(CNN) -- American audiences are finally getting a chance to see what is being billed as one of the most sexually explicit films ever made (not counting pornography): "Blue Is the Warmest Color."
It is a film so controversial, it even has its director and stars engaged in a public feud. The NC-17-rated French drama, about a teenage girl who becomes involved in a passionate sexual relationship with a slightly older woman, expands to 10 cities this weekend after initially opening in New York and Los Angeles.
Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux star in the movie by French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche, which clocks in at almost three hours. Significant portions of those 179 minutes are devoted to lovemaking scenes between the women, including one uninterrupted sequence that lasts about six minutes.
"It was really important to show this -- not just a 'cute' scene of sex but like the real sex," Exarchopoulos told Variety at the Toronto Film Festival in early September.
Seydoux added, "The scenes are very explicit, but there is something that I don't get, which is why it's such a big deal here (in North America)."
The sex scenes are unflinching but apparently not without artifice. Seydoux confessed to one interviewer that she and her co-star were fitted with prosthetic private parts. "We had fake (genitalia)," she said.
In September, Kechiche demurred when CNN asked about the lengthy love scenes. "I don't think these (sex) scenes last longer than other scenes in the film, be they scenes of meals, conversation, exchanges," he said.
But he did acknowledge that compared with other films, the sex scenes in "Blue Is the Warmest Color" are indeed long. "I have a sort of narrative principle which differs from established rules of cinema," he said.
Kechiche said that judging how long to let a scene play out "is something I feel (intuitively). The end result is a reflection of something I feel, the need to look, to listen, to come as close as possible to the emotions, the bodies. ... It's kind of an artistic license that I don't exactly choose myself; it imposes itself on me."
The director laughed when asked whether he had choreographed the love scenes in advance.
"You know, when you describe a love scene in a script, apart from writing 'they make love,' you can't really give a (blow-by-blow) description. It would be ridiculous to have it all written down," he said. "I'm not going to ask the actresses to follow a choreography that I might have imagined. I'm going to ask them simply to live that moment of carnal passion and to ... help them to be together, to be 'alone,' to let go of the awareness of the camera."
Many critics have expressed astonishment at the emotional power of the film. The New York Times' A.O. Scott praised it as a "feverish, generous, exhausting love story. ... Mr. Kechiche illuminates the suffering and ecstasy of an awakening consciousness." His one-word review: "Glorious."
But his own colleague at the Times, Manohla Dargis, represents the opposite view, describing the director as "self-indulgent." Dargis wrote that Kechiche's caressing camera, which pays loving attention to Exarchopoulos' shapely behind, suggests "a director whose desire felt more at stake than that of his characters." "The way it frames, with scrutinizing closeness, the female body" suggests "patriarchal anxieties about sex, female appetite and maternity," she writes.
Kechiche bristled at the suggestion that his film reflects a typical "masculine regard" toward female sexuality. And he maintained that it was his right as an artist to portray the love between two women.
"There are a thousand possible ways of (depicting) these intimate relationships," he said. "This film expresses my take as an artist -- male or female, what does it matter -- with my sensibility, whether it's a masculine or feminine sensibility. ... You can accuse me of being a voyeur or a pornographer, (of being) disengaged from reality, whatever, but that's my artistic sensibility."
Jurors at the Cannes Film Festival were sufficiently impressed in May to give it the Palme d'Or, the highest prize that can be awarded. In fact, they took the unusual step of awarding the prize jointly to Kechiche, Exarchopoulos and Seydoux for their artistic collaboration. Jury President Steven Spielberg described the film as a "story of deep love and deep heartbreak," which he said left him and his fellow jurors "spellbound."
Accepting the prize, Kechiche, Exarchopoulos and Seydoux hugged and kissed on stage. That seems to have been the high point of their experience together. It's been all downhill since.
An indication of the stars' souring view of their director came last month, in a series of media appearances at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. Careful to praise Kechiche at the time, they nevertheless pointed out his shortcomings.
"We were working like seven days a week," Seydoux told Anne Thompson at Telluride. "He's always searching because he doesn't know really what
he wants. ... You shoot the same scene every day for a week."
Exarchopoulos chimed in, "Sometimes we were lost as actors. ... He told us from the beginning, 'You have to have blind trust in me.' "
Seydoux lamented, "It's not that you have to trust him. You don't have the choice. ... In France, the director has all the power."
Rising tensions between the director and his stars appeared to escalate and burst into the open recently.
Seydoux declared that Kechiche had made her feel like a prostitute during the filming of the sex scenes, and both she and Exarchopoulos said they would never work with him again. Kechiche took particular umbrage toward Seydoux, writing an opinion piece for the French website rue89 in which he accused her of dragging his name through the mud and spreading lies about him to burnish her image as a cinematic "rebel."
All of this complicates the prospects of an Oscar campaign for the film and its stars. It seems almost impossible to imagine them all chummily working Hollywood red carpets during awards season, as another French trio -- director Michel Hazanavicius and actors Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo -- did so successfully on behalf of 2012 Best Picture winner "The Artist."
But there may be something oddly appropriate about the deterioration of the relationship of Kechiche, Exarchopoulos and Seydoux. After all, "Blue Is the Warmest Color" is the wrenching story of a love affair that begins with searing intensity and ends in heartache and disappointment.
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