This photo released by courtesy of Sundance Selects shows Adele Exarchopoulos, left, as Adele, and Lea Seydoux, as Emma, in the film, "Blue Is the Warmest Color," directed by Abdellatif Kechiche.

[HOEP/AP Photo/Courtesy Sundance Selects]

Ever since it took home the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes (the festival’s top honor) in May, “Blue is the Warmest Color” has been heating up the conversation among film critics and aficionados alike.

Editor's Note: Blue is the Warmest Color is rated NC-17; this review discusses the film.

Based on the graphic novel “Blue Angel” by Julie Maroh, the French-language film has sparked debate over its prolonged, lesbian sex scenes that verge on pornography, and the lingering male gaze of director Abdellatif Keviche as he shoots his alluring, young stars (Adèle Exarchopolous and Léa Seydoux) in the throes of passion.

Adding fuel to the fire, the actresses have since spoken out about the director’s methods: Seydoux claiming that she felt like a “prostitute” while filming the explicit scenes, and both starlets saying that they would never work with Keviche again. Their seething comments have put the director under intense media scrutiny in recent months, with Keviche firing back in letters and interviews, and threatening legal action against Seydoux in late October.

As a result, a near-perfect film’s reputation has been overshadowed by controversy. Unfairly labeled a mere “lesbian sex movie” by media outlets such as “GQ” magazine, “Blue” is quite possibly one of the most beautiful coming-of-age stories to ever be put on film, with some of the strongest performances of this – or any – year.

The film follows high-school student Adèle (Exarchopolous) as she struggles with her sexuality, confused as to why she feels no spark with a fellow classmate (Jérémie Laheurte). She discovers the answer in a beguiling art student named Emma (Seydoux), whom she locks eyes with while walking across the street and is immediately taken with. After formally meeting at a gay bar one night, the two begin an impassioned relationship that spans years, eventually moving in together and discovering the hurdles of long-term commitment.

Despite its three-hour running time, “Blue” still manages to fly by, engrossing you in its ordinary, seemingly unremarkable dialogue (penned by Keviche and screenwriter Ghalia Lacroix). And that’s precisely what makes the film feel so true to life. Like our everyday conversations, not everything said is dripping with drama or a narrative locomotive, only there to drive the story forward. Rather, Keviche gives the film and his stars room to breathe, relying on their eyes and body language to speak volumes.

The highlight of “Blue” is the performances of Exarchopolous and Seydoux, who were awarded the Palm d’Or alongside Keviche for their roles in creating this film (a first in Cannes history). Their connection is immediate and intoxicating, effortlessly conveying the excitement of young love and the heartache as they begin to drift apart. While Exarchopolous (a relative newcomer in a star-making turn) is more than capable of carrying “Blue” on her shoulders, it is truly her scenes with Seydoux where the film comes alive and sweeps you away in their romance. In what has fast become a crowded awards season, it’s a shame that many pundits label the actresses as Oscar “dark horses” or “long shots,” because their entrancing performances are worth the utmost recognition.

The film itself is ravishing to look at, shot primarily in tight close-ups with not-so-subtle blue motifs effectively used throughout. The much-discussed sex scenes are just as graphic (if not more) than you’ve heard, prompting walkouts from a handful of audience members at the recent Scottsdale screening. While the claims against their necessity are certainly justifiable, these scenes ultimately feel relatively short (despite clocking in at around 15 minutes total) and are done a great disservice by making any snap judgments for or against them.

The explicit scenes, much like the rest of “Blue,” will linger in your mind long after the film is over. More so than a mere movie, “Blue” is a wave that gradually washes over you; an experience that will hopefully ignite some thought-provoking, meaningful discussions about relationships both homo- and heterosexual, and the depictions of female sexuality on film.

Amid the debate of whether or not Keviche exploited Exarchopolous and Seydoux, one might hope that audience members would be more conscious of how they view the film – choosing to examine “Blue” as a character study, rather than a display of what might be the director’s sexual fantasies.

Unfortunately from my own screening experience, there was an audience member snapping pictures with his cell phone whenever Adèle and Emma kissed each other or had sex. Whether you love or loathe the film, all I ask is that you don’t be that man. Take in “Blue is the Warmest Color” for what it truly is, which is a deeply affecting and sincere work of art.

Grade: A-

“Blue is the Warmest Color” plays for a limited time at Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale. Rated NC-17.

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