(Welcome to Cannes Check, your annual guide through the 20 films in Competition at next month’s Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 15. Taking on a different selection every day, we’ll be examining what they’re about, who’s involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Steven Spielberg’s jury. We’re going through the list by director and in alphabetical order — next up, Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue is the Warmest Color.”)
The director: Abdellatif Kechiche (French-Tunisian, 52 years old). Kechiche was born in the Tunisian capital of Tunis, before emigrating with his family to Nice at the age of five; much of his work is informed by his experiences as a Franco-Tunisian immigrant. As an auteur, he was a relatively late bloomer: beginning his career as a stage actor in his teens, he appeared (as Abdel Kechiche) in a handful of films, most notably André Téchiné’s “The Innocents,” in the 1980s and 1990s. (He resurfaced as an actor in a rather unlikely way in 2005, starring opposite Robin Wright in the Spirit-nominated US indie “Sorry, Haters.”) Kechiche was pushing forty by the time he moved behind the camera, making his debut feature, “Political Refugee,” in 2000. It was selected by the Venice Film Festival and won a sidebar award there; two of his four subsequent features, 2007’s much-laurelled “Secret of the Grain” and 2010’s oddly buried “Black Venus,” have since played on the Lido, while “Blue is the Warmest Color” marks his Cannes debut.
The talent: Though he has some drawing power in France, Kechiche has thus far steered clear of major star collaborations, frequently opting for amateur or inexperienced actors. His latest, however, sees him working with one of France’s biggest and brightest ingenues (and the current face of Prada), Léa Seydoux. Non-arthouse audiences might remember her brief ass-kicking turn in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” though it was a pair of French-language films last year — “Farewell, My Queen” (for which she was César-nominated) and the Oscar-shortlisted “Sister” — that really showed us what the 27-year-old is made of. Not that Seydoux has the spotlight to herself. Her co-lead (and the title character, in the film’s French translation) is lesser-known young actress Adèle Exarchopoulos — a more typical Kechiche pick. The most notable name in the supporting cast is long-serving French character actor Aurélien Recoing, best known for his stunning lead turn in Laurent Cantet’s “Time Out.”
Kechiche’s wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Ghalia Lacroix, who also co-scripted “Black Venus” and “Games of Love and Chance.” Lacroix is also his regular editor. Cinematographer Sofian El Fani worked as a camera operator on Kechiche’s last three features, and shot his 2008 short “Sweat,” but this is the first time he’s been promoted to DP on a Kechiche feature.
The pitch: At 179 minutes, “Blue is the Warmest Color” is the longest film in Competition by some margin, though if you’re expecting some gargantuan epic, chances are you’re not familiar with Kechiche’s intimate but fastidious style — in which long, seemingly impartial takes allow character networks and tensions to develop at their own pace. Based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, the contemporary-set film tells the story of Adèle (Exarchopoulos), a 15-year-old girl getting to grips with her sexual identity. Just as her dreams appear to have come true when a handsome male stranger begins wooing her, Adèle is surprised to find herself erotically fixated on a mysterious blue-haired girl (Seydoux) she encounters on the street. A return to the youthful romantic terrain he explored in his 2003 breakout film, the teen ensemble piece “Games of Love and Chance,” Kechiche’s latest also appears to find him in more playful form after 2010’s punishing “Black Venus.” (The less evocative French title is “La vie d’Adèle – Chapitre 1 & 2,” which suggests the film could be split into two parts for distribution purposes.)
The pedigree: It’s somewhat surprising that this is Kechiche’s first turn on the Croisette — and not just because, having grown up in Nice, he’s practically a native son of the festival. His films have been better received in France than anywhere else, after all: “Games of Love and Chance” won him a trio of César Awards (the French Oscars) for Best Film, Director and Screenplay — a feat he repeated three years later with “The Secret of the Grain,” which also won the country’s prestigious Louis Delluc Prize. His record at the Venice Film Festival — where he won the Jury Prize for “Grain” in 2007 — has been impressive, though his imposing, abrasive historical drama “Black Venus,” initially earmarked as a potential arthouse heavyweight, stalled out of the festival after strong early reviews, failing to find US or UK distribution. With even this setback a prestigious one, however, Kechiche is the Competition’s most seasoned first-timer.
The buzz: Insider word on the film is encouraging, suggesting that Kechiche has regained his popular touch to some extent — despite the new film’s intimidating length. Being youth-focused, female-focused and LGBT-focused certainly helps the film stand out in the lineup, and its cool factor is further enhanced by the presence of Seydoux.
The odds: Cannes betting expert Neil Young places the film midfield with odds of 16-1; I’d be tempted to shorten those a bit, though it doesn’t seem an obvious match, aesthetically or thematically, for Steven Spielberg’s sensibilities. (It’s easier to imagine Ang Lee or any member of the jury’s strong female contingent going to bat for it, however.) A lesser award would still be a fitting acknowledgement of Kechiche’s belated arrival at his near-hometown festival — while a joint Best Actress prize for its two young leads would be a typical jury move. (That is, if they’re not aware of, or bothered by, the fact that the jury made that very move last year.)
The premiere date: Thursday, May 23.
In the next edition of Cannes Check, we’ll be sizing up the first of two Japanese entries in this year’s Competition lineup: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Like Father, Like Son.”
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