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10/14/2013 04:10 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Blue Is the Hottest Color, or France Again Pushes the Envelope

It would be a damn pity if Blue is the Warmest Color -- which appeared at The New York Film Festival on Friday at Lincoln Center -- is mainly celebrated for its extended graphic sex scene between two women. The film's centerpiece of sorts lasts by some counts 10 minutes, by others seven -- but this masterful three-hour film that explores a grand passion between two women and the subsequent course of their liaison is actually about a great deal more. At Cannes, Blue was crowned with the Palme d'Or. In an unprecedented gesture, the Palme was awarded not only to Abdellatif Kechiche, the director (as is traditional) -- but also to its two stars, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. Yet here in puritanical America, the film's artistry risks getting overshadowed by the titillation some viewers will find in that ground-breaking scene of same-sex love.

I stood in line for an hour in the rain to attend the press screening because I wanted to view the film in a "safe," respectful environment. I'd heard that some screenings had been marred by sniggering occasioned by viewers' discomfort, embarrassment, or unfamiliarity with European candor in matters of the body and sex.

In fact, the Film Society's packed Walter Reade theater proved the ideal way to view this story of the sentimental education of Adele (Exarchopoulos), an 18-year-old lycee student in Lille from a working class background. Adele dispenses with her virginity in almost a pro forma manner to an eager but unexciting science student, then dumps the guy soon after. In fact, she's far more attracted by Emma (Seydoux), a sophisticated art student with blue-streaked hair from the Beaux Arts school, who shoots her a look as they pass in the street that would turn on a lintel post. Adele later seeks out Emma in a gay bar and there's no turning back.

About that ten-minute sex scene -- it's astonishing partly because you've never seen anything like it on the screen before. It never once feels salacious because Blue takes physical passion and its aftermath as its subject and the film would be dishonest if it coyly avoided the core of the matter. That the lovers are of the same sex seems almost incidental.

Blue jumps forward, without a break, to the couple now installed in Emma's apartment and sharing the nitty gritty of a life. While Adele is gratified by her job as a school teacher, the far more worldly Emma craves recognition as a painter. Rifts between them open around issues of background and class; in one telling scene Emma explains to Adele, somewhat patronizingly, the importance of the painter Egon Schiele, revered by her cool crowd. Striking back out of jealousy, Adele sleeps with a male fellow teacher.

Like an earlier film, Games of Love and Chance, Kechiche sets Blue in the world of the French educational system, again touching on Marivaux, an 18th-century author for whom he appears to have a special affinity. Tunisian-born Kechiche's love affair with French literature feels like the fervor of a non-native for the civilizing traditions of Deep France. In fact, Games was about the civilizing effect of classical literature and its power to turn around the lives of ghetto kids.

Blue is also very much about class. Several pointed scenes among Adele and her schoolmates underscore the homophobia of a primarily working class group. Kechiche also cleverly reveals the class difference between the two women's families through food: Adele's is into spaghetti and meatballs, Emma's prefers oysters and good wine. Kechiche explores the dynamic of this couple in part as a way to anatomize the difficulty in France of moving up the next social rung. Emma's ultimate rejection of Adele has less to do with Adele's infidelity than intolerance of her plebeian background. In class-blind America, where only money matters, viewers won't respond to this aspect of Blue in the same way as might viewers in France, where the socio/cultural class divide remains deep.

Finally, this glorious, accomplished film is also about the director's ability to capture intimacy and the lived moment, while adroitly sketching in the social context. Cinephiles will swoon over how his camera captures the electric, light-dappled first meeting of two people discovering mutual love. The film is also about the limits of rapture and l'amour fou when a couple is confronted by the practical aspects of a shared life. Kechiche's insights will continue to resonate long after the film's shock value fades.

As a footnote, since Cannes, Blue has left a bunch of ruffled feelings in its wake. Lea Seydoux -- who to my mind gives the most indelible performance -- is now apparently pissed at the director, claiming he made her feel like a prostitute and imposed intolerable working conditions. Did someone get to her and make her feel that as a child of French royalty (the Pathe film company), baring all was beneath her?

Meanwhile, lesbians have weighed in, calling the sex scenes inauthentic and blaming the absence of lesbians on the set. Somehow the embattled Kechiche, who looks like a mild-mannered professor, has been positioned as a male "outsider" who's had the gall to make a film about female lovers. At the Q & A at the Walter Reade the other day, he did seem a bit dazed, mumbling esoteric remarks in French into the mike, while Exarchopoulos (Seydoux was conspicuously absent) spoke in unintelligible English. But one thing came clear: the final cut of Blue, says Kechiche, is 40 minutes longer!

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