The last day at Cannes is a bonanza for moviegoing. The festival screens every film in the main competition for the ticketed public and, later in the evening, stages the closing ceremonies, which culminate with the Palme d’Or. The screenings allow the world’s remaining movie press to catch up with whatever it was they missed in the previous 11 days. For the civilian filmgoer, it’s the last chance to experience a film before it’s beset by the vagaries of the distribution and exhibition process, while it’s still relatively pure. For me, that meant finally seeing La Vie d’Adèle, Chapitres 1 & 2, a.k.a. Blue Is the Warmest Color (that’s the English title), a.k.a. The Movie Everyone Adores Except for Everyone Who Hates It.
Sunday morning, hundreds of people sprinted into the Debussy Theater and jostled for seats. The movie screened Wednesday and word had spread that this was the one to see. I’d seen the queues for a couple of the other films, and, by far, those of us in or near the holding pens for Adèle looked the most desperate to get in. It took less than 15 minutes to reach capacity.
My three previous dates with Adèle fell apart due to an empty stomach. It was written and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, a French-Tunisian whose movies tend to feature a lot of eating. His greatest filmmaking feat is The Secret of the Grain, a family epic centered entirely on food and its consumption. Adèle runs for 179 minutes, and the prospect of spending three hours with a movie in which people are stuffing their faces didn’t appeal to me. Instead, all three times, I ate. My prudence had an upside. Every year, there are a couple of movies that bring out the cultural litigators, movies that can turn a friendly chat near the festival’s mailboxes or at a dinner among colleagues into combat. This year that movie was Adèle, a drama, set in present-day Lille, about two young women named Adèle and Emma — played by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux — and their love affair.
The divisiveness essentially came down to the movie’s immersive depiction of the sex. There are four or five scenes of real, orgasmic sex — one heterosexual, the rest lesbian. The enraptured find the whole thing beautiful and moving and deeply, powerfully true. They applaud the frankness, intimacy, and duration of the scenes. With France having recently and controversially legalized gay marriage, a few of the film’s champions believe that this is the time for a representation of same-sex relationships. Some of these people swear they don’t at all see two ripe femmes ramming their bodies into each other. They see — to invoke the winner of last year’s Palme d’Or — amour.
The disenchanted think those people are full of shit.
For them, La Vie d’Adèle is exploitation masquerading as art. The girls are too ripe, the sex too porny, the bodies too Renaissance-y, the premise too bogus. For about 75 minutes, it’s the story of the eponymous teenager growing into her sexuality, and it’s stressful. But the stresses suddenly vanish, and all that appears to concern Kechiche is the fucking and having women listen to men talk about the female orgasm. And don’t even get some of the eye-rollers started about the vapid understanding of the art. If you think the sex is bogus, wait until you see and hear people analyze Emma’s paintings … of the sex!
Saturday night I had dinner with a handful of critics — three other Americans, two Austrians, a pair of Brits, and a Frenchman. Eventually, the subject of Adèle came up. The ardent and the annoyed proceeded to make their cases about the movie, although the skeptics were more pointed in their line of attack, which, to paraphrase, amounted to believing that the adoration of the film comes from men wanting in on the action. But the reactions weren’t neatly gendered. I met a few women who said they, too, found it beautiful and a couple of men who expressed some serious reservations. It bears mention that none of those men were French. The national trade magazine, Le Film Français, published a daily grid rating the main competition and Un Certain Regard entries, the highest praise being a golden palm and the lowest a frowning emoticon, with one to three stars in between. A dozen-plus critics (not one woman, as far as I could tell) produced a boulevard of gold palms for Adèle. There was but one three-star entry and a single miserable emoticon. (The Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis was a distant second overall.)
With all this in mind, I took my seat on Sunday and waited for either the magic or tragic to overtake me. Neither did. It’s entirely possible I’d been numbed by the debates, that there was no way to have heard all those depositions and still watch the film with my own brain. It’s also simply possible that three hours with Exarchopoulos, Seydoux, and Kechiche had wiped me out. The movie is certainly an emotional epic, but not to the vast and addictive extent of The Secret of the Grain. And though consumption is plentiful, not all of the eating involves food.
