Despite the adage “There is no such thing as bad publicity,” I’ve been a little bummed watching the controversies that continue to dog Abdellatif Kechiche’s exquisite Blue Is the Warmest Color ever since the film won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Are the extended lesbian sex scenes too much for general audiences? Were the film’s stars, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, treated badly by Kechiche during the shoot? Does Julie Maroh, the writer of the graphic novel on which the film is based, feel that the movie misses the mark? Despite winning the top prize at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world, rumors of discontent between the director and his two leads have swirled since some out-of-context comments of theirs spread all over the Internet. I don’t know what their experience was like making this film, but as a moviegoer, I can only marvel at the film’s depth and poetry — and what I consider to be two of the best performances of the year. When I caught up with the Tunisian-French director/screenwriter just after he completed a press conference with the two actresses for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, tension seemed to be in the air.

Blue Is the Warmest Color centers on a girl named Adèle (Exarchopoulos) who, when the film begins, is 15 and still in high school. Adèle longs to experience her first big love. She has a brief affair with a male classmate but a fantasy she has about a mysterious blue-haired woman she sees on the street puts an end to that relationship. When she later meets that woman — a confident older art student named Emma (Seydoux) — they begin an intense and complicated love story that spans a decade and takes both characters in directions they never could have imagined.

Kechiche’s film is over three hours long, but unlike some movies half that length that feel like torture to sit through, I was riveted throughout and never once looked at my watch. The film is a remarkable achievement, and goes far beyond its much-discussed explicit lesbian sex scenes.

blue-posterDanny Miller: I heard you say that you cast your two actresses independent of each other. Did you have any worries about their chemistry since that’s so important for this type of film?

Abdellatif Kechiche: Well, I had already cast Léa Seydoux for the part of Emma and I happened to meet Adèle much later. I agree that the film would not have worked at all if the two actresses didn’t work together but I had a very strong feeling when I met her that Adèle was right for the part. Adèle Exarchopoulos is a very rare kind of actress that you don’t come across very often!

She’s amazing in the film and I would have sworn that she truly aged 10 years as the film progresses. Obviously there were make-up and costume changes for her character, but were there other ways that you helped her transform from a high school girl to a woman in the film?

I think that was part of Adèle’s magic. Of course I gave her the groundwork for the change, and we focused on external things like her hair and clothes and how to be more awkward in her body as an adolescent. But the transformation was still amazing. I think we all have experience with young girls that we’re related to or know during their childhood and how sometimes we’re shocked when we see them suddenly blossom into women. I think Adèle really brought that to this role. Her attitude completely changed as she matured in the film. There were so many subtle things she did to achieve that.

Given this is a love story involving two women, I’m not that surprised to see a few people criticizing the idea of a man directing the film. How do you respond to that?

I don’t even know how to respond to it, and I honestly haven’t heard it that much. When I’m directing, I don’t really feel that I’m male or female, it’s much more about having the temperament of an artist. Look, I’m not trying to make myself out as some kind of “grande artiste,” but I do feel like I’m an artist first, then a director, concerned with the day-to-day pragmatic details of making a movie. But thinking that there’s something strange about a man directing this film? I don’t get it. I’m more interested in looking at the world with an artist’s sensibility. That’s how I address these characters, that’s what moves me about them.

Learn more about the films of Abdellatif Kechiche

And, of course, the press is paying a lot of attention to the sex scenes in the film which I thought were beautiful. I read one interview where Léa and Adèle talked about shutting their eyes when those scenes came on during the screening at Cannes because they were embarrassed. That might have been because they were sitting there with their families, but I was surprised to hear that because I thought there wasn’t a trace of self-consciousness on their parts. What did you do to make those scenes seem so natural?

That’s a hard thing to put into words. Part of what I love most about being a director is finding ways to give actors that kind of freedom. How do you help free them so they can completely be the characters they’re playing? How do you free them from any awareness of the camera? How do you help unblock them and let them lose control in a scene? Sometimes this flows easily between a director and an actor, but it’s different with each person. You never know how you’re going to get there, there’s no one recipe. And if you think you’ve found the recipe and you follow it religiously, it will never work.

So during those sequences, would you say that you’re creating a context for the characters to be free with each other more than actively directing the actors?

It depends on the scene and it depends on the actor. There are times when you may want to throw in obstacles for actors to help them get there. Sometimes you may want to block every movement carefully and then you may slowly take that away to liberate them. I’m thinking of an analogy of a bird in a cage that you want to set free. If you let it out too quickly, he might have a harder time because he wasn’t ready to leave the cage. So the trick becomes how to let it go free. That’s the most fascinating part of being a director for me but again, it’s different with each actor. Some actors have their own techniques for doing this and then I have to know to leave them alone and do what they need to do to lose control.

blue-cannesWe’ve heard  stories that this was a fairly grueling set and that you’d sometimes do up to 100 takes for a single scene. Would you call yourself a “tough” director?

I think that that every actor I’ve worked with would have a different interpretation of what it is like to work with me. But no, I certainly don’t consider myself “difficult!” I consider myself creative, I consider myself demanding, but I would never be aggressive or in any way violent on a set. Certainly my relationship with each actor and each person on the set is different. With some there may be more of a tense relationship and with others it may be so friendly that I consider them a part of my family. Difficult? No. Maybe I’d accept the term “headstrong!” As far as the number of takes, I know that for one film, Charlie Chaplin demanded over 1,100 takes to get a scene right! I’ve never come close to that — I have a long way to go!

Do you think that people respond to the film differently in the States than they have in Europe. Were you at all surprised at the focus here on the sex scenes?

To be honest, yes, I was a bit surprised at the extent to which people are focusing on those scenes. But I was aware that the film would be seen as “controversial” in some quarters. It’s why in that dinner party scene in the film, when there’s an old silent movie playing on a sheet in the background, I specifically used footage from Louise Brooks’ Pandora’s Box by Pabst. There was a scene in that film where it was revealed that a character was lesbian and that created a big scandal back in the 1920s. Today we think it would be crazy to ban such a film but then why do such things still seem so shocking to some people? And, of course, I’m quite aware that there are whole countries, such as Tunisia where my family is from, where Blue Is the Warmest Color is completely banned. My hope is that this will change over time. Like how the paintings of the 18th century were once seen as so scandalous or even blasphemous and now they’re shown to young schoolchildren on field trips to art museums. But the reaction to those sex scenes in this country? Yes, I was a little surprised that that would happen in the “Land of Liberty!”

I know that the French title, La vie d’Adèle: Chapitres 1 et 2, is meant more figuratively, but it made me hope that we might see more chapters in this character’s life.

I would love to revisit the character but there are certainly no plans for that at the moment!

In the end, despite the conflicts with Emma and Adèle’s sexuality, it seems to be the differences in the social classes they come from that create the most problems in their relationship.

For some reason, that is a theme that I can’t help revisiting again and again in all of my films! I think every one of us is conditioned when we’re young by whatever groups we’re part of, whatever education we may have. And when two people meet, even if they fall hopelessly in love, it takes a great deal of effort to successfully enter each other’s world if they come from different backgrounds.

I also think our reaction to these characters is very different depending on where we are in our own lives. I think if I saw this film 10 or 20 years ago I might have identified more with Emma and her ambitions and dreams. But watching it now, I think I related more to Adèle and her quest to find herself in a more grounded way.

It’s true that Emma is more concerned with abstractions which is why she is obsessed with getting her image of Adèle on her canvases. But Adèle is more about living in the moment, about how to make her way in the world.

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Blue Is the Warmest Color is currently playing in select cities and is available on VOD.