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Wow. Haven’t had one of these in awhile.

Under the right set of circumstances, more than a few (mostly but not exclusively male) movie-people of my generation will – often happily! – regale you with tales of what I’ve sometimes called the NQP genre: “Not Quite Porno.” Try not to look too askance as they insist that this particular subfolder of their nostalgia is somehow endearing or awkwardly-adorable, when it is in fact (you will quickly surmise) really just kind of gross.

In the days before all manner of deviancy and debauchery was just an InPrivate Browsing window away, curious teenagers had a few more hoops to jump through for procuring what we still somewhat cheekily call adult entertainment. Actual honest-to-Guccione pornography was by no means ha – er, difficult to procure, those deprived by fate of an irresponsible bachelor uncle to steal from would generally turn to so-called softcore (aka Cinemax) nudie-movies. But since even those might turn up in short supply depending on one’s situation, the next best thing were the NQPs.

These were ostensibly regular movies that happened to feature what your average VHS-era teenager would consider “a lot” of sex and/or nudity. The names of such films, along with exaggerated claims of their content, were passed along in the manner of urban legends: “Personal Best was actually about what?” (Two girls become romantically involved while training for the Olympics.) “Is Paradise really just Phoebe Cates skinny-dipping the whole time??” (No, it isn’t. And when she does Willie Aimes is also there.) “Is Sirens really that good, even though Hugh Grant is in it?” (Yup.)

Amusingly, NQPs sometimes took the form of legitimately good films – classy melodramas or sophisticated sex-comedies, often hailing from this or that European nation with supposedly more enlightened views on matters carnal. That tradition, of course, stretched all the way back to the 60s, when the early works of masters like Bergman, Fellini and others arrived on U.S. screens under the care of exploitation schlockmeisters who pitched them to American audiences not on the basis of their artistic merit but rather on their propensity to feature “exotic” beauties like Sofia Loren or Anita Ekberg in various states of near (or complete) undress.

Blue Is The Warmest Color, (original title: Adele: Chapters 1 & 2), making its initial arrival on U.S. shores this weekend in limited release due to an NC-17 rating, has essentially become the first real 21st Century example of this once-prolific phenomenon. Here is a film of rather sterling pedigree: The winner of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival’s Palm d’Or award (one of, if not the most prestigious film awards there is) and the talk of the festival itself. A drama, 3 ½ hours in length, with the vast majority of that time filled by small groups of characters deep in conversation (in subtitled French, no less!) about relationships, romance, art, literature and philosophy. Oh! And it’s also the only film based on a comic-book (in this case Julie Maroh’s graphic novel Blue Angel.) And yet, the entertainment press has elected to promote it (implicitly, at least) in the manner of a carnival peep show. Why?

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Well, because the film happens to be a years-long chronicle of a lesbian romance between two French girls (one in High School, the other in College); and because the second of those three hours prominently features its two leads (rising Euro-cinema stars Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos) engaged in what have been suggested by some to be among the most explicit sex scenes ever presented in a “legitimate” film – one of which seems to run an uninterrupted 8 – 10 minutes and supposedly drew a standing-ovation from its first Cannes audience upon completion. Said sequence is so explicit, in fact, that the stars and their director have been cannily dodging questions about whether or not it was “for real.” (For the record, having seen the film myself: Unless one or both of these actresses was rendered with CGI animation, questions of “degrees” are rather beside the point in this case.)

So… yeah, there’s that.

This is, of course, one of those everlasting curiosities of the arts, movies in particular. We see nothing especially wrong with loving action-hero stars like Jackie Chan partially because of our foreknowledge that he really is throwing himself through windows and off buildings, often sustaining very real bruises and breaks in the name of our amusement, but the notion that two (consenting adult) actors might engage in an infinitely more natural act to that same end remains Hollywood’s last authentic taboo – partially because it’s the only line left to separate the “respectable” film industry from the adult biz, sure… but also because, let’s face it, as a culture we’re kind of messed up that way.

