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And I'm Audie Cornish. The French film "Blue Is the Warmest Color" is making news for several different reasons. It won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Then the film's director and its lead actresses began a public feud about the conditions on set and the film's explicit scenes of lesbian sex.

But NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports before it became the big screen controversy of the year, critics were calling "Blue Is the Warmest Color" the love story of the year.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: For the first time in its history, the Cannes Film Festival jury awarded its top prize to three artists for one film. The jury was lead by Steven Spielberg.

STEVEN SPIELBERG: These artists are Adele, Lea and Abdellatif Kechiche.

QURESHI: The Palme d'Or that went both to filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche and the actresses Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos was recognition of just how far the actresses had to go to bring their love story to screen. Take the opening scene: High school student Adele is crossing the street when she suddenly sees Emma, a woman with blue hair, her arm wrapped proudly around her then-girlfriend. The two walk past each other, only to pause seconds later to turn around.

Lea Seydoux plays Emma.

LEA SEYDOUX: In the film, it lasts 20 seconds. And we spent one day, and we did almost a hundred takes and we had to cross the street a hundred times.

QURESHI: Director Abdellatif Kechiche is known for this maddeningly kind of filmmaking, shooting take after take to capture a perfectly rendered moment. Here is his take on that scene:

ABDELLATIF KECHICHE: (Through translator) It arrives at a very, very precise moment. Life can be transformed in a second. Love at first sight while crossing the street. If Adele had arrived one minute earlier or one minute later or one minute later, it wouldn't have happened and she wouldn't have met Emma.

(Though interpreter) Is it chance, is it destiny? These are the questions it needs a whole film to respond to.

QURESHI: And his camera takes its time. It seems to float over his characters like a documentarian, lingering on quiet glances, hovering on Emma's face while Adele speaks, on Adele's mouth as she listens. That's why critics love Abdellatif's work, and why Seydoux says she wanted to work with him.

SEYDOUX: I knew his technique, but it's true, it was very, very difficult. I'm not complaining, you know. I don't mind to suffer. It was just that on this film it was a very, very special experience. And very, yeah, very painful.

QURESHI: When the film premiered in the U.S., those publicized complaints by the actresses fueled the perception that the film was built on exploitation. Some critics went further, calling "Blue" nothing more than auteur porn, a vulgar exploitation of young actresses and their bodies by a male director.

Film critic B. Ruby Rich writes about the portrayal of women and sexuality on-screen, and she says American critics need to get over their obsession with explicit sex.

B. RUBY RICH: Directors are famously sadistic toward their actresses and, you know, film is a medium which expertly hides its own process. You never know what went on on a film set unless someone chooses to talk, and they usually don't. These actresses are young. I think they're very naive. I think they didn't realize what sex means outside of France.

QURESHI: And for their part, the actresses have been saying that everything about making the film was difficult, not just the sex scenes. Nineteen-year old Adele Exarchopoulos plays Adele.

ADELE EXARCHOPOULOS: (Through translator) The sex scenes were no more difficult than the violent scenes or the normal ones. Like, when you're talking on the telephone and no one is on the other end. We laughed a lot when we were making the film. It was a lot of fun to make and we took a lot of pleasure in it.

QURESHI: And that's what distinguishes art from pornography for Director Abdellatif Kechiche.

KECHICHE: (Through translator) An actor who plays a role against his will, or an actress who plays a role against her will, for example an actor or actress working with me, when it is not done with pleasure, it becomes pornography.

QURESHI: And even if the film's controversial scenes do amount to pornography, they last 10 minutes in a film that spans three hours. B. Ruby Rich says for her, "Blue Is the Warmest Color" is not a film about sex. It's a film about a relationship across a societal divide.

RICH: He presents for the character of Adele a wonderfully multicultural France where young people in high school of all different races and backgrounds are mixing together and dating and partying, and the world of the older woman, Emma, played by Lea Seydoux, is a much more upper-class world. It's a world of French intellectuals, and those worlds ultimately don't mesh all that well.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR")

QURESHI: For the Tunisian-born Director Abdellatif Kechiche, film is his way to explore the confrontation between rich and poor, between insiders and outsiders, in France today.

KECHICHE: (Through translator) The confrontation between these two worlds, and the possibility of understanding and acceptance of one into the other fascinates me. Can one really get out of one's own social origins, if you're like Adele? And can she be understood by Emma's world? It's a very important question for me. I almost want to say I'm obsessed with this question and have been for a long time.

(Through translator) What causes this difference and this lack of comprehension?

QURESHI: You don't have to be French or gay to connect to that question, says critic B. Ruby Rich, to ask whether first love can ever overcome the harsh realities of becoming an adult.

RICH: Certainly this film took me back to all the great passions of my life. You know the kind of sensation you're supposed to have when you're dying? Suddenly everything flashes back through your head. Well, that's how I felt those times early, early in my life when that kind of falling into someone the way you would fall into a universe, that time in my life just came alive again from watching this film.

So I think if people can be open to it, whatever their sexuality is, it can really be a sort of time machine, taking people back to some of the most vivid, passionate, all-encompassing times in their life.

QURESHI: And after months of controversy, "Blue Is the Warmest Color" finally opens in American cinemas this week with an NC-17 rating. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

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