What is the greatest film performance you’ve ever seen?
For me the answer changes every few years. But for the foreseeable future my greatest film performance is given by Adele Exarchopoulos in “Blue Is the Warmest Color.”
“Blue…” arrives on these shores riding a wave of acclaim and notoriety. Writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche and its two lead actresses — Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux — jointly were awarded the Palm d’Or at last May’s Cannes Film Festival.
The film has generated controversy for extended scenes of lesbian lovemaking that earned an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. And then there are the recent accusations of sexual coercion hurled by the actresses at Kechiche.
Well, heavy breathing girl-on-girl action may be titillating, and rumors of on-set sexual politics can be diverting.
But let’s look at what “Blue Is the Warmest Color” really is: a monumental (three hours) study of a young woman’s life over several years that delves into her psyche with the sort of detail usually only afforded by a great novel.
It’s a coming-of-age story that becomes an epic (at least for the participants) if ill-fated romance. It’s about the painful process of self-discovery.
And at the center is Exarchopoulos, a 19-year-old actress of extraordinary skill who is guaranteed to break your heart.
“Blue’s” first hour follows her character, Adele, as she navigates the uncertain sexual waters of adolescence. She’s a somewhat shy high school junior who seems less mature, less sophisticated, less catty than her gal pals.
A virgin, she’s flattered when a senior boy begins paying attention. But her first sexual experiences are underwhelming. Maybe she and the guy aren’t that sympatico.
Or maybe it’s something else. Adele masturbates to mental pictures of the blue-haired, punky tomboy (Seydoux) she spotted on the street. And when she actually encounters this vision at a local club, a love affair is born.
Emma is four years older, a college art student. She’s as outgoing and confidant as Adele is unsure. But Adele grabs at this new relationship as her salvation.
Their first sexual encounter is frantic, desperate, clinging. Yet director Kechiche is far less interested in the mechanics of Sapphic sex than in studying the emotions on Exarchopoulos’ face. Even this early in the affair, it’s clear that Adele is totally committed.
In France “Blue…” was called “The Story of Adele, Parts I and II.” Part I is Adele’s life before Emma; Part II her life with Emma. (Will there be other “parts”? No idea.)
Between these two segments the film jumps perhaps six years. Amazingly, Exarchopoulos seems to have aged accordingly. She has lost the baby fat in her face. She seems taller. She dresses with more sophistication (although she has no use for makeup and appears never to have brushed her hair).
But she’s still in many ways the insecure adolescent, a bit cowed by Emma’s coterie of artist friends. These are people who create, who argue the merits of movies and paintings. Adele is almost apologetic about being just an elementary school teacher – though the scenes of her in the classroom suggest she’s a natural.
As Emma’s art career begins to take off, Adele feels left behind. Lonely. Unappreciated.
And that’s the sort of situation in which people make serious, life-altering mistakes.
The astounding thing about Exarchopolous’ performance is that she never once lets us catch her acting. The performance is so totally natural and unforced that “Blue Is the Warmest Color” sometimes seems documentary (an illusion reinforced by Kechiche’s handheld camera and near obsession with studying his players’ faces up close).
It’s a bit discombobulating to learn that Exarchopolous is no amateur. She’s been acting professionally for a decade, beginning at age 9. Is her work in “Blue…” typical of her performance style? Or is it a wonderful aberration?None of her earlier TV or film work has made it across the Atlantic, but you can bet I’ll be on the lookout.
Does “Blue…” need to be three hours long? Well, yes. In part it is the long running time that really allows us to sink into Adele’s character and situation. By the time it was over I felt as intimately involved with this character as any I’ve seen on the screen.
And that is movie magic of an extremely high order.