By Owen Gleiberman
Updated May 25, 2013 at 04:40 PM EDT

There’s a first time for everything. At a Cannes showing of Blue Is the Warmest Color, a three-hour French drama about a young woman who falls into a romance that digs its hooks in and won’t let go of her, the audience sat raptly as Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a quietly precocious 17-year-old Paris high school girl, goes to bed with Emma (Léa Seydoux), the painter and Fine Arts graduate student she met at a lesbian bar. It’s Adèle’s first experience with another woman — but ever since the late ’70s, there have been plenty of lesbian-awakening dramas, most of them on the soft and dewy side. In this case, when the sex scene was over, after what felt like it must have been 15 minutes of writhing, moaning erotic hunger, people in the audience burst into whoops of approval and applause — something I have never in my life seen happen after a sex scene. It’s not so much that the audience was being cute, attempting to acknowledge that the scene was “hot” (although yes, it seriously was). What they were applauding was the authenticity: the fact that the heat was real, and thus the heat had become the drama. Very Last Tango, except minus the perversity.

Blue is the Warmest Color (the French title, which is still on the print, is simply La Vie d’Adèle, or The Life of Adèle) has been one of the most buzzed-about films here, and not just because it’s that once-common but now all-too-rare thing, the art-house tale of obsessive sexuality that is really, truly sexy. Adèle, a gracious, brainy beauty with a fetching overbite, feels cut off from guys — she doesn’t respond to them emotionally — and when Emma, with her punky blue coif and cat eyes and wolfish come-hither grin (that’s her, above right, with Exarchopoulos’s Adèle on the left), begins to flirt with her, she knows exactly what she’s been missing: the attraction that comes from connection that comes from two bodies and souls in perfect, mirrored sync. The two talk about art, film, knowledge, and power, in one of those French-movie conversations that the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, extends in a way that would seem indulgent if the dialogue weren’t sharp enough to hook our fascination as well. Still, it’s sex that seals the deal for these two. In bed, they are not just naked (and, by all appearances, really doing it), they are, as Kechiche films them, exposed, with a fierce, at times violent desire acting as the addiction that fuels their love.

The film itself is artful and compelling, as much for what it’s not as for what it is. It’s not soft and dewy. It’s not a coming-out message movie — though there is one scene in which Adèle has to fight off the taunts of her high school rat pack, one of whom claims to be angry at Adèle not because she’s a lesbian but because she “lied” about it. (Well, give the girl a break!) Most important, it’s a movie with gay sex that doesn’t pigeonhole the people it’s showing you: Adèle may be experimenting, or she may be bisexual, or she may be a lesbian for life — we don’t know any more than she does, and in a funny way, whichever of those scenarios turns out to be true hardly even matters. The real issue is that Adèle falls, and falls hard. The love she feels is consuming, which is why in the film’s second half, when that love begins to fall apart, she’s consumed by it.

Blue is the Warmest Color is good, but it’s far from great. (There has been talk that it will win the Palme d’Or. I don’t think so.) [Well, I was wrong. It won! –Owen] Kechiche’s signature approach is to let a lot of outwardly conventional scenes — a dinner party, a birthday party, an argument over adultery — roll on and on, long after most directors would have cut them off. Is he creating a revelatory texture of reality, the way that Jean Eustache did 40 years ago when, taking off from Godard, he invented the stripped-down, rambling, open-air language of contemporary French cinema realism in The Mother and the Whore (1973)? Or is he basically giving us a rough cut that would have been better at two hours? Blue is the Warmest Color held me, but perhaps one downside of its post-ideological approach is that it never convinced me that Adèle was anything more than a bold, healthy, alluring, and centered young woman who has already learned to follow her own heart, and so what, even in three hours of movie, does she really have to learn?

* * * *

It received a standing ovation and a number of rave reviews, but to me, the biggest dud I saw in nine days at Cannes was James Gray’s The Immigrant. (It also received numerous pans; it may be the most divisive film of the festival.) The movie is set in 1921 and tells the story of a Polish émigré (Marion Cotillard) who arrives at Ellis Island but, due to various factors (hurtful gossip, her tubercular sister, a lack of funds), isn’t able to gain citizenship. Lost and without options, she becomes a showgirl and a prostitute, a slave in the house of Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a morose exploiter with a poison soul, who nevertheless loves her in his tormented-sadistic way. That description certainly makes the movie sound, at the very least, sensational, but Gray, who has spent a number of Cannes festivals trying to re-create the cinema of the ’70s (in movies like We Own the Night and The Yards), here seems to be imitating a ponderously bad Hollywood period drama from 1982. The sets are lavish but the cinematography is monotonously glowy-dark-brown, the dialogue is stultifying, the pace is glacial in a way that will make you un-nostalgic for the VHS era, and Marion Cotillard, who learned Polish for the part (how very Meryl!), mopes and suffers like a Sophie who never had a choice.

Owen’s other posts from Cannes:

Blue Is The Warmest Color

  • Movie
  • NC-17
  • 179 minutes
  • Abdellatif Kechiche