Our perspective, as framed by Abdellatif Kechiche, is intensely claustrophobic and, in a way, perversely voyeuristic, rarely straying more than a foot from Adèle's face. Every thought, every reaction, every minor insecurity and second guess that crosses her face is captured in intimate detail with this observant, almost oppressive, direction, ensuring that we have a comprehensive understanding of Adèle's gradual shifts in maturation and understanding of self while discovering her own sexual identity.
We know early on that this conflicted teenager has Sapphic interests. A classroom discussion—a rather strained and overused method of inserting theory and subtext into a narrative—attempts to articulate the pang of regret and anxiety one feels when they briefly lock in an intimate gaze with a stranger but don't act on their desires. This dialogue gives some context to the second glances and flushed face Adèle has when she first passes Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue-haired lesbian walking with her arm around another woman, in a crowded public locale. Excited by the prospect of same-sex intimacy, she embarks on a quiet journey to find this girl she briefly caught the attention of, expressing highly identifiable emotions while trying to mask the intensity of her desire, remaining aloof but still (unintentionally) visibly eager.
At a three-hour runtime, the inevitable meeting and resulting relationship between Emma and Adèle has time to flourish. Their early discussions about introductory philosophy and art—the older Emma is a painter with an extensive liberal education—introduces a power dynamic, with the older girl teaching the younger one about culture outside of her high school. This dynamic continues into the bedroom and into their social relations, with Adèle demonstrating passion and eagerness while Emma, aroused by the admiration and lust, lovingly (at least initially) guides her younger lover.
Kechiche's decision to let the camera linger on his actors long after the intention of any given shot has been established is as discomforting as it is engrossing. Since we are thrust within inches of their faces after a social gathering leaves Emma feeling that Adèle's humble teaching ambitions don't gel with her pretentious pseudo-bohemian artist lifestyle, we get an understanding of just where the disintegration of their romance will stem from without anyone verbalizing it. We can read their expressions, showing panic and disappointment amidst a refusal from Emma to engage in intimacy,
Kechiche isn't interested in documenting time—years pass with minor changes (Emma goes from blue to blonde hair) denoting a shift—so much as he wants to remain within the lexicon of emotional abandon, capturing every pivotal moment of a relationship with as much projected "realness" as possible. Peripheral discussions about the male eye being the one concerned with capturing the mystique of feminine sexuality and pleasure demonstrate an astute self-awareness on his part, acknowledging, yet not defending, decisions to linger on images of Seydoux and Exarchopoulos fully nude or writing in sexual pleasure.
His attempt to understand female sexuality through visual proximity, while amusingly facile and male, does give an impression that these women really did fall in love and eventually implode. But since this style is so forced, always drawing out even the most banal moments, like someone eating with their mouth open for a minute (eating being compared to sexual indulgence persistently), it grows quite tiresome by the time the passion in the relationship starts to fade.
What initially gave us the sense of being involved in this comprehensive (but surprisingly cold despite endless scenes of snot-faced, uncontrollable sobbing) love story eventually grows tiresome and frustrating, merely repeating and dwelling on what we already know. It's a style that—much like the relationship detailed on screen—implodes on itself, being too simplistic in intention to sustain much theoretical interest once we understand what we're in for. And since Kechiche indulges in every explicit moment of emotional turmoil and sexual indulgence, leaving quieter, less overtly tender moments that aren't deliberately banal, by the wayside, it's difficult to appreciate the intensity of what is unfolding.
Regardless, the acting and the bravery demonstrated by Seydoux and Exarchopoulos is spellbinding and astounding. Not once is there a sense that they are acting. They are so invested in their respective roles that it seems as though this is some sort of bizarrely acquired documentary about a young woman's first experience with love. Only, if it were a documentation of a life by invisible cameras, there would be more humanizing moments of minor connection and agreement and less sensationalized yelling and sexual gratuity.