Abdellatif Kechiche's Palme D'Or-winning feature--an adaptation of the comic book by Julie Maroh--is a miracle of a portrait of quotidian life: how Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is joined on the bus she's riding by a boy she knows from school, how they casually talk and flirt; how she pulls a tangle of pasta from her father's manhole-sized serving dish and champs noisily; how she falls asleep, and her pudgy fingers--not quite childlike, not quite adult--brush her ample behind in a half-sensual, half irritated manner, prior to masturbation.
The masturbation scene by the way--with camera bedside, mostly focused on Adele's face, mostly told from Adele's subjective viewpoint (with shots cuing us--unnecessarily, I thought--that some of what's happening is fantasy)--is my favorite bit of eroticism: lazy and slow to start, it rollercoasters into unexpected directions including an intense, literally climactic visitation by one steely-eyed blue-haired girl (Lea Seydoux). If sex is all about intimacy, about men and women being not just nude but naked, this is as naked as one can get--a startling peek into Adele's unruly mind, a brief glimpse at an about-to-bloom sexual obsession, a choice sampling of her burgeoning, uncertain sexuality.
Kechiche's film lives and breathes in these little details, in the filmmaker's way of making the most ordinary material casually, remarkably cinematic. Take Adele's first glimpse of Emma, her blue-haired girl: she spots Emma across the street, the camera following as she approaches; cut to a sweep from right to left as Emma walks past, a reverse sweep as Adele turns back, thunderstruck; cut to a shot of Emma walking away, an intrigued expression on her departing face. It's not quite Fassbinder--there is no Michael Chapman-esque pirouette round the lovers, sealing their doom in a delirious spiral--but Kechiche has a nearby hammered-steel drum do an urgent riff, and your heart can't help but trill in response.
Can't even begin to say how important Ms. Exarchopoulos is to the film--Kechiche changed the protagonist's name from Clementine to the actor's own, claiming that in his language her name meant 'justice' (it does, though interestingly in Arabic it's a man's name). The French-Greek actress is hardly one's idea of a beauty--she doesn't have the flawlessly healthy vigor of a Jennifer Lawrence--yet under Kechiche's absorbed (some would say obsessed) gaze she's something altogether more tangible, more fascinating: a child-woman on the brink, her tiniest gestures magnified, her flaws transmuted into virtues. Her mouth is in constant motion, either giving or receiving pleasure, information, food; even in sleep it's slightly open as if dissatisfied with what it's taken in through the course of a long day (interesting detail: if you take a peek you'll spot two buck teeth hidden carefully between the pouted lips).
Lea Seydoux's Emma is more astringent: her eyes are narrowed, focused on a faraway goal; her smile is crooked, altogether more cynical. When she talks she can act casual as if she didn't give a damn, but when upset she will push and push to get what she wants--a marked contrast to Adele's warm, forgivingly fleshy presence.
Kechiche doesn't film the lovers on a blank canvas; against the comic book's main plot he throws up a background of unrest and class consciousness, from students demanding more money for education to a gay pride parade (in a moment of fortuitous destiny the film opened shortly after the French government recognized gay marriage). Emma is upper class--you see this in her glamorous, more sexually sophisticated parents (they welcome Adele with a kind of open absentmindedness), her tonier cultural sheen; Adele's parents are working class--she introduces Emma as her philosophy tutor, as she's (presumably) afraid they wouldn't understand.
Then there are the dishes served: Emma's parents offer a dainty plate of oysters, a revelatory experience for Adele, who has never really eaten seafood (I'd call the scene cliched, save Kechiche adds a lovely detail--when hit with a squeeze of citrus a truly fresh oyster cringes, like genital flesh in pain); Adele's father cooks endless bowls of steaming pasta in thick deep-red marinara sauce (Adele in turn cooks and serves her father's pasta to Emma's party guests, who scarf down the food (they seem pleasantly surprised to be served plentiful and palatable fare)).
If there's a flaw to the film sadly it's in the now-infamous seven-plus minutes of lesbian lovemaking: Emma and Adele entwine in a series of Playboy fantasy scenarios, coyly hiding genitals with cunningly arranged wrists and limbs, with the occasional reveal (molded prosthetics, as it turns out). Can't say I saw anything definitively abusive (accounts of what happened behind the camera vary, and even the actors involved seem ambivalent), and it isn't as if I don't appreciate onscreen eroticism (if anything we need more of it, in greater variety), but compared to what Kechiche had achieved before--the aforementioned masturbation scene, a brief session of sex with a young man--this stuff falls woefully flat, feels not so much voyeuristically captured as it does unpersuasively manufactured.
But if I have to hold the film accountable for the misstep it's because the rest of the film registers such vital immediacy. In the end (please skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to watch the film) Emma, angered at Adele's unfaithfulness, throws her out; you can't help but feel old-fashioned class anger at the way this rich so-and-so has exploited a fresh middle-class dumpling and spat her unceremoniously out the moment she's lost her savor (or was Adele's infidelity Emma's excuse to shack up with yet another beauty, already heavy with child, an instant family?). Are we asked to condemn Adele, approve of Emma's high moral standards, or to condemn Emma's rigidity, sympathize with Adele's plight (I'd say the latter)? When they meet again years later in an art exhibit, you badly want Adele to exact retribution, toss an expensive glass of wine at her ex-lover's face, hopefully splatter one of Emma's large-scale (and not all that inspiring, come to think of it) canvases. That Adele doesn't feels unsatisfying, but not untruthful--you think of her as a fully realized character you wish would triumph, would enjoy the best life can offer; you're also willing to allow her her own choices, even her own form of suffering. You believe in Adele enough to allow her room to live her own life, even away and against your own ideas of how that life should look like.
The questions of who should come out on top seem irrelevant, though--ultimately she's already won over the people who matter: Kechiche; the Cannes jury; us. One of the better films, I'd say, of 2013.
First published in Businessworld, 3.27.14