Part of what makes "Blue is the Warmest Color," opening today at Liberty Hall, so remarkable is its length. In its three hours, Tunisian-born director Abdellatif Kechiche pinpoints key moments in the lesbian relationship of two young women. He gives each scene time to breathe and makes sure that above all else, they have the ring of truth.
This goes not only for scenes that take place at school, at parties, or across the dinner table, but also for the sex scenes. No movie in recent memory has constructed bedroom moments that contain this much passion or explicitness — much less taken the time to show the evolution of lovemaking between two people.
The graphic sex scenes earned "Blue is the Warmest Color" an NC-17 rating, but it is the film’s raw depiction of infatuation, lust and heartbreak that won it the Palm d’Or at Cannes this year when no less a mainstream American icon than Steven Spielberg headed up the jury.
The French title of the movie is "La Vie d’Adèle—Chapitres 1 et 2", which illuminates both its two-part structure and single-perspective point of view. A high school student who is already deeply interested in affairs of the heart and philosophy in the classic literature she reads at school (some of it, like "Antigone," is a little too on-the-nose), Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) doesn’t quite fit in with the other girls her age. The first 90 minutes of the movie is her coming-of-age story, and it is shot with an intimacy that is unsettling at first.
Gradually, we get used to being so close to Adèle, figuratively and literally — through the nonstop closeups of her face. When she sees confident, blue-haired young artist Emma (Léa Seydoux) walk by one day with her girlfriend, it’s like she’s been hit by a truck. The attraction is immediate. A friend takes Adèle to a gay bar, which she only goes to for one reason. She sees Emma there, they talk, and her life changes overnight.
This is what unbridled passion looks like. Every scene between Adèle and Emma is charged. The first blinding rush of new love is everything — especially to Adèle — and the actresses portray it all with such natural tendencies that it is counter-intuitive to think that Kechiche arrived at these scenes by forcing his actresses through take after take after grueling take, as they have accused him of. The film also departs substantially from the graphic novel by Julie Maroh that inspired it.
Chapter two is a study in contrasts. Shot with the same immediacy and focus on Adèle (but a lack of internal monologue), its tone is decidedly different. Because of the closeness we felt in chapter one, the relationship as it has evolved is tougher to swallow. In one scene that can stand in for the entirety of the second act, Adèle is isolated and alone, despite having reached her goal of becoming a teacher. She stands among children who are running about and playing feverishly, competing for her attention, yet she’s somewhere else, staring into nothing.
To achieve the urgency and excitement of "Blue is the Warmest Color," 800 hours of footage was filmed over five months. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux were encouraged to improvise and live fully in each moment, and the result is electric. Two fearless performances and three hours later, the movie succeeds in bringing such emotional complexity to life that its easy to relate to for anyone who has been in love.
The film’s notorious sex scenes are just a small part of the larger picture, because the movie asks a lot of timeless questions about love and devotion: How lopsided can love be? Is all-encompassing love “good for you”? How does it limit you? What will you give up for love? That these questions are posed organically within the film is why "Blue is the Warmest Color" will have enduring appeal and hopefully move beyond the reason it is currently making headlines.
Another movie with a huge amount of hype behind it (for very different reasons - ha!) is the second in a three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" from Peter Jackson. "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is full of cutting-edge computer-animated action scenes, yet at times this two-and-a-half-hour middle chapter feels longer than "Blue is the Warmest Color."
That's not to say it is a bad film — it's just that the time spent before and between its two main set pieces (a boisterous escape in barrels and the climactic showdown with the dragon) is poorly paced. In the previous "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Jackson did an excellent job juggling characters and storylines that painted a detailed picture of Tolkien's Middle Earth. In the first two movies of "The Hobbit," however, there isn't as much richness of character or story to draw from, so Jackson fills the holes with action.
For a film called "The Hobbit," there isn't much of said hobbit until the last third. Martin Freeman has grown into the role of Bilbo Baggins even more comfortably, but without a hobbit sidekick like Samwise to bounce his fears off of, he doesn't say much. The dwarfs who accompany Bilbo have slivers of their own personalities, but mostly they act as a unified group — and not too keenly, I might add.
A subplot involving Gandalf (Ian McKellan) is entirely devoid of drama, a shoehorned-in romance between the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) is strange but provides much-needed motivation to bring fan-favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom) into the picture, and the introduction of a Lake-town barge man (Luke Evans) works well — even though the constantly shifting opinions of his townspeople make little sense.
What everyone has truly been waiting for in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is right there in the title, and Jackson doesn't disappoint. Like Gollum before him, Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is an impressively rendered CGI creation, simmering with menace and infused with a bit of empathy. Bilbo's encounter with the dragon is pure movie magic.
As with last year's "the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the biggest weakness of this new chapter is that the journey doesn't carry any weight anymore. It is entirely expected. In form, it's very similar to "The Lord of the Rings" with lots of walking and talking montages and an identical central conflict — the corrupting temptation of the all-powerful ring and a call to courage for a hobbit. Far from the journey, then, it's the individual moments that elicit the greatest pleasure.