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Blue Is the Warmest Color

(2013) *** 1/2 Nc-17
179 min. IFC Films. Directors: Abdellatif Kechiche, Abdel Kechiche. Cast: Salim Kechiouche, Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos.

/content/films/4614/1.jpgIFC Films describes Blue Is the Warmest Color as "The story of a young lesbian couple's beginning, middle and possible end." While that's reductive, it does nominally describe the three-stage rocket that is Abdellatif Kechiche's three-hour film. But let's not bury the lead: it's also an NC-17 film with a seven-minute sex scene that has made it cinema non grata in Idaho.

Natively titled La vie d'Adèle, Chapitres 1 et 2, this French film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, an honor that also officially went to leads Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. Both romance and sexual odyssey, Kechiche's film takes the point of view of Adèle (doe-eyed Exarchopoulos), who's seventeen going on eighteen and bi-curious, if not simply gay-repressed. After a literary lesson in the power of a "love at first sight" glance (via Marivaux's La Vie de Marianne), lo and behold, Adèle experiences one for herself in passing the provocatively blue-haired Emma (Seydoux) on the street.

Before long, the two meet again and strike up a conversation that's charged with possibility. Out-and-proud Emma has a few years on the tentative Adèle, which sets the scene for a gentle sexual education (despite intimations that Emma is a wild child on the lesbian scene, she instantly intuits, and welcomes, the need to try a little tenderness with Adèle. Kechiche (whose last domestic import was 2007's The Secret of the Grain) captures that moment when the rest of the world goes away; he and his cast are totally successful at evoking the first blushes of emotional intimacy (chased by the physical intimacy of that sex scene). Blue's own emotional intimacy is its strongest asset: Kechiche gets in close with tight close-ups that afford us the almost "possessive" privilege to be right there, as close as Adèle and Emma are to each other, as each spills into the other's eyes and soul.

After that beginning, the film's middle explores the complications to Adèle of embarking on a lesbian relationship: meeting Emma's parents cheerily accepting parents, dodging the truth as Emma meets Adèle's seemingly unready parents, and enduring the third degree she's given at school by her "friends" (one of the film's interesting cultural assertions is a double standard of accepted gay male versus repellent lesbian female). Adèle's inability to care less about these social stigmas contributes to a bisexual confusion.

Wisely, the film's complicated "possible end" concerns itself less with sexual orientation and much more with the universal strains of a naturally aging relationship: jealousies, differing needs, divergent directions by which to drift apart. Earlier in the film, a teacher of Antigone ominously notes, "Tragedy is the unavoidable," a preparation for a rift—that may or may not take—between these two people who love each other but may not be able to share their whole lives with each other.

The literature Kechiche self-consciously references demonstrates his own priorities to tease out the provocative and liberating properties of art. Add extraordinary, emotionally generous performances, and Blue Is the Warmest Color grasps enough moments of truth to justify its extensive reach.

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Aspect ratios: 2.38:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 2/25/2014

Distributor: Criterion Collection

Criterion continues its fruitful relationship with IFC Films with the domestic Blu-ray release of Blue Is the Warmest Color. The hi-def digital-to-digital transfer, approved by director Abdellatif Kechiche, looks beautiful, with spot-on color and contrast enhancing a detailed and textured image. Despite opportunities for aliasing (those cobblestone streets!), the picture never succumbs to compression artifacts, and the fresh vintage helps to assure a clean, tight, solid look throughout. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix bestows full honors to the original soundtrack. Though the soundscape is fairly humble, its subtle ambience adds significantly to the film's tone, in the many street scenes and party atmospheres.

I was surprised to discover the paucity of bonus features—usually a Criterion hallmark—on this title. Perhaps British distributor Artificial Eye angled for exclusives (?) since its region-B U.K. release features deleted scenes and interviews. At any rate, the Criterion disc serves up only the theatrical trailer and a TV spot, amounting to a few minutes of bonus marketing video. That said, Criterion adds value with its liner notes by film critic B. Ruby Rich, part of a full-color booklet housing illustrations, credits and tech specs.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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