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Four-star 'Blue is the Warmest Color' review: Graphic, spectacular love

**** (out of four)

My wife reminds me how much I liked “Magic Mike” and how often I had to defend that to people who made assumptions without seeing it.

Well, here we go again.

Every moment counts in the remarkable, three-hour, NC-17-rated “Blue is the Warmest Color,” and that includes the sex scenes. As you may have heard, the French drama, which took the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, features extended and explicit lesbian sex scenes that are intimate and significant in ways that movie sex scenes, particularly in America, rarely are. If you assume this can only be gratuitous, and huh-huh-that’s-why-this-movie-gets-four-stars, all I can say is that you’re wrong and you should see the movie before judging. (And re-read my 2-star review of the naked women-filled “Don Jon.”)

Those who do will see a love story that is ultimately and brilliantly about differing expectations for personal and creative fulfillment, and the tragic, sometimes-sensible resignation of second-best. The chances of 19-year-old Adele Exarchopoulos earning an Oscar nomination for a controversial foreign film are even slimmer than when Michael Fassbender was snubbed for “Shame,” and what a shame: She’s nothing short of extraordinary. Pressured to hook up with a guy who likes her, high school junior Adele (Exarchopoulos) confesses, “I feel like I’m faking.” The desire to feel deeper and better is familiar not just to those struggling with sexual identity.

When Adele meets older, out-of-the-closet Emma (likewise terrific Lea Seydoux of “Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol”), the comfort is natural. The connection’s intense. The wonder of the performances—included in the film’s Palme d’Or notice for the first time in the fest’s history—makes the magic of this young love astoundingly true, not just the vague imitation that undiscerning viewers hope to replicate.

And, yes, on top of the conversations and fights and shared glances, that means the sex as well, something most would agree plays a significant part in relationships. “Blue is the Warmest Color” aims not to arouse but to pull back the curtain on the full body of a couple’s time together. As David Cronenberg did memorably with “A History of Violence,” “Color” director Abdellatif Kechiche contrasts moments in the bedroom; sex isn’t synonymous with love here, but it’s one of many components of a relationship that the film separates between real and fake, selfless or somehow limited. After her orientation seemingly catches her off-guard, Adele’s increased isolation from friends and family lingers in the shadows. Meanwhile, she gets closer to her own desires and to Emma, who in some ways comes along at the right time and in others epitomizes a bond with a fatal character flaw that can’t be identified in advance.

While most films unconvincingly imply intimacy and look away, the epic “Color” considers the different values people attribute to sex and features a lead actress stunningly attuned to her character’s shifts between possibility and discomfort, curiosity and fear. Body language plays almost as large a role as personality while a discussion of dreams blends with a layered portrait of love’s intense, consuming sensations. This gripping and daring film depicts life and art as fluid, with a keen awareness of a true love’s ability to etch tattoos in corners of the heart. 

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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