'Blue is the Warmest Color' (NC-17)

Blue is the Warmest Color, director Abdellatif Kechiche’s epic, three-hour love story about two young women, arrives swathed in scandal. Things started out well: The movie won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival when it premiered in May, with jury president Steven Spielberg singling out Kechiche and his two leads as true artists. There are three graphic sex scenes — one of them goes on for seven minutes — that earned the film an NC-17 rating.

Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel which inspired the film, criticized the movie for being pornographic and for not having any lesbians in the cast. The movie’s two stars, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, proclaimed they would never work with the director again, calling the experience “horrible.” Kechiche responded with his own complaints, calling Seydoux “an arrogant, spoiled child” and at one point even threatening to yank the film from release altogether.

The miraculous thing about Blue is the Warmest Color is all that baggage and noise immediately disappear the moment the movie starts. Adele (Exarchopoulos) is a pretty, ordinary high school junior who gets along with her parents and has attracted the attention of a handsome senior, Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte).

He’s an easygoing musician who doesn’t know who Pierre Carlet is but promises to read The Life of Marianne, even though it’s 600 pages long, so he can hold a conversation with the studious Adele. That scene is the first of countless moments in the film in which Kechiche, who wrote the screenplay with Ghalia Lacroix, captures the nuances of relationships — the casual concessions and commitments people who are falling in love make in order to keep the other person interested.

But then Adele goes bar-hopping with a gay pal and sees Emma (Seydoux), a confident college student with blue hair. No matter how much she tries, Adele can’t get Emma out of her head. Even when she’s having sex with Thomas, she’s just going through the motions. “I feel like I’m faking everything,” she tells a girlfriend.

Adele has fallen in love at first sight with Emma; she just doesn’t know it yet. The first half of Blue is the Warmest Color centers on the two girls’ courtship and ensuing affair, which is as physical as it is emotional. Emma, who is a couple of years older, gently guides Adele into her new identity. There is the expected bit of bullying from her schoolmates and some rather silly jokes (Emma teaches Adele how to enjoy eating oysters). But there is also an incredible warmth and tenderness to their relationship — a bond that grows stronger after they meet each other’s parents.

But there are signs of trouble, too. At school, Adele’s literature teacher tells her tragedy is the essence of mankind — the one thing we cannot escape. Over the course of a couple of years, their carnal attraction begins to cool off, like it always does. The women wonder if pleasure can truly be shared in the same way by two people, because everyone’s experience is different. Gradually, the slight age difference starts to become a pea under the couple’s mattress.

The sexual content may be excessive (the movie could have gotten by with just one scene instead of three) and the running time a bit indulgent, but Blue is the Warmest Color grows in power and intensity as we watch these two young women mature and ripen and realize that the world is a lot bigger, and its possibilities far more expansive, than they believed just a year or two earlier. Kechiche treats sexuality as something fluid and mercurial, and he understands that a stolen glance or a simple gesture can be loaded with meaning. He knows, too, the searing power of first love and how it ends up affecting the rest of our lives in ways we don’t always realize. Forget the controversy and see Blue is the Warmest Color for what it truly is: a warm and compassionate ode to the vagaries of the heart and all its unexpected beauties.

Cast: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos,Salim Kechiouche, Aurélien Recoing, Catherine Salée, Jérémie Laheurte, Anne Loiret, Benoit Pilot.

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche.

Screenwriters: Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix. Based on the graphic novel by Julie Maroh.

Producers: Brahim Chioua, Abdellatif Kechiche, Vincent Maraval.

An IFC Films release. Running time: 172 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, graphic sex, adult themes. No children under 17 will be admitted. Opens Friday Nov. 8 in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Gateway.