An intimate observation of the evolution of a teenager's sexual identity, and the story of her transformative experience of first love.

A powerful look at first love.

the camera is always precisely where it needs to be

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: In the end, and somewhat to my surprise, it wasn’t really about the sex at all. Early reports out of Cannes, from a handful of buyers and critics who’d caught a private early screening, had focused on this three-hour feature’s most salacious angle: a more than 10-minute-long sex scene which reportedly featured unsimulated intercourse between its two leads, French actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos.

Understandably, this had become something of a talking-point—not least because, in addition to being one of Europe’s most in-demand young stars (familiar to English-language audiences from supporting roles in Midnight in Paris, Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol and Inglourious Basterds), Seydoux is also a kind of French movie royalty: the granddaughter of Jérome Seydoux, the longtime chairman of production giant Pathé, and the grand-niece of Nicholas Seydoux, who holds the same position at Pathé’s chief rival, Gaumont. For the local film industry, one friend joked, 'this will make the l’affaire DSK look like a parking fine.’

In fact, outrage from the French was curiously muted, even as a number of high-profile American critics fumed and fulminated—as neat an encapsulation of cultural differences as one might expect. The Europeans were prepared to accept that the film was about far more than just sex; the Americans, by contrast, seemed unable to look beyond it.

For the record, the director, Tunisian-French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche, is remarkably even-handed in his treatment here, with the result that the lovemaking scenes are accorded neither any more nor less weight than any other: of Adèle eating, for example, or being bullied by classmates—or, later, teaching children at the school where she ends up working. The film runs 179 minutes; most of its beats play long. Its tone is expansive, omnivorous. As a storyteller, Kechiche is a disciple of Cassavetes and Pialat, filmmakers who, while taking very different approaches, similarly sought to liberate realism from the confines of the tidy, ninety-minute movie.

Aesthetically, too, he favours the same observational, seemingly improvised style as those directors, one which actually conceals a considerable formal rigour. Though shooting mostly in widescreen close-up, the camera is always precisely where it needs to be, and the cutting (no less than four editors are credited; there were reportedly more than 280 hours of rushes) is surgically exact throughout. Astonishingly, it feels not a moment too long.

But the presiding spirit here, as in his 2003 drama L’esquive, is Marivaux: as a student, Adèle is first seen reading the playwright’s novel La vie de Marianne, a work which, like this film, offers a sentimental education of its youthful protagonist—and which, as with this one, is left unfinished, open-ended. (Kechiche has dropped hints that he might return to Adèle’s life in future films, that she might in fact be his Antoine Doinel.) 'How do you understand that the heart is missing something?’ asks her teacher in the opening sequence, and appropriately for a film so preoccupied by the virtues of a classical education, the question serves as a kind of rhetorical conceit—one that the remainder of the film spends contemplating, if never quite answering definitively.

Set in Lille, it charts a decade in the life of its protagonist. (The film’s French title, 'La vie d’Adèle: Chapitre 1 et 2’, is more apt.) First seen at 15, as a bookish, slightly abstracted high school student, she’s pressured by her circle of friends to begin a romance with a handsome classmate, Thomas, but never quite succumbs to genuine passion. Instead, she finds herself drawn to Emma, a slightly older local girl, an aspiring artist, whose gamine haircut is dyed light-blue. More familiar with same-sex relationships, Emma takes the lead—only to be is surprised by the depth of Adèle’s commitment to her, and her willingness to subordinate herself to her lover.

The director’s intention here is to portray the entire arc of a single relationship. The euphoria and misery—the life-or-death intensity—of first love. And so that first, long sex scene exists for a reason, since it demonstrates, at first-hand, what the rest of the film goes on to show: that their physical rapport is not just the basis upon which their relationship is founded, but ultimately, the only thing which keeps them together. And to this end, Kechiche takes care to tease out the many differences (of class and background, as well as temperament) which conspire to divide them. Coming from a haute-bourgeois family of artists, Emma wants to be a painter; Adèle, a working-class girl, dreams of being a kindergarten teacher—a choice which evokes polite condescension among Emma’s circle of artistic friends. And as Emma’s career begins to take off, Adèle finds herself sidelined. By the time her partner has resumed her normal hair-colour (a warning-sign), she’s little more than a housewife, cooking and serving food for the various guests—all of them Emma’s friends—who visit their house.

