Is it possible for me to tell you that I loved "Blue Is the Warmest Color" without sounding like a creep?
Yes, I realize the film is already notorious for its lengthy and explicit lesbian sex scenes between stars Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. And now that the author of the graphic novel on which the film is based and the stars have gone on record to express their discomfort with those scenes, it's hard not to view them as a distraction at best, a piece of exploitation at worst.
But I truly hope the furor surrounding those scenes doesn't overshadow the incredible performance by Exarchopoulos, whose name I'm already learning to pronounce and spell in hopes that we'll be repeating it from now until Oscar night.
The actress, who is only 19, gives one of the most moving and believable performances I've ever seen. Her character, also named Adèle, starts out as a junior in high school. She chews with her mouth open and reads with an unlocked heart, paying close attention in class as her literature teacher asks the class whether love at first sight produces a sensation of loss or gain.
She hasn't experienced love yet, but just wait. There's one boy at school who catches her eye, but his strained effort to impress her by wading through her favorite book leaves her cold. She's looking for a teacher, not a student.
She finds one in Emma (Seydoux), a blue-haired tomboy a few years her senior, whose approach to life is as heedless and passionate as Adèle's is cautious and pragmatic. Emma is a painter of fearlessly erotic nudes, and even her parents seem bummed out by Adèle's intention to become a boring old schoolteacher.
But all that comes later. First, there's the electrical storm of their early encounters. Adèle, in particular, is helpless in the face of this sudden, overwhelming love. The fact that their passion finds its purest expression in the bedroom is what saves Adèle and Emma's graphic sex scenes from being gratuitous, however problematic they may be in other regards.
Already, we've seen the clumsy school girl at the heart of the film morph into a sensually awakened young woman -- an evolution that isn't altogether comfortable to watch. At times, Exarchopoulos can look like a kid, her face free of makeup, her hair greasy and unkempt, her limbs gangly and unfinished. Then, director Abdellatif Kechiche will shoot her from another angle and we see her as the desirable -- and desirous -- young woman she is becoming. Both are utterly believable.
But the biggest transformation is yet to come, and it provides the ultimate vindication of Exarchopoulos's shape-shifting prowess.
As most anyone who's ever been through one knows, teenage love affairs tend to be intense and temporary. Adèle and Emma don't have very much in common, and though Emma is able to paper over this for a while by turning her lover into her muse and model, reality eventually intervenes. Without giving any more away, I'll just say that Exarchopoulos navigates her character's third transition -- from object to subject, student to teacher -- with breathtaking skill.
By the end, you feel the way you should toward the lead character in a three-hour movie. You care about her, you believe in her journey, you want her to win.
After the screening, Kechiche, Seydoux and Exarchopoulos all played nice during a brief, non-newsworthy Q&A. I happened to find myself on an elevator with the two actresses a half hour or so later. Unable to contain myself, I told them, "That was absolutely amazing. Congratulations."
They were gracious enough to say thank you, but from the uncomfortable fidgeting of everyone else in the elevator, I realized that my comments were indeed being interpreted as creepy. I found that mostly amusing in retrospect, but it would make me sad if even those involved in making this film felt like they couldn't enjoy their accomplishment without feeling weird about it.
I think one could argue that Kechiche overplayed his hand when it came to the film's sex scenes. He went too far, and the film is paying a price even as it enjoys far greater visibility than it otherwise might. But now, as Sundance plans to release the film in U.S. theaters, would be a good time to change the conversation.
So repeat after me, Team Blue: It's not about the sex, it's about the journey.
If you say that enough times, maybe someone other than me will start to believe it.