Abdellatif Kechiche is a rhythm man, building the novelistically lyrical realism of his movies with the trickiest of notes: plaintive glances, surreptitious cuts, seemingly improvised dialogue. He memorably etched a panoply of converging ethnicities in L’Esquive, a document of a moody teenage wasteland where language clanked like weaponry, and again in The Secret of the Grain, which warmly allowed us to inhabit the lives, and dinner tables, of characters whose passions are roused by familial and romantic conflicts, as well as by the food that sits heavily in their bellies. His Palme d’Or-winning Blue Is the Warmest Color, based on Julie Maroh’s acclaimed graphic novel, is beholden to a less multi-ethnic premise, but it hums just as vibrantly in its articulation of the refulgent sense of electric connectivity that would seem to forever bind two women when they catch sight of each other while crossing a busy city street.
Kechiche reveals through his sense of composition, and collaboration with his remarkable actresses, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, a sensitivity to emotional nuance that’s striking, and as the work of a great rhythm man, the film doesn’t lack for grace notes. There’s the sense of awakening that alights bubble-lipped Adèle’s (Exarchopoulos) face when she kisses a girl for the first time, and the horror that brings her to tears when she comes back clamoring for more. There’s also the terror and ecstasy that simultaneously overwhelms the high schooler when she walks into her first lesbian bar and her pheromones lure all the wrong women. Then there’s cerulean-haired Emma (Seydoux), the college girl she truly hungers for, who studies Adèle and her pilgrim’s progress toward queerhood with a curiosity and ardor that’s decisive in its coolness. The moment Emma, entangled in a relationship with an unseen woman, decides that Adèle is hers is as transcendent in its near-imperceptibility as the transition between Adèle and Emma in love to Adèle and Emma going through the motions of their doomed relationship.
In the film’s early stretch, the camera dawdles in the hallways, cafeteria, and periphery of Adèle’s high school, and Kechiche exhibits, as he did in L’Esquive, his talent for capturing the exuberance and moodiness of pubescent experience. And as in his 2003 breakthrough, which revolves around a group of teens rehearsing a passage from Marivaux’s play Games of Love and Chance, there’s a sense here of adolescence as perpetual theater. But Kechiche’s rhythms aren’t always melodious. In a scene where one schoolgirl, Amélie (Fanny Maurin), giddily forces a meet-cute between Adèle and a boy, Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), of unbelievably feline beauty, Kechiche demonstrates his ear for the cadences of teenage speech, but he also, like Amélie, exerts a heavy hand, allowing an ongoing classroom discussion about Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne to both set up and aggressively comment on his characters’ routines outside the classroom: At one point, Adèle and her classmates discuss love at first sight, and almost on cue the girl sees Emma for the first time and is instantly smitten.
More dubious than the use of the classroom lecture as a condescending audience guidepost, or the absurdly suggestive equation Kechiche makes between eating oysters and eating pussy in a scene where Emma brings the seafood-averse Adèle to her parents for dinner, is the filmmaker’s use (or rather, overuse) of blue throughout. The color, guesting on everything from clothes and nails to club lights and protest smoke, clumsily pockmarks Adèle and Emma’s lives during the lifecycle of their romance, as if the world was slowly sapping Emma’s dye job at the start of the film until her hair returned to its natural blond. Early on, as the girls speak of and bond over Sartre and humanism (what else?), one wonders if the only reason Adèle declares her fondness for Pablo Picasso, after learning that Emma is a fine-arts major, is because the Spanish Cubist painter had a “blue period.” Kechiche’s methods are neither poetic nor surrealist enough for this florid use of color to feel like anything more than a flat affectation, conveying only an incredibly vague and sophomoric sense of the melancholic, though Emma, who defends Gustav Klimt in one scene for not being florid, would likely disagree.
And then there are the film’s much-ballyhooed sex scenes, which are shot with a surgical precision that’s provocative in the way that it seeks to key itself to the idea of love being genderless, a theory voiced to Adèle by an overzealous queen after she walks into her first gay club. Pornographic only in the most literal sense, these sequences aren’t expressions of a lurid male fantasy, but articulations of the characters’ intense sexual chemistry, and they convey, especially in a scene where Adèle and Emma madly lick and grab at each other inside a coffee shop some time after they break up, how the world and everyone who lives in it has a way of evaporating when lovers lock more than just eyes. Kechiche may not have the eye of a poet, but then, he isn’t interested in poeticizing gay experience, or normalizing it exactly, but to simply and banally represent Adèle and Emma’s physical relations, like the nuances of Adèle’s coming out and coming of age, as something altogether routine. And as such, this experience becomes familiar to anyone, regardless of sex or sexuality, who’s ever loved someone and felt as if they were dying when it seemed as if that love was being taken away from them.