French cinema is famous for its arguments – Maurice Pialat’s films thrived on them and Jean Gabin, it’s said, had it in his contract that every role would provide an opportunity for him to blow his top. But there’s something in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle, Chapitres I et II) that I’ve never before seen in a screen argument. The two female lovers Adèle and Emma are having a very heated bust-up confrontation, and the actress playing Emma (Léa Seydoux) suddenly turns blotchy on the skin around her collarbone. This is an extraordinary mark of the physical intensity that Seydoux has invested in the scene, and by the end of it, there are more such physical marks – not just tears, but the rivers of snot pouring from the nose of the other actress, Adèle Exarchopoulos.
Much has been written about the function of money shots in porn to denote the authenticity of male sexual pleasure in on-screen sex. But it’s always been considered much harder to guarantee the reality of female pleasure on screen. Kechiche’s new feature goes further than any film, certainly any mainstream film, in bringing female emotion – whether sexual or involving the passions more generally – vividly, bodily to life. Blue is the Warmest Colour arguably features the most explicit and intense lesbian sex ever seen in a mainstream film, or any sex for that matter. The previous benchmark might have been Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, but where its sex sessions were visibly authentic, the dispassionate (indeed English) manner of their depiction tended to have you looking at your watch and wondering when it was time for the Elbow concert sequence.
That’s not the case with Kechiche’s film. His sex sequences go on a long time and are repetitive, it’s true – because his heroines want more of the same, and they want it to last as long as possible. But they are the only such scenes I can think of that actually appear to depict two people having sex – rather than two actors evoking the idea of sex as social ritual. French cinema tends to mystify sex, and at the high end of the art-cinema spectrum makes a big deal about it being transgressive or transcendental (as per the films of Catherine Breillat and Jean-Claude Brisseau).
Only Kechiche’s film presents the bedroom as a place for, not to put too fine a point on it, a hot shag – and these scenes are indisputably hot, and sweaty with it. This is something cinema almost never dares to show us, in any male-female combination, because there’s usually more spectacle to be gained from showing sex as something dramatic, even traumatic. But here’s something radically different – two people in bed, and more importantly, two women, unproblematically having the time of their lives.
What gives these scenes the edge is simply the palpable sense of the vividly real, the same sense of the real that you get throughout the film whenever humans are simply being human – for example, when high-school students speculate more or less coherently over their class set text (Marivaux), or when Seydoux’s skin blotches up in the argument scene. Kechiche and DP Sofian Elfani like to get in close on people’s bodies and faces, not just capturing their movements and expressions but the textures of their skin, and La Vie d’Adèle achieves a sculptural tactility in catching the detail of the heroines’ bodies, their fleshiness, and the porousness of their skin, blotchy or not.
The film is constantly coming in close on Exarchopoulos’s face when Adèle is asleep, and I don’t think I’ve seen any film catch a sleeping face in quite such disorderly, dishevelled repose. The sex scenes in Adèle will certainly prove a benchmark for the depiction of physicality in film – but so too will those tender, intimate close-ups of Exarchopoulos’s face, sweat, overbite and and all.