Blue is the Warmest Colour (Azul é a Cor Mais Quente) is a minutely detailed, searingly erotic three-hour study of first lesbian love. Its writer-director, the French-Tunisian Abdellatif Kechiche, had a setback with his last film, 2010’s Black Venus. An imposing biopic of the 19th-century South African slave-turned-freakshow-act Saartjie Baartman, it proved too harrowing a vision for British or US distributors.
Most directors would retreat into safer territory after an experience like that, but most directors aren’t Kechiche. Blue is the Warmest Colour is the most brazenly singular return the Couscous director could have made, and the richest film of his career to boot.
Nothing about the film’s coming-of-age narrative, nor the rise and fall of its core romance, is intrinsically new or daring, yet Kechiche’s freewheeling perspective on young desire is uncommon in its emotional maturity. Our heroine, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), begins the film as a precocious high-schooler and ends it as a grown woman still with plenty to learn about herself.
Unlike so many same-sex-themed films that focus on coming out as the defining gay experience, Blue is the Warmest Colour glides past that stage of Adèle’s life in a bold chronological leap, finding more nuanced drama in the evolving challenges of maintaining an unfixed sexuality.
Adèle is 15 when she senses something amiss in her dating life. Dreamy schoolmate Thomas (Jeremie Laheurte) is all over her, but she can’t get a fleeting pavement encounter with blue-haired art student Emma (Léa Seydoux) out of her mind. The girls meet again on Emma’s timid first trip to a lesbian bar, and love swiftly blossoms – leading into some of the most graphically sensual girl-on-girl sex scenes in screen history.
Yet in contrast to the older, more cosmopolitan Emma, Adèle never entirely relaxes into her sexual identity, and is still keeping it carefully guarded when the film skips forward several years to find the couple living together in fragile domestic bliss. From this simple, not especially unique love story, Kechiche has fashioned an intimate epic in every sense of the term, its every subtle emotional turn rendered widescreen on Exarchopoulos’s exquisitely expressive face.
Just 19 years old, the actress effortlessly charts Adèle’s growth from young adult to young woman. Typically for a Kechiche film, meanwhile, her individual journey is set within a bustling, articulate network of friends, family and food. He remains a most sociable filmmaker, which makes his new film’s tingly behind-closed-doors tenderness all the more remarkable.