Once in a while a movie comes along that doesn't just affect how you think or feel, it performs its own kind of physical alchemy, burrowing its way into your consciousness so thoroughly that you feel marked and changed.
"Blue Is the Warmest Color," Abdellatif Kechiche's long, sprawling, boldly immersive coming-of-age drama, works just this sort of magic. A naturalistic portrait of the sexual and romantic awakening of a teenage girl -- played in an astonishing breakout performance by newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos -- "Blue Is the Warmest Color" at first seems like nothing new:
"Blue is the Warmest Color"★ ★ ★ ★
Starring: Adele Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux
Directed by: Abdellatif Kechiche
Other: A Sundance Selects release. Rated NC-17 for explicit sexual content. In French with subtitles. At the AMC River East, Landmark Century and Cinemark Evanston. 179 minutes
Portraying the day-to-day life of Exarchopoulos' character, also named Adele, Kechiche hews to the French tradition of dressed-down, realistic staging and style, devoting long sequences set at Adele's high school and at home with her working-class parents.
Those unforced, quotidian rhythms don't perceptibly change once Adele meets Emma (Lea Seydoux), a blue-haired art student she glimpses on a crowded street, then pursues into a lesbian nightclub. The women fall into a rapturous, physically electric affair, with Adele at first bewildered and finally beguiled by Emma's assured delivery of a sentimental education.
The high point of that tutorial is the prolonged, intimate sex scene that this year made "Blue Is the Warmest Color" the talk of Cannes, where it won the festival's top awards (shared by the director and his two fearless leading ladies). Debate immediately ensued, but what sets "Blue Is the Warmest Color" apart from sensationalism or pulp are the daily moments that precede and follow the more notorious sex sequence -- the myriad otherwise forgotten occurrences that comprise a love affair.
Loosely based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, "Blue Is the Warmest Color" follows Adele over the course of a decade, in which time she becomes a teacher and settles into domestic housekeeping with Emma, whose bohemian social circle is an uncomfortable fit. As much press as that sex scene has received, far more eloquent is another sequence in which Adele, who has knocked herself out cooking for a dinner party, becomes increasingly marginalized among Emma's more sophisticated friends.
Exarchopoulos is so convincing that, in the film's shattering final sequences, filmgoers will sense that they're not watching a movie as much as witnessing the most private moments of someone's life.
Hours, even days later, they may find themselves thinking of Adele and wondering how she's doing -- only then realizing how completely this fictional but very real creation has winnowed her way into their hearts and minds.
That's great acting. It's great art. And that's why "Blue Is the Warmest Color" is a great movie.