Film festival reviews are, as is their wont, often prone to hyperbole. Even the most weathered of movie critics can get swept up in the wonder of it all.
But make no mistake about it: the French drama Blue is the Warmest Color is filmmaking—and acting—of the highest order.
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, and based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, Blue tells the story of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), an awkward but beautiful 15-year-old girl whose initial sexual forays leave much to be desired. All that changes when she crosses paths with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue-haired college student studying art. It’s love—or is it lust?—at first sight, and before long, the two are inseparable. But, like any first love, the pair’s hidden quirks and desires begin to reveal themselves, and they struggle to remain afloat.
In a Cannes Film Festival first, the Palme d’Or was awarded to the entire Blue is the Warmest Color team—Kechiche, Exarchopoulos, and Seydoux—and the three-hour film has received universal praise from critics and audiences alike for its honest and poignant portrayal of first love.
The film’s two stars, who deliver two of the best performances of the year, sat down with Marlow Stern at the Telluride Film Festival to discuss the hellish-sounding making of the film, including why they’re embarrassed by the film’s talked-about 10-minute sex scene, and how they were terrorized on set by Kechiche.
Do you remember the first time you thought you were in love?
Léa: For me, I was maybe ten years old. I was in love with my cousin, I remember. Every time he came in, I could feel my heart beating so fast. At the time, I was crazy about Barbie but I was kind of a tomboy, so I was hiding my passion for Barbie’s because he said, “I hate girls who like Barbies.” I told him my favorite color was blue, even though it was pink. Once, I remember he came in and saw me playing with my Barbies and I turned red and felt so embarrassed.
Adèle: The first people that I started to feel something for in that way were my cousins, too. You go on vacation with them, spend a lot of time with them, and they’re a little bit older than you. But when I really fell in love and discovered how stupid you can be and everything, I was about 14. But it was a bad story. I regret it.
This is a very immersive role that demanded a lot from both of you. You must have had a lot of trust in Kechiche before signing on to this.
Léa: The thing is, in France, it’s not like in the States. The director has all the power. When you’re an actor on a film in France and you sign the contract, you have to give yourself, and in a way you’re trapped.
Adèle: He warned us that we had to trust him—blind trust—and give a lot of ourselves. He was making a movie about passion, so he wanted to have sex scenes, but without choreography—more like special sex scenes. He told us he didn’t want to hide the character’s sexuality because it’s an important part of every relationship. So he asked me if I was ready to make it, and I said, “Yeah, of course!” because I’m young and pretty new to cinema. But once we were on the shoot, I realized that he really wanted us to give him everything. Most people don’t even dare to ask the things that he did, and they’re more respectful—you get reassured during sex scenes, and they’re choreographed, which desexualizes the act.
Right. They pause the action for new camera angles, etc.
Adèle: Exactly. I didn’t know [Léa] in the beginning, and during the first sex scene, I was a little bit ashamed to touch her where I thought I wanted, because he didn’t tell us what to do. You’re free, but at the same time you’re embarrassed because I didn’t really know her that well.
Wait. You two didn’t meet at all before filming?
Adèle: We met once for a camera test before, since she was already cast, but that was it until the shoot.
And was it difficult to shoot that 10-minute sex scene? I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen a sex scene that long in a movie—gay or hetero.
Léa: For us, it’s very embarrassing.
Adèle: At Cannes, all of our families were there in the theater so during the sex scenes I’d close my eyes. [Kechiche] told me to imagine it’s not me, but it’s me, so I’d close my eyes and imagined I was on an island far away, but I couldn’t help but listen, so I didn’t succeed in escaping. The scene is a little too long.
Were the sex scenes between you two unsimulated? They look so real.
Léa: No, we had fake pussies that were molds of our real pussies. It was weird to have a fake mold of your pussy and then put it over your real one. We spent 10 days on just that one scene. It wasn’t like, “OK, today we’re going to shoot the sex scene!” It was 10 days.
Adèle: One day you know that you’re going to be naked all day and doing different sexual positions, and it’s hard because I’m not that familiar with lesbian sex.
Léa: The first day we shot together, I had to masturbate you, I think?
Adèle: [Laughs] After the walk-by, it’s the first scene that we really shot together, so it was, “Hello!” But after that, we made lots of different sex scenes. And he wanted the sexuality to evolve over the course of the film as well, so that she’s learning at the beginning, and then becomes more and more comfortable. It’s really a film about sexual passion—about skin, and about flesh, because Kechiche shot very close-up. You get the sense that they want to eat each other, to devour each other.
So are you two really good friends now? You know each other a lot more intimately than I know most of my friends.
Adèle: Yeah! [Laughs] Thankfully we’re friends.
And the shoot was very long in general.
Léa: Five-and-a-half months. What was terrible on this film was that we couldn’t see the ending. It was supposed to only be two months, then three, then four, then it became five-and-a-half. By the end, we were just so tired.
Adèle: For me, I was so exhausted that I think the emotions came out more freely. And there was no makeup artist, stylist, or costume designer. After a while, you can see that their faces are started to get more marked. We shot the film chronologically, so it helped that I grew up with the experiences my character had.
And same-sex marriage wasn’t legalized in France until May—well before you finished shooting the film. This is an important film. It’s rare to see such an honest depiction of the love between two young women onscreen.
Léa: It is amazing. In France, it’s not out yet but at Cannes it was huge, and I think this is one of the reasons. This film is very modern. It’s a new way to make films. We never saw a film like this before—a love story this realistic. And it says a lot about the youth of today. It’s a film about love. I don’t really think it’s a film about homosexuality—it’s more than that. Homosexuality is not taboo anymore—even if it isn’t considered “moral” by everyone—which is how it should be.
Adèle: Without being a militant, Adèle was already very partial towards this movement because of how she was brought up. So for her, it’s just normal. There are some things that you can’t control, so she thinks it’s very bizarre when people say it’s against nature, and has no idea why anybody would give a fuck. Before gay marriage was legalized in France, there were huge demonstrations in France with even mothers with small children shouting terrible insults.
Right. I grew up around plenty of gay people, so it’s all about experience. People are afraid of what they aren’t familiar with, or don’t understand. But sex scenes aside, what was the toughest scene for you two to film?
Léa: Any emotional scenes. [Kechiche] was always searching, because he didn’t really know what he wanted. We spent weeks shooting scenes. Even crossing the street was difficult. In the first scene where we cross paths and it’s love at first sight, it’s only about thirty seconds long, but we spent the whole day shooting it—over 100 takes. By the end of it, I remember I was dizzy and couldn’t even sit. And by the end of it, [Kechiche] burst into a rage because after 100 takes I walked by Adele and laughed a little bit, because we had been walking by each other doing this stare-down scene all day. It was so, so funny. And [Kechiche] became so crazy that he picked up the little monitor he was viewing it through and threw it into the street, screaming, “I can’t work under these conditions!”
Adèle: We were like, “Sorry, we’ve shot this 100 times and we just laughed once.” And it was a Friday and we wanted to go to Paris and see our families, but he wouldn’t let us. But me, I always took trains in secret to see my boyfriend.
So… was this filmmaking experience enjoyable for you at all? It doesn’t sound like it.
Léa: It was horrible.
Adèle: In every shoot, there are things that you can’t plan for, but every genius has his own complexity. [Kechiche] is a genius, but he’s tortured. We wanted to give everything we have, but sometimes there was a kind of manipulation, which was hard to handle. But it was a good learning experience for me, as an actor.
Would you ever work with Kechiche again?
Adèle: I don’t think so.
But you don’t think that the proof is in the pudding at all? It is such a brilliant film.
Adèle: Yeah, because you can see that we were really suffering. With the fight scene, it was horrible. She was hitting me so many times, and [Kechiche] was screaming, “Hit her! Hit her again!”
Léa: In America, we’d all be in jail.
You were really hitting her?
Adèle: Of course! She was really hitting me. And once she was hitting me, there were people there screaming, “Hit her!” and she didn’t want to hit me, so she’d say sorry with her eyes and then hit me really hard.
Léa: [Kechiche] shot with three cameras, so the fight scene was a one-hour continuous take. And during the shooting, I had to push her out of a glass door and scream, “Now go away!” and [Adèle] slapped the door and cut herself and was bleeding everywhere and crying with her nose running, and then after, [Kechiche] said, “No, we’re not finished. We’re doing it again.”
It’s funny that you mention the runny nose, because watching the scene with you two in the diner, I was really worried that the stream of snot was going to go into your mouth.
Adèle: She was trying to calm me, because we shot so many intense scenes and he only kept like 10 percent of the film. It’s nothing compared to what we did. And in that scene, she tried to stop my nose from running and [Kechiche] screamed, “No! Kiss her! Lick her snot!”
So this was clearly a grueling shoot. What was the first thing you did when shooting wrapped?
Léa: Well, thank god we won the Palme d’Or, because it was so horrible. So now it’s cool that everyone likes the film and it’s a big success. But I took five days off and did like… three films in a row.
Adèle: I went to Thailand with my boy with no cellphone, no one to tell me “do this” and “do that” and “hit her again.” I was like [flips two birds], smoking weed, massages, woo!