When you’ve seen Kechiche do something novelistic, as he did with Grain, or daring and disastrous, like Black Venus from 2010, his treatment of girl-meets-girl should have more to it than whether love can last. But the stakes aren’t much higher than that. Kechiche doesn’t give you anything psychological to work with, and the discourse around both the relationship and the art really is laughable. So are the parallels drawn between dining in the kitchen and doing so on a mattress. By the time Adèle and Emma sit down and slurp oysters together, the movie has stumbled into self-parody. The audience was hooked at my screening, but that scene won smatters of guffaws.
After five movies, Kechiche has demonstrated himself to be a man of tremendous voraciousness. He can’t resist a close-up, even if it’s tough to decipher what it is you’re looking at. Nor can he resist ugly lighting for sex scenes. Here his appetites extend from food, faces, and flesh to dwelling at length on the extraordinary inability of Exarchopoulos’s mouth to close completely. Both she and Seydoux give to their acting everything an actor can give. By the time it was over, I, too, was covered in sweat and tears and snot. Some movies make you reach for a tissue. This movie treats you like one.
Adèle was the most discussed same-sex movie at the festival. But there were others, including Steven Soderbergh’s entertaining Liberace melodrama Behind the Candelabra and Alain Guiraudie’s nude-beach murder mystery, Stranger by the Lake. The latter was a critical hit. Anyone listing the movies they loved implored me to see it. So a few days ago, I joined about 15 other people in a tiny screening room, and what we saw was even better than the recommendations made it out to be. It’s as if Alfred Hitchcock or vintage Roman Polanski had set up permanent shop on a lakeside cruising spot and simply observed the relationship between a beach regular and a fit, charismatic, and charismatically mustached newcomer. Guiraudie’s ingenious approach to suspense is wait-and-see, and the central mystery is a matter of behavior that still has me wondering, with fascination, what compels the three main characters to do what they do.
Sex is central to both that and the Soderbergh film. But in neither can the sex stand alone from the larger thematic action. In Stranger by the Lake, the intercourse, which is evidently real, answers an ancillary question about whether seeing engorged penises in a movie constitutes pornography. The encounters are meant to descriptively explicate rather than explicitly titillate. And the difference between watching the men in Guiraudie’s thriller and watching the women in Kechiche’s drama is that the camera traipses around a public beach in the former and feels uncomfortably like a participant in the latter. The bedroom sex in Adèle is hardly implausible. It’s just so intimate and specifically intense that it feels private. When the two characters go at it in Guiraudie’s film, they do so publicly, in a café, and it’s absurd.
Some of Adèle‘s besotted partisans argued that it would still be amazing without the sex. Who knows? It would certainly be shorter. But the different discussions around these movies suggests that film criticism, filmmaking, and the experience of looking at women in movies continues to be dominated by straight men. For what it’s worth, the “Queer Palm,” awarded by gay members of the general film press, went to Stranger by the Lake, and Guiraudie won the festival’s Un Certain Regard prize for directing. Meanwhile, the big applause for Adèle at the end of my matinee screening bodes well for it being a hit.
On Sunday night, the stars made their way down the Croisette and inside the Palais for the closing ceremonies. The parade along the red carpet tends to become a slow-motion pileup of both the famous and the ticketed guests who love them. Sometimes the admirers include other famous people. Usually the foyer is for actors trying to whisk a date to his or her seat — if not someplace more private — but stopping for photos first, invariably creating a scene. This year, Mads Mikkelsen and the living Picasso painting Rossy de Palma, her hair stirred into a black cone whose color and shape matched her ankle-length flouncy dress, avoided the fray by showing up early. When the tuxedoed Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, the director of Like Father, Like Son, arrived, he was implored to stand beside a pillar that had been postered with his image and pose for a photo, which he did three or four times.
