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Explicit, controversial, acclaimed... exploitative?

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An unusually intimate story of one young woman's journey into adulthood, sexuality and hard-won experience, Blue Is the Warmest Colour arrives bearing impressive laurels: it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche and its two stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. It also sports an old-school Euro-sex controversy as it contains the most explicit love scenes this side of Last Tango in Paris.

Yet with all that in its favour, the truth is it is difficult to warm to Warmest Color.

It is certainly easy to like its heroine. Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is introduced as a high school girl, attempting to negotiate the mysteries of love in the conventional manner. Surrounded and influenced by her friends, she is compelled to lose her virginity to a likable, sensitive young man. But the relationship doesn't take. Adèle realizes her interests lie elsewhere when she has a chance encounter with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a provocative, beguiling art student with blue-streaked hair she first spies on the street with her arm around another woman.

While still underage, Adèle follows Emma into a lesbian bar, where she makes her interest known. While Emma is a few years older and in a relationship, she reciprocates.

As years imperceptibly pass, the two eventually live together, only to have the relationship fall apart, partly as a result of Adèle's tendency to sneak around behind Emma's back with one or two male-co-workers.

If that sounds like a fairly simple premise, bear in mind that director Kechiche is not especially interested in a succinct three-act romantic melodrama.

Over its ponderous three-hour running time, the film's approach is very much oriented toward the details of Adèle's life, including education (the notion of romantic destiny is discussed in an English class before Adèle encounters it first-hand), art (Adèle finds herself slotted into the role of Emma's "muse") and food: Our heroine's love of simple spaghetti Bolognese gives way to experimentation when Emma teaches her how to eat oysters, a scene that might have caused some eye-rolling for its obvious sexual innuendo if it wasn't played entirely straight.

Anyway, as it turns out, Kechiche has no truck with innuendo when he takes the liberty of filming sex scenes in explicit, well-lit detail. (Note that the Manitoba Classification Board has given the film a rarely-bestowed R rating, meaning no one under the age of 18 is allowed in the theatre under any circumstances.)

It is interesting and appropriate that the Cannes award, usually given to a film's director, was shared by both Kechiche and his two leading ladies. If the film resonates as a work of emotional honesty, it is largely due to the extraordinary commitment of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, who evidently worked hard to make their characters living, breathing entities.

Kechiche certainly uses their investment but his own documentary-like viewpoint is off-putting, dispassionate and perhaps more than a little exploitative.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 29, 2013 D5

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