Everything I’ve ever heard about Kechiche suggests he’s a monstrous human being: arrogant, self-righteous, a bully. (Tellingly, his red carpet screening at Cannes was picketed by members of French film crews who, having been underpaid or, in some cases, not paid by him at all, refuse to work with him again.) These personal failings notwithstanding, the achievement of this film—and its improvement upon both the source-novel and his own shooting script (which I read last year, and thought appalling: a callow assortment of teen-romance clichés, linked by a drearily literal voiceover)—suggest that he’s an extraordinarily talented director. And one who, like Maurice Pialat, used his savage treatment of his actors and his crew to inform and shape the finished product: incorporating the intensity of the actual shoot, the bitter conflicts on-set, into the emotional intensity represented onscreen.

Yet inevitably, the film has incurred the wrath of a number of female commentators—notably, of Julie Maroh, the creator of the graphic novel upon which it was based. Who, 'as a feminist and lesbian, [could] not endorse the direction Kechiche took on these matters." The lovemaking sequences, she said, were on film merely 'a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold.’ Which might have been a little easier to accept had the original bande dessinée not also included similarly explicit depictions of intercourse. (Represented there in close-ups in a way that the film, which favoured endistanced, medium-length shots, did not.) As it was, it seemed faintly petty: the typical plaint of an author complaining that their text had been filtered through another’s sensibility on its way to the screen.

Ah, but what was that sensibility? Much of the criticism centred upon the proposition that, as a heterosexual male, Kechiche had no 'right’ to tell this particular story—and furthermore, that his treatment was inevitably deformed by his own prurient interests. 'The film," said the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis (a critic I revere, and a friend), 'feels more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else."

Really? Apart from the obvious qualification—to see the film as only being 'about’ sexuality, is to overlook both its perceptive analysis of class, and its forensic dissection of relationship-dynamics—I’d point out that there are, and should be, no rules governing what one can and cannot write about. Anyone can tell any story they please: the question, ultimately, is how well, or not, they do it. It’s an aesthetic judgment, not a moral truth. And to suggest otherwise is to swallow the kind of bullshit exclusionism that (to take one local example) saw David Marr once claim that only homosexual men could really understand the novels of Patrick White.

I’m extremely intolerant of this kind of FUBU group-think—which not only tries to limit the work under scrutiny to some pious notion of the Ideal Reader, but also confines said works to a kind of rarefied ghetto, a smug little island of Us, solely writing for and talking to others like Us. Art—real art—is bigger than that, by definition.

Shortly after the Cannes press screening, another US critic, Lisa Schwarzbaum, tweeted snidely about male critics’ unusual indulgence of 'hot naked lesbian action’. Which seemed blinkered as well as idiotic. If my critical faculties were as ruled by my dick as Ms. Schwarzbaum seemed to imply, how was it that, a few days before, in Un Certain Regard, I’d admired Alain Guiraudie’s L’inconnu du Lac, a creepy study of male homosexual cruising, fraught with intimations of Patricia Highsmith, that featured an on-screen blowjob and cumshot? (And conversely, what about the many gay men—no shortage of these, in the catty world of film criticism—who adored the Kechiche? Had none of us any 'right’ to our opinion?)

It’s instructive, I think, to compare Kechiche’s achievement here, to a film whose primary ambition is to titillate—say, Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Exterminating Angels. Which succeeds handsomely as a piece of softcore pornography, but fails as a drama, since every aspect of the story, each encounter and exchange, exists solely in order to facilitate the girl-on-girl action that is its raison d’etre. Those sequences—exquisitely lit and framed, scored to Serious Music, and graced by the presence of some extraordinarily beautiful women—easily overshadowed everything else in the movie . . . as they were intended to. Its purpose is to arouse, not to disclose anything particularly interesting or insightful about actual human beings. Unlike this one, it’s strictly about the fucking.

The word 'brave’ is tossed around a lot, with respect to actors: 'It’s such a brave performance,’ 'Oh, he’s such a brave performer’ . . . But this genuinely did seem fearless, from both Seydoux and Exarchopoulos—the former has never been better, and the latter, a relative newcomer, is nothing less than a revelation. And so it was especially satisfying, at the Palme awards ceremony, that Steven Spielberg noted that his jury had taken 'the extraordinary step’ of awarding the Palme d’Or to three artists. Meaning: Kechiche and his two actresses. Whose collaboration was complete, and whose artistic contribution could not be separated. An unprecedented decision, it seemed entirely right and fitting, since this was a collaboration in truest sense, one in which the young women exposed themselves psychically and well as physically. (And, from all reports, suffered considerably in the process—not least, when the two-month shoot ballooned to five.) They deserved the accolade, just as this film—the best, the saddest, the most powerful work I’ve seen this year—deserves respect.