The story of my festival-going life tends to be that I miss the one film that winds up on everyone’s lips. It’s some kind of uncanny anti-radar that never fails. This time though, I managed to catch one that had everyone buzzing to the extent that people were turned away at the door of the next morning’s pick-up screening. La Vie d’Adele (Blue is the Warmest Color), Franco-Tunisian writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or candidate, is a three hour telling of the emotional and sexual coming of age of a young woman loosely adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel. I waited an hour and a half in the rain with no coat or umbrella knowing only it was from the same filmmaker behind 2007’s widely praised arthouse favorite The Secret of the Grain. The irony is that I think I’m the only one who ultimately found the earlier film a little bit disappointing. Not so La Vie d’Adele. Driven by a subtle and naturalistic star-making (and possibly Cannes award-winning) performance from its young lead Adele Exarchopoulos, this is the kind of film experience you hope to have when you come to a film festival.
The Secret of the Grain started out as a vibrant, detailed, un-flowery reflection of life among a group of Tunisian immigrants in Southern Coastal France. It worked its quiet magic drawing you into its world before, to my mind, selling out to over-exaggerated melodrama. La Vie d’Adele avoids that pitfall. It sets its matter of fact, realistic groove from the start and carries it satisfyingly through to the very end. Remarkable that a drama that isn’t artificially heightened can hold interest for three full hours, but Kechiche pulls it off.
In the graphic novel and in the press notes, the story begins when Adele is just 15 years old, but in the film it seems like it’s not that long before she’s celebrating her 18th birthday. Either way, she begins with typical teen problems of school and boys. She’s actually reasonably successful on both fronts, but it soon becomes clear she doesn’t quite feel about boys the way she knows she’s supposed to. Her own fantasies and a chance casual encounter with a female classmate set her on the path to discovering the true nature of her sexuality. Eventually she meets older woman Emma played by Lea Seydoux, becomes her artistic muse and further deepens her experience with love.
That covers maybe the first hour to hour and a half of film. I could continue to outline everything that happens, but this isn’t a “plotty” film in the sense that it doesn’t hold your interest by keeping you guessing what’s going to happen next. What’s fascinating is how the story reflects real life, yes obviously specifically in how it portrays a lesbian relationship, but also in how it applies to all of us more generally.
But why is everyone talking about it? A lot of it has to do with the frequent, extended sex scenes that are blunter and more graphic than anything you’re likely to see outside of pornography. On one hand, it’s refreshing to see a film handle sex without being squeamish yet without seeming dirty. On the other hand, I have to admit the sex gave me pause. It’s handled beautifully and even erotically without feeling exploitative, yet it was sometimes distracting and many of the scenes ran counter the film’s otherwise naturalistic bent. Adele and Emma handle themselves with the confidence of porn stars and that borders on the unbelievable.
Also, I have to admit I’m skeptical about Kechiche’s male perspective on this world of young lesbians. Of course the film is based on a graphic novel written by a woman, and I don’t believe you need to be a woman to make a believable and compelling film about women, but the line here between exploration and exploitation is so thin and I’m not entirely comfortable that it hasn’t been crossed. I believe Kechiche’s intentions were pure, but I couldn’t help wonder if it would have been just as powerful and interesting of a film with the sex toned down a bit.
It’s interesting though that throughout the film there are conversations about and references to women and the representation of their desire in art. Thematically Kechiche has given himself a little bit of cover from the charge that he’s simply peddling flesh. Still, it’s troubling. Perhaps, however, I’m more concerned with my own arousal than the director’s.
Whatever Kachiche’s intentions and whatever my own response, it’s unfortunate that the sex is likely to occupy so much of the conversation on La Vie d’Adele because there is so much more about it that makes it wonderful. Exarchopoulos especially gives a remarkable, quietly compelling performance which Kachiche captures often in close-up, registering every one of the actress’s uncertain fidgets or uncomfortable eye flashes. She feels like a real person and she literally seems to grow up before our eyes over the course of three hours. That she is frequently and graphically naked should be beside the point except as a reflection of her emotional vulnerability. In the end, each viewer will have to make up his or her own mind about La Vie d’Adele. For me, it has been one of the highlights of the festival.