The lesbian love story that captivated Cannes

A hail of enthusiastic tweets followed the Cannes premiere of La Vie d’Adèle Chapîtres 1 et 2 (Blue Is the Warmest Colour), elevating it to the status of the critics’ favourite of the festival — and it indeed became the winner of the Palme d’Or by the festival’s end.

It happens to contain the lengthiest, most intimate and most graphic lesbian sex scenes in mainstream cinema history. Praised for its tenderness and intensity, it has been hailed as a landmark in cinematic depictions of lesbian love and female sexuality.

Both lead actors spoke of their trust in director Abdellatif Kechiche over the four-month shoot for the film, including the scenes that, in the opinion of the Hollywood Reporter, “cross the barrier between performance and the real deal”. According to Lea Seydoux, who plays the older of the two women; “I succeeded in forgetting that a camera was there.”

It was a process so intense, and resulting in so much material, “that he could have made a whole lot of other films” with just the rushes, according to Adele Exarchopoulos, who plays the younger of the two women. According to Kechiche, they regarded the filming of the sexual sections as “a game”.

“We also had a great deal of fun,” he said. “The actors felt they were enjoying themselves — while playing a part, of course.” Kechiche’s last film, Black Venus, about Saartje Baartman, was deemed too harrowing and provocative for American and British distributors.

The director, best known for his 2007 film Couscous, said he would be willing to contemplate some cuts in Blue Is the Warmest Colour to allow the widest possible audience to see the work. “We wouldn’t want the film not to be screened because of one scene,” he said.

Executive producer Vincent Maravel confirmed that American distribution rights to the film had already been sold, “and we didn’t talk about cutting anything out”.

The intimate physical scenes are only one element of a deep study of the relationship between the two women as it grows from young first love into domesticity. Exarchopoulos, in a highly acclaimed performance, plays a schoolgirl called Adèle who embarks on a relationship with a boy, Thomas. But she finds herself drawn to Emma, played by Seydoux, a woman with blue-dyed hair she has seen in the street.

Political context
The film was screened less than a week after gay marriage was legalised in France. According to Kechiche: “When I decided to tell this story the particular political context did not exist — we didn’t make the film to comply with a given political context. I didn’t want to make a militant film that had a message to deliver about homosexuality, but of course it can be seen from that angle, and that doesn’t bother me.”

Unlike so many coming-out stories, there is no traumatic scene of rupture from their parents as the women’s families take on the implications of their sexuality. “I didn’t want a major clash or a huge separation,” said Kechiche of the story, which is loosely adapted from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh.

“What I loved, aside from the love story, was the fact that this person missed their train, meets this woman, and her life totally changes: this meeting held out such tremendous promise. The idea that you meet someone by chance and it changes your life for ever. I was deeply touched by that idea.”

The runner-up at Cannes, the winner of the Grand Prix, was the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis.

These crowning awards formed an icing of convention on a slate of shocks dished out by Steven Spielberg’s jury. There was nothing for Paulo Sorrentino’s well-liked Felliniesque tale of middle-aged Roman debauchery, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), and Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, rather than taking one of the top three awards for best screenplay, instead took best actress for Berenice Bejo.

Veteran American star Bruce Dern was named best actor for his role as an alcoholic father in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. The film gave Dern his first lead in many years. It was, he said, a relief not to be playing “some piece of shit who wants to blow up the Superbowl”.

Dern was an unexpected winner. By the time the prizes were dished out, the actor himself had returned to the United States, leaving Payne to pick up his award. The bookies’ choice was Michael Douglas, who turns in a game-changing performance as Liberace in Beyond the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh’s biopic of the pianist, which premiered in the US on HBO just a few hours after the festival wrapped.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the best-director award doing to 34-year-old Mexican director Amat Escalante, whose Heli unnerved many with scenes of torture involving a flambéd penis and a strangled puppy. These moments appeared likely to overshadow the film’s more sensitive moments of young romance.

The third or “jury” prize went to Hirokazu Koreeda’s gentle domestic drama Like Father, Like Son, and the Camera D’Or (for best first film) went to Ilo Ilo.

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