BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (R21)
172 minutes/Opens tomorrow/****
The story: Boys are interested in Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), a pretty French junior high school student. She reciprocates and even sleeps with one of them, albeit half-heartedly. Her sexual explorations take a lesbian turn when she appears to fall in love at first sight with Emma (Lea Seydoux), a fine arts undergraduate and aspiring painter. After Adele completes high school, she moves in with Emma, who neglects her when her art career faces problems. Eventually, they quarrel and break up bitterly after Adele has an affair with a male colleague at the preschool she works at.
Unlike Brokeback Mountain, Blue Is The Warmest Color refuses to be a sensitively wrought, forbidden love story which would be a tad too melodramatic, not to mention ho-hum, if it weren't about a homosexual relationship.
No, the French film is a visceral tale which wants to get in your face to challenge your notions of sexual identity and love. Despite Adele's copious shedding of tears when Emma dumps her, Blue has scant regard for sentiments.
Whatever prejudice there remains in liberal France against same-sex unions is summarily dealt with in two short scenes without angst: Some of Adele's friends turn on her when they suspect she is dating a woman and her parents passiveaggressively grill Emma about her "boyfriend" over dinner at their home.
Apart from that, the focus is almost entirely on Adele, whose cherubic face with baby fat still clinging onto her cheeks and a perpetual, dreamy openlipped gaze fill many close-up frames.
The camera seems to interrogate through her character the debate over whether homosexuality is learnt behaviour or immutable essence. Emma, a charismatic androgyne (shades of Kate Moss here), espouses philosopher JeanPaul Sartre's Existentialism Is Humanism theory that she chooses her actions and wants to be judged only by them, implying that sexual identity is a choice.
On the other hand, Adele's attraction to Emma is instant and enduring, even as she has no qualms about sleeping with young men.
But before anyone is lulled into believing Brokeback cliches about true love breaching social taboos and barriers, Adele emphasises the importance of the quality of her carnal encounters with Emma when she tries to win her back.
This may be why the seven to eight minutes which have been cut from the film shown here are crucial: Local audiences will not see the intensity of Adele's lovemaking with Emma, compared with that with men.
If Exarchopoulos' fearless performance in the rest of the film is any guide, she probably threw herself with passion, abandon and vulnerability into the excised long sex scene with Emma.
This removed lesbian bedroom scene may be the clue to her essence/existence which filmgoers in Singapore are missing.
Still, there is plenty of evidence elsewhere that Exarchopoulos is as generous with her emotions as her body in the sex scenes which remain in the version screened here - the thick, lush tangle of locks on her head a metaphor for the mass and mess of emotions welling up inside the character.
Exarchopoulos not only anchors the film, she is the film. Hence, the other title of the film, Adele Chapters 1 & 2, makes perfect sense.
No wonder the actress, along with her co-star Seydoux and director Abdellatif Kechiche, was awarded the Palme d'Or top prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. It was the first time cast members had received the award, which is given to the best film.
Exarchopoulos, 20, deserves it more than Seydoux, 28, whose portrayal of an angst-ridden and temperamental artist and a seducer could do with more nuance.
Like many French film-makers, the Tunisian-French Kechiche, 53, often uses a great deal of intelligent dialogue to reveal character rather than for exposition. Then when words begin to bore and conceal more than they reveal, he pushes the camera relentlessly into his characters' faces and lets it roll for long takes.
His methods led Exarchopoulos and Seydoux to say later that filming was unbearable, and Seydoux claimed she felt like a prostitute.
In retort, he told the New Yorker: "In such a beautiful profession, in which you're creating through your emotions, your body - to me, there is nothing of suffering."
It sounds as if his brutally honest film is the result of his brutally honest modus operandi.
The thin line between porn and art