Still, it’s a bit depressing to see such a good film (and yes, Blue is a very good film in its own right) arrive with this spectacle hovering over it. Yes, fine, the sitcom-ready notions of horny High Schoolers and frat-boys making pilgrimage to their local arthouse to “suffer” through lengthy exchanges about Sartre for the chance to gawk at two Parisian maidens doing their best impressions of how Stretch Armstrong might win a fight, or upscale suburban dads surprising The Missus by declaring “You’re right, dear – we should go see more foreign films!” are agreeably funny. They’re also reductive and do disservice to the overall intent and effect of the film.

The film’s story, despite its length, is utterly simple and familiar: Plain, shy, middle-class, unlucky-in-love teenager Adele (Exarchopoulos) jarringly realizes her previously unconsidered attraction to women (or, at least, a woman) when she randomly catches sight of Emma (Seydoux) – an ethereal punk/pixie art student with dyed blue hair (hence the title) – on the street and can’t stop thinking about her. Mostly by chance, she encounters Emma again during her first nervous foray into a lesbian bar, where they strike up a friendship that becomes a courtship that becomes an intensely passionate romance that carries both women into adulthood… where, sadly, domesticity and familiarity dull their respective flames and ultimately drive them apart – a state which Emma seems able to cope with but Adele rather definitively is not.

Essentially, the much-ballyhooed love scenes are intense and intimate because everything else is intense and intimate, with director Abdellatif Kechiche’s camera seldom pulling back wider than a medium-shot and frequently lingering on extreme closeups of eyes and lips. Exarchopoulos is given to hysterical, snot-nosed, swollen-eyed crying jags as far removed from the dainty mascara-smearing of Hollywood weepies as you can get. To be explicit about those matters, only to then “tastefully” fade to black on each trip to the boudoir would be… well, artistically dishonest – I can’t think of a less-pretentious way to put it.

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This isn’t a “big picture” movie about broad cultural context, it’s about the white-hot, rationality-obliterating feelings Emma and Adele stir in eachother, and the way that passion defines and dooms them: The pair have absolutely nothing in common (Adele is middle-class, Emma is a sophisticate; Adele wants to be a schoolteacher, Emma an avante garde painter, etc) other than the intensity of their mutual attraction, and it would seem to consigns them to a tragic cycle of passion/familiarity/breakup/longing/reconnection/repeat so long as they exist in eachother’s orbit. Live in happiness, or live in stability – rough choice. To reduce all that to giggling Middle School gossip about who put what closer to where is almost… well, if I may indulge in a bit of irony – obscene.

Interestingly, controversies of an entirely opposite nature have followed the film on its journey as well. Palm winner or not, it wasn’t universally acclaimed at Cannes – there weas side-eyed gossip that its victory was more about patriotic French cinephiles rooting for the home team. (For the record, though, the jury this year was chaired by American filmmaker Steven Spielberg.) Or perhaps a coordinated political statement in support of the country’s then-raging fight to legalize gay marriage. There was also the expected, but no less tiresome, snarking among film critics trying to foist accusations of bias on one another, in this case the insinuation that the film had earned overly high marks from mostly heterosexual male critics and jurors because… well, do I really need to spell it out?

That secondary accusation got an energy boost when comic-author Maroh voiced her own objection to the by-then legendary love scenes; saying that they reminded her more of male-oriented “girl on girl” pornography than anything authentic. Though she’s stopped short of condemning the film itself, it has subsequently come to light that she and Kechiche had never seen precisely eye-to-eye about the adaptation, which diverges sharply from the original novel in its third act. To me, this is the more intriguing set of issues at play: The line between an artist’s right to render fantasy, sexual or otherwise, as they so envision and the desire of persons and/or cultures to not feel trivialized as part of said fantasy.

Meanwhile, complaints in the press from Exarchopoulos and Seydoux painting their director as an obsessive taskmaster, which then drew Kechiche himself into a full-scale war of words currently being fought in the international film press. One of the biggest, most talked-about movies on the planet right now… and four of the persons most responsible for its creation aren’t on speaking terms? Now that’s spectacle!

Spectacle or not, Blue is The Warmest Color is one of the most provocative and intriguing films of the Fall, and by all means worth checking out – providing, of course, that you’re lucky enough to have a theater that doesn’t ban NC-17 movies in your area.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Aside from his work at The Escapist, he wrote a book and does a videogame criticism show.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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