This exchange between the two, whose ardors we follow over years, mirrors a debate being hashed out over the film. “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” in French “La Vie d’Adèle—Chapitres 1 et 2,” shows some of the more potent and torrid sex scenes in popular memory: sex scenes between two women, one lasting seven intimate minutes. Force and firepower, Anthony Lane writes in his review of the film in the magazine this week, that amounts to “a fusillade of cries and clutches, grabs and slaps—a pitch of pleasure so entwined with desperation that we find ourselves not in the realm of the pornographic but on the brink of romantic agony.”
The 2013 Cannes jury, presided over by Steven Spielberg, awarded the top prize not only to the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, but to the lead actresses, too. “Three artists,” Spielberg said that May day. If this “took some auteur sheen away from Mr. Kechiche,” as Manohla Dargis wrote, you wouldn’t have known: the red carpet was witness to a symphony of happy symmetry as the established Léa Seydoux, twenty-eight, and the newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos, nineteen, flanked their director and kissed him. Then, later in summer, Seydoux and Exarchopoulos said that the shooting had been unbearable and they would never again work with Kechiche. The French union representing the film industry spoke of deplorable conditions for the crew. Seydoux, who plays Emma, said she felt like a “prostitute.” Exarchopoulos described a “horrible” continuous take in which Seydoux hit her over and over, leaving her raw.
In late September, Kechiche told the French magazine Télérama that the outrage had “sullied” the film for future audiences; now the public would wonder whether he’d harassed the exquisite starlets. The film’s release, the director said, “should be cancelled.” On Wednesday, the French news Web site Rue89 published a scathing op-ed by Kechiche, addressed “to those who wanted to destroy” his film, alleging slander by a leading French journalist as well as Seydoux. “If my film hadn’t succeeded at Cannes,” he wrote, “I would be a director destroyed … a dead man.” In a note, the site’s editor-in-chief describes warning Kechiche that he might come across as paranoid; Kechiche responded that he’d rather that “than ‘tyrant’ or ‘despot’, which is what I’ve been called.” And yet, the show goes on; for American theatres everywhere except (so far) Idaho, the film comes out—with an NC-17 rating—Friday.
Last week, in Manhattan, I asked Kechiche if the problem was that the actresses couldn’t countenance the ugly work that goes into beautiful product. Kechiche is French, of Tunisian birth. In spectacles and black vestments, he’s a severe type who demands of even fast-talking Americans total comfort with long pauses. He declined my charge, and blew smoke at the implication. “I certainly have never made anyone suffer,” he said, in well-wrought French. “The word ‘suffering’ is completely inappropriate to use about the process of filming. To talk about the suffering of the actor is something I can only laugh at—in such a beautiful profession, where you’re creating through your emotions, your body—to me, there is nothing of suffering.”
“The job of an actor,” he went on, “it’s one of a spoiled child. You wake up, you’re made up, you do a few takes, you’re beautifully lit. Not to get into my social origins, but I’ve seen hard labor, and it is not comparable.” His choice of words seemed to point at Léa Seydoux, who comes from a highly prominent French family dotted with chairmen and C.E.O.s of film companies, and with money invested in oil and soccer clubs. The optics of the Maghreb filmmaker and the white French aristocrat are inévitable. And yet, the point of the film, for its director, is about swallowing what life hands you and growing up. Kechiche sees the theme of the film as nothing less than “experience: love, passion, destiny, relationships, breakups. It’s like a novel of initiation.”
“Blue” opens in a literature class; Adèle, delicate and wild, is a fancier of books (and becomes a schoolteacher through the course of the film). Kechiche references Marivaux, “La Princesse de Clèves”—books from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—but he insisted that more important than any historical era were the themes taken up by classical novels and myths: coming of age, the play of love and chance, chagrin and self-cultivation. He pointed to Antigone and the heroine of Stendhal’s unfinished “Lamiel” as parallels for Adèle.
The book that Adèle is most closely based on, a French graphic novel, by Julie Maroh, calls the character Clémentine. But when I spoke to Exarchopoulos, the movie’s star—who forever will be known as Kechiche’s discovery—she told me that Kechiche asked if he could use her real name. “He came to me and said ‘Adèle’ means justice in Arabic, and I think there is something true in that.” She said yes.
Exarchopoulos had the Saturday sniffles when we met, a nineteen-year-old new to New York City, wearing clunky patent-leather shoes and a dress with a bejeweled collar. Between slurps of an iced latte (not so easy to get in France), she told me that the film was about “apprenticeship, virgin experiences.” She referred to the director as Abdel—two syllables that ring of Adèle—and it occurred to me how much the film was not only bildungsroman but also roman à clef.
Not until Cannes, Exarchopoulos said, did she learn that the name of the film had changed, to reference Marivaux’s “La Vie de Marianne” and to conjure Adèle’s life—hers, like Marivaux’s work, unfinished. “This movie is so close to us,” Exarchopoulos said. “The camera was so close to us, we had to give everything. Abdellatif wanted to capture your soul.”
Kechiche is “obsessed,” with women, Exarchopoulos continued, observing them, solving their “mystery.” That much is clear when you see the film, all writhing bodies, women feeding each other oysters, falling tendrils. “When he’s watching people,” she said, describing nights at clubs and endless walks with the director, “it’s as if he’s on another planet sometimes. Something spiritual.” On camera, Exarchopoulos does what every French teen-ager does—a mix of cigarettes, sex, and wine, in leather coats and messy hair just so—but she brings a jerking sensitivity and almost animal-like reactivity to the screen. In conversation, she’s like any other person who puts everything out there—which, especially before you’re twenty, is braver than it looks.
“There is something really weird about Abdellatif,” she went on. “Sometimes he’s scary, and you feel a spiritual debt.” Emma may be a fine artist, a touch the sprite, but Adèle stands for instinct, feeling—a heart in thrall or in revolt. Early on, Adèle tells a suitor that she likes languages—the word is langue. It’s the same word, in French, for “tongue,” and the camera hardly ever leaves hers: her mouth, her rude chewing, her sucking, her wails. “Skin and gourmandisme,” Exarchopoulos said, mixing two languages and concepts—skin and eating, greediness, need. There was greed in the filming, too. “Really long days,” she said. “He wants you to never have any consciousness, to take off every mask.”
“At Cannes,” Exarchopoulos told me, “I wanted recognition. I wanted him to let me know if he was really happy or if he had regrets. He would never say, ‘Thank you, Adèle. Thank you, Léa.’ He said, ‘Thank you, Tunisia, and Paris.’ ” (In accepting the Palme d’Or, Kechiche lauded the youth of Tunisia. He told me that their uprising moved him “simply as a human being”; to my probing about nationality, gender, or sexuality, he kept away from identity politics.)
Kechiche’s thanklessness is startling, when posed this way; he seems to owe his leading actors a whole lot. But the director doesn’t seem a person full of thanking. “We say that wewere suffering on this movie,” Exarchopoulos told me, but “we always said that he is suffering, too, but just said nothing.” She confided to me that someone “really close to him” on set even slipped a sleeping pill into his wine. “But it didn’t affect him!” she laughed, wondering if he ever learned. “It’s a devouring passion,” and with it he just kept right on going. “An element of devouring, eating him. He has to create all the time.”
I asked Exarchopoulos if she had worked with other directors since wrapping “Blue.” She told me she spent six days on another shoot. “I was a smaller character, but came in to shoot an important scene, supposed to be complex. And after three takes the director was like, okay, we’re done. I gasped. I was, like, Oh, no, it’s so shitty—I haven’t given anything!”