it won the Palme d'or at Cannes in May. The film deserves better.

An epic of emotion and heartache, Blue is the Warmest Color tells the sublime story of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a senior in high school who falls in love with a university art student named Emma (Léa Seydoux). The trajectory of their relationship is less important than the culmination of moments they share together, what these experiences add up to for each participant and how they evolve. 

In the film's telling opening scene, Adèle sits in a classroom while her fellow students take turns reading aloud from Pierre de Marivaux's novel The Life of Marianne. "I am a woman. I tell my story," one of them recites. The crux of their discussion rests on the issue of regret and fate, but these quotes also suggest a powerful assertion that sharing one's story—and private self—is an act of courage inherently linked to gender and identity. 

Blue is the Warmest Color is not just about the rush of intimacy one feels after meeting a new love; it deals honestly with the changes that ultimately challenge each relationship to go against the grain of societal expectations. 

The film's most horrific scene is an example of this shift. After ignoring her clique to hang out with Emma for the first time, Adèle returns to school the next day and gets verbally ambushed by her supposed friends. Their viciousness comes out of nowhere, showing how fragile the balance of group dynamics can be in a sheltered ecosystem such as high school. 

But this animosity does not define Adèle and Emma's burgeoning relationship, which kicks into gear during a quiet conversation about Sartre on a park bench surrounded by autumn leaves. Does it get any more French than that? Ideological stimulation eventually leads to the physical kind, represented by the extended sex sequences that have become the film's identifying mark for those journalists itching for salacious headlines.

While feminists have charged Kechiche with filming these long, sometimes unbroken shots of Adèle and Emma making love for his own pleasure, they seem to be disregarding the fact that the entire film is about confronting the heightened tenderness of images, no matter how sexual or lonely they may be. 

If Blue is the Warmest Color initially suggests that attraction is organic, it explores the decomposition of this idea heading into the final hour. The afterglow of romance eventually fades into a lengthy sequence of pragmatism, where real-world factors begin to naturally test Adèle's misguided idea of commitment. Emma becomes more of a secondary character, and Kechiche's camera begins haunting his young protagonist as she realizes that her love has now been replaced with insecurity.

The final sequence of Blue is the Warmest Color—which opens Friday, Nov. 15, at Hillcrest Cinemas—is all about the long and difficult road of realizing your own romantic failure. Adèle's drastic last grasp at securing Emma's affection some years after their breakup shows how long this trauma can linger. Watching this scene, I thought of Vampire Weekend's yearning lyrics from "Everlasting Arms," which perfectly sum up the contradictory feelings of Adèle's transition: "I was born to live without you / but I'm never going to understand."

If there is one comfort in Adele's seemingly endless heartache, it's that if you're open to the world's rhythms, the cycles of emotion will begin again with someone new. It's a welcome thought that Blue is the Warmest Color sincerely cherishes and understands.

Write to glennh@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

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