Blue Is the Warmest Color and The Counselor
A great film from France and a Ridley Scott misfire.
Blue Is the Warmest Color arrives trailing clouds of buzz from this year's Cannes Film Festival, where it walked away with the Palme d'Or. Even the French were somewhat agog at the movie's extended lesbian sex scenes. But while it's true that these scenes are unusually graphic—only millimeters away from full-on porn (thus the picture's NC-17 rating)—the movie is more than just rote groan-and-grind. It's a love story with a deep emotional charge—it feels like real life unfolding before our eyes. And its centerpiece is a knockout star performance by 19-year-old Adèle Exarchopoulos, whose pillowy lips and guileless eyes illuminate every scene. (Unsurprisingly, she has already been scooped up by a major American talent agency, CAA.)
Exarchopoulos plays Adèle, a provincial high school student who's confused about her lack of response to admiring male classmates, even after having sex with one of them. Walking through a park one day, she passes a young woman with jaunty blue-dyed hair (Léa Seydoux, of Midnight in Paris and the last Mission: Impossible film). Their eyes lock for a moment, but they both move on.
Later, a gay friend takes Adèle out for a night of club-hopping. They wind up at a lesbian bar, where Adèle encounters the blue-haired woman again. Her name is Emma; she's a university fine-arts student, and she's immediately drawn to the lonely Adèle, who shyly reciprocates. "Your type is rare here," Emma says, amid the sapphic hubbub. "A straight girl who's…a little curious?"
The stages of their blossoming relationship have an easy realism that will be familiar to anyone who's ever engaged in the mating game. Adèle hopes that Emma is the soul mate she has yearned to find. They talk excitedly about literature; they flirt and then kiss, and soon they've tumbled into bed.
The movie's extreme closeups on the two actor's bodies in the long sex scenes suggest a voyeuristic obsession on the part of the director, Abdellatif Kechiche. (In an interview with the Daily Beast, Seydoux said he made them continue performing one heated scene for 10 days.) But Seydoux and Exarchopoulos keep the carnal acrobatics grounded in feeling—in the characters' passionate sense of mutual discovery. We feel them "breathing in each other," as Adèle puts it, and for a while it seems that maybe they are soul mates.
But after Adèle moves in with Emma, fissures in their initial happiness begin to appear. Emma is determined to become a successful artist; Adèle knows nothing about art. She plans to become an elementary school teacher; Emma can't understand why she won't pursue writing, for which she has a talent. Their emotional alignment starts cracking apart, and along the way there are some sensational (fully clothed) scenes. In two of them—one a fierce argument in Emma's apartment, the other an eruption of desperate longing in a sleepy cafe—Exarchopoulos probes the outer limits of emotional meltdown with unforgettable intensity.
It's unfortunate that the movie is three hours long, for no good reason. Kechiche reportedly shot hundreds of hours of footage, and he and his five editors were evidently unable to part with a lot of it. Way too much time is wasted on characters eating (spaghetti is a persistent motif) and on dinner-table chit-chat and meandering schoolroom scenes. It's a wonderful movie, but it would have been even better trimmed down to two and a half hours, max.
The picture's ending suggests that the story will continue (its French subtitle translates as Chapters 1 & 2). But given the nasty sniping that has broken out between Kechiche and his two stars, that seems unlikely. In pre-release interviews, Seydoux has said the movie's sex scenes left her "feeling like a prostitute," and neither she nor Exarchopoulos seems interested in working with the director again. ("Never," says Seydoux.) Kechiche, fighting back, accused Seydoux—in league with a scandal-mongering French journalist—of conspiring to kill his career.
So Blue Is the Warmest Color might never have a sequel. But that's okay. This picture stands on its own as a mighty cinematic achievement.
How is it that a movie directed by Ridley Scott, with a script by Cormac McCarthy (his first) and a cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz and Javier Bardem, could turn out as dull and jumbled as The Counselor? I mean, really. This is the new Osterman Weekend of major motion pictures.
The movie opens with Fassbender (looking even waxier than usual) playing a ritzy El Paso lawyer who's addressed only as Counselor. He's in bed with his girlfriend, Laura (Cruz), and they're fooling around under the sheets in the manner of a Magritte painting (Scott is an art-school grad). Then we cut to a big lug named Reiner (Bardem), whose chaotically moussed hair appears to have been styled with a salad fork. Reiner—one of Counselor's drug-biz clients—whiles away spare hours out in the desert sipping martinis with his icy inamorata, Malkina (Diaz), as they watch their two pet cheetahs chasing jackrabbits around in the scrub. "I never tire of it," Malkina says, flashing a gold tooth and a set of daggery silver fingernails that could probably poke a hole in a beer can.
Next, it's off to Amsterdam, where Counselor buys a big diamond for an engagement ring for Laura. He obtains this rock from a gem dealer, played by Bruno Ganz, who regales us with windy observations like "We announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives." Noted.
Also passing through from time to time is a character in a cowboy outfit called Westray (Pitt), a sleepy-eyed middleman of some sort who could be (I'm guessing) the guy who lured Counselor away from the straight-and-narrow professional path into the more lucrative field of representing big-time drug creeps. Pitt is so laid back in this role, it's surprising that nobody trips over him.
Then there's, let's see, Rubén Blades as a Mexican drug-world jefe who delivers some very bad news, and Rosie Perez as another of Counselor's clients, now imprisoned, who triggers the story's most implausible plot element. There's also some jammed-in talk about snuff films and beheading machines, and the moment they're mentioned we know with a weary certainty that they'll be coming into play later in the movie.
Some of these characters—the ones who aren't simply uninteresting—are lurid in an entirely over-determined way. The plot is tediously opaque (is there really anything new worth doing in the hyper-complicated drug-scam film genre?), and the Big Trouble in which Counselor finds himself turns out, upon minimal contemplation, to be ridiculous. There's also some unnecessary nonsense with the lewd Malkina and a hapless priest in a church confessional. And special mention must be made of the scene in which she drops her thong, climbs atop the hood of Reiner's Ferrari, and grinds herself to orgasm against its windshield. You have to see this to believe it. Or…wait—no you don't.