BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR has certainly heated up the conversation about women, sex on film, and madmen directors. Since the NC-17 rated movie along with its leading ladies (a first!) won the Palme d’Or the highest honor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, arguments have erupted, accusations have been hurled, and tears have been shed.

The movie is the story of first love, between a French teenager named Adele (19 year old Adele Exarchopoulos) and a beautiful older Beaux Arts student with blue hair named Emma (Lea Seydoux), Emma’s blue hair signifying not her age but her edgy sophistication and the new blue territory that Adele will explore. Heretofore, Adele has noticed that the young men with whom she’s had sex just don’t satisfy her; she says she feels like SHE’s missing something. But after seeing Emma once, she can’t stop thinking about her, fantasizing about her, and eventually meets her at a gay bar; soon their mutual attraction erupts in a cataclysm of sexual desire and romance.

Indeed, the fulcrum of the film and their relationship is their first explosive encounter in bed–a 7- minute long tour de f__king force with the camera full on every pore, every conceivable and inconceivable position as they devour each other in a paroxysm of  lust: kissing, sucking, slapping, clutching, writhing, gasping. The actresses  commitment in these intimate moments, is astounding. I was utterly aghast–first, at the graphic sensuality, then, at how long the director Abdellatif Kechiche lingered there. The scene was reportedly shot over hours and days with scores of retakes– to the point of exhaustion for cast and crew. Apparently Kechiche was equally fanatical about simpler shots– as many as a hundred retakes of a scene of these two characters simply walking by and seeing each other for the first time.

Then just when I was thinking the sex scene had pretty much delineated everything I ever wanted to know about lesbian sex, Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel on which Kechiche’s screenplay was based, reportedly remarked that “…as a lesbian…It appears to me this was what was missing on the set: lesbians.” So. What is it, then–some straight man’s exploitive fantasy of two girls getting it on as some have suggested?

I don’t believe so. Certainly no one lesbian can speak for all lesbians in love, any more than any one heterosexual can speak for all heterosexuals in love. As a critic who went not knowing much more than the premise, I can only assess what was left onscreen.  I was amazed at the film’s intense focus, and the shock wave of feelings it conveyed around a person falling besottedly in love for the first time. What these actresses and their director have given us is an intimately focused slice of a young woman’s emotional and sexual coming of age. There are no other plot lines, or scenes without Adele in them. She and this relationship completely absorb us in ways seldom conveyed this powerfully on film.

The young Exarchopoulos is impossible to take your eyes off. Her face is unformed and beautiful, earnest and searching; her hair a turbulent whirl atop her head. She conveys a landslide of emotions with very little effort, her every feeling welling up in her eyes, her lips, her skin. Seydoux as the talented, worldly Emma is equally luminous, but sharper, with a wildness that will later trigger a volcano of anger and anguish; it’s a blazing out of control scene mirroring the earlier sex scenes in its intensity.

The film goes three hours, and we hurt for the young woman who we know will carry the scars of this relationship forever. So may the actresses. The leading ladies–especially Seydoux