Nov. 27 2013 12:00 AM

Palme D’Or winner explores sex as basic human sustenance

Come for the hot girl-on-girl action, stay for a philosophical examination of the transformative, transcendental power of sex. In “Blue is the Warmest Color,” sex isn’t an act you engage in; it’s a food that’s consumed wholly and voraciously by a starving generation no longer boxed in by conventional ideas of identity. Gay, straight, bi, none of the above — it’s just people digging people, man.

“Blue,” which won the Palme D’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, has been unfairly minimized as “that French movie with the really long lesbian sex scene.” Which, yes, it does, but writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche doesn’t use the vivid lovemaking for shock value. Here, sex is a tool to unlock the deepest level of human connectivity. When the main characters fall into each other’s arms for the first time, it’s not seven minutes of art house porn — it’s two lovers dropping every pretense, every last shred of ego, and giving themselves unselfishly to each other. Never before has sex had this efficacy on the screen. Or, for that matter, this duration.

Set in the city of Lille in northern France, the film follows Adèle (Adèle Exarchopolous), a wide-eyed schoolgirl who begins experimenting with boys and, when they prove unfulfilling, with girls. Fortunately, homosexuality doesn’t carry the same stigma it did even 10 years ago, and we’re spared any coming-out drama. This is an enlightening film set in an enlightened age — sorry folks, no time to waste on morality lessons.

Exarchopolous is an electrifying and daring young actress. She moves her character through several major turning points in her young adult life, each one leading to profound new depths that we (and she) had no idea were possible. The film spans about five years, and you believe she’s aged every last week of that by the end. As Adèle’s partner, the hauntingly beautiful Emma (Léa Seydoux) anchors the film with a self-assuredness that seemingly contradicts her sensitivity. It’s hard to tell who’s seducing whom, but their love and their lust are palpable, making their pairing a study in perfect film chemistry.

Sex is as crucial an element to the film as eating and sleeping, with all three receiving abundant attention in the script.

The metaphor of food is at once ubiquitous, yet somehow still sly. Try not to think of “Spartacus” when Emma tries to convert Adèle into an oyster lover.

As if to head off his critics, Kechiche includes a conversation between two characters who discuss depictions of sex in art and why the focus is always on the female reaction. One states that artistic representation of sexual delight is typically channeled through women because they get more physical pleasure from the act. He cites a literary figure who changed genders several times and who came down firmly in the “girls rule” camp. The difference between porn and art, it is soon implied, is the artist’s intent. Notably, this conversation occurs at a garden party while the 1929 silent movie “Pandora’s Box,” about a lascivious young woman, plays on a wall in the background, and just after Adèle and Emma have strolled through the Lille Palace of Fine Art, where the camera loving caressed the female nudes adorning the walls and frozen in alabaster. Come and get me, Kechiche seems to say, I’m merely the cutting edge of a tradition going back to the Greeks.