An alert, inquisitive 17-year-old, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), hungers for fireworks and fate, the coup de foudre of the great literature she adores. She stumbles into just that, in a glancing encounter with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue-haired art student in her 20s. It takes some time for Adèle to track down her crush. At one point, she trails a group of lesbians to a bar, a funny but plausible course of action for an outsider looking to enter an unknown world. Eventually Adèle and Emma meet again. Soon enough, they're inseparable, and in love.
As people in love are wont to do, Adèle and Emma bang like there's no tomorrow. The explicit, marathon sex in Blue Is the Warmest Color has been the subject of much controversy since the film took the Palme d'Or prize at Cannes in May. Google the backstory if you've got a few hours to spare, but know that the most salient point may be that Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel on which the film is loosely based, had this to say: "It appears to me that this was what was missing on the set: lesbians."
Additionally missing is genuine erotic heat, which the film posits is the bedrock of Adèle and Emma's relationship. Director Abdellatif Kechiche (The Secret of the Grain) choreographs their lovemaking into a flipbook of positions, with no acknowledgment of the real-life direction that accompanies sex — the "yes, there" and "ouch, my hair" intimacies. Most of the film is filtered through Adèle's point of view, but the sex scenes —and a crucial scene of a Latin dance where the camera repeatedly cuts to close-ups of Adèle's gyrating hips — move us out of Adèle's headspace and into a third-person perspective. These shifts seem to be about someone else's arousal, not Adèle's, and that feels like a betrayal.
It's clear that Kechiche is fascinated with process. He lets the camera roll long during a spaghetti dinner and a trip to the beach, mundane events that subtly reveal character and conflict. He doesn't spell out what's going on, and he doesn't need to, not when Exarchopoulos' face is an open book. There's no understating her titanic, lavishly textured performance, which shows her character's evolution from a teenager ever fiddling with her hair to a near-grownup who has been through the wringer and is still a little unsure in heels. Blue Is the Warmest Color has its wobbles, but Exarchopoulos will knock you sideways.