Not long after Koreeda headed into the theater, Harvey Weinstein entered. He was saluted by a couple of gentlemen. He then embraced a tall, glamorous woman in a dress the color of peach gelato. She set to work straightening out Weinstein’s bow tie while he continued to uphold his end of the conversation with another handsome, equally tall guy who appeared to be her date. “How long are you going to be in St. Tropez?” Weinstein asked, before sending his best wishes to someone’s father. Harvey, as the movie industry calls him — like LeBron or Cher — has a reputation for intimidation and relentlessness, but he also has a kind, hapless side. Realizing that the business with the tie wasn’t working out, he gave up, pocketed the neckware, headed down the hallway, and spent the rest of the evening with an open collar.
Of the subsequent guests to make an entrance — and this included Nicole Kidman, her fellow jurors, and Forest Whitaker and Orlando Bloom, the stars of the closing-night film, Zulu, an embarrassingly juiced-up apartheid thriller — the woman who incited what might pass for a furor was a nervous-looking Bérénice Bejo, in embroidered three-quarter-length aquamarine Elie Saab. She was with her husband, Michel Hazanavicius, who directed her in The Artist, and Asghar Farhadi, who directed Bejo in the competition entry The Past.
The show began. Audrey Tautou was back, and this time she was funny. Wearing a voluminous gown the color of fruit punch with a pink sash at her waist, Tautou stood behind a podium and introduced the presenters. Mikkelson and the director Jane Campion handed out the short-film prize (to Moon Byung-gon for Safe). Zhang Ziyi and the French national treasure Agnès Varda bestowed the Camera d’Or, for the best first director, to Anthony Chen for Ilo Ilo.
Tautou then brought out the main competition jury’s president, Steven Spielberg, who helped her introduce his fellow jurors. The Scottish director Lynne Ramsay came out dressed something like a goth flapper. The Indian star Vidya Balan — in a floor-length sage-colored Anarkali dress (by Sabyasachi!) with a gold-encrusted dupatta draped around her — put her hands together for namaste and took her seat. Nicole Kidman arrived last in creamy Armani with blasts of glittering gold across the flank and waist. But it was Naomi Kawase, the Japanese filmmaker, who seemed to make the biggest impression when she arrived in a pink kimono, a fan tucked into her obi and her hair in bangs and a ponytail. Kidman had spent the entire festival upstaging her fellow jurors with gowns whose tailoring and detailing made her appear even longer (as it was, she was the tallest person by at least a whole head). Tonight was Kawase’s revenge. For what it’s worth, the other men — the directors Ang Lee and Cristian Mungiu; the actors Daniel Auteuil and Christoph Waltz — wore tuxedos, and Waltz wore his best.
Spielberg joined them all in a row of white chairs that made everybody look ready for takeoff. Then the major prizes were given out with teamwork and efficiency that never happens when Americans put on an awards show. Tautou, for instance, introduced Laetitia Casta, who stood at the podium and spoke extemporaneously about past Cannes winners (“Brando, Newman … Mastroianni … Auteuil, Waltz”). Tautou then threw it to Spielberg, who stood up to read this year’s winner of the male acting prize. It was Bruce Dern for his work in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, in which he plays a cantankerous alcoholic Vietnam veteran with dementia. This was a mild surprise since a lot of us fully anticipated the prize going to Michael Douglas or Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra or Toni Servillo in Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza. You can usually predict the winner based on who walks the red carpet. Had anyone seen Douglas or Servillo, it would have meant a win. But Dern wasn’t there to accept, either (Payne took the prize for him), so really, predictions don’t mean a lot.
Tautou introduced Orlando Bloom, who said something about actresses. (I was hung up on his crooked white bow tie, how he felt about Sofia Coppola’s depiction of his house in The Bling Ring, and whether he was aware that he and Justin Timberlake had been separated at birth.) Tautou asked Spielberg for the jury’s verdict. It had found Bejo guilty of very good acting. Her nervousness has turned to shock. When she got to the podium, she didn’t know what to say or in which language to say it. Actors are really good at moments like this. Really, it could have been any other Frenchwoman: Marion Cotillard, playing an exploited Pole, is the best thing about James Gray’s painstakingly crafted but lethally inert 1920s drama The Immigrant; or Emmanuelle Seigner, who’s a lot of fun as an actress/gender warrior in her husband Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur. There are also the two stars of Adèle. But, ultimately, the jury went with the actress with the best-written role.
Next up: Asia Argento, who, on the red carpet, had flipped photographers what the French sometimes call “un doigt de la provocation.” She played an amusingly blowsy role in awarding the screenwriting prize to Jia Zhangke, whose alarming act of artistic insubordination, A Touch of Sin, comprises several doigts des provocation aimed at the Chinese government, which is all but guaranteed not to release it.
Then: Tautou to Rossy De Palma to Spielberg to Koreeda, who took home the special Jury Prize. Tautou to a slimmed-down Forest Whitaker to Spielberg to the barely expected best director winner, Amat Escalante, for his miserablist descent into the drug world, Heli. (Escalante is a 34-year-old Mexican and disciple of last year’s best director winner, Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas.) For the runner-up Grand Prize: Tautou to Kim Novak to Spielberg to Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis (or, as Spielberg — and several of us critics — called it, “Llewlyn Davis”). The Coens weren’t there, but accepting for them were the film’s star, Oscar Isaac, in awe of Novak, and the head of Studio Canal, Olivier Courson, who helped finance the movie.
All that was left was the announcement of the Palme d’Or. Given that the festival likes to spread the wealth, it could have been dozens of films, but in the end, there was only one choice. So Tautou brought out Uma Thurman (gunmetal-gray gown, scalloped Art Deco bodice), then asked Steven Spielberg to put us out of our misery. He stood and offered a preface, which he hadn’t done in the announcement of previous verdicts. The jury, he said, had made the unusual decision of awarding the prize to “three artists.” At that point, I couldn’t have been alone in assuming that he meant a three-way tie. My jaw had already dropped when he clarified that by three artists, he meant “Adèle, Léa, and Abdellatif.” The room’s reaction was like watching your team score a winning goal in overtime. The place rose to its feet and stayed there, clapping, crying, freaking out, for about two full minutes. One American man, seated toward the back of the house, actually screamed in shock. I tried to find out who he was, but he was already being consoled while he teared up and tweeted.
After the show, the jury gathered in the press room to discuss the decision, with Spielberg saying the movie wouldn’t have worked if the casting were even 3 percent off. With a film this physical, that’s praise just vague enough to be open to sarcastic interpretation. But we knew what he meant. He, Mungiu, and Ramsay stressed that they didn’t consider sexual orientation or think about politics during the deliberations. In Kechiche’s film, they saw a love story. It was unclear whether Lee thought about his own milestone melodrama about the gay ranch hands.
Most of the questions concerned the politics of the decision. Was the jury making a statement? The answer was no. Waltz was a little testy when he jumped to respond to that question from a Paris-based reporter. Not much later, Kidman, who was seated to Waltz’s left, gently put a hand on him, in what was either a gesture of soothing affection or an empathetic attempt to keep him from nodding off. “Rarely do I watch films at 8:30 in the morning,” she said, explaining how much of moviegoing, for her and for most of us, is mood-oriented.
This was the second French love story to win in as many years, the second made in France by a director born elsewhere. (2012’s Palme d’Or went to Amour, by the Austrian Michael Haneke. Kechiche was born in Tunisia.) Giving Adèle the Palme felt more momentous. Here was the most famous director alive putting his seal of approval on a graphic sex movie that cost a fraction of the money spent to make The Adventures of Tintin. It was also Lee, one of the most heralded filmmakers alive, doing the same, along with four popular actors and three other acclaimed directors.
Even if Adèle doesn’t work for some critics and moviegoers, it was held up by nine artists perceptive enough to give Kechiche the benefit of the doubt and insist that the film’s vision, inasmuch as there is one, would never have come to fruition without Exarchopoulos and Seydoux. That feels like an extraordinary statement, not about marriage equality (this is not a film about rights or the lack of any) but about how we perceive the sex. Ascribing authorship of the film to the women won’t change the belief that Kechiche is just exploring a banal male fantasy, but it does enrich an eternal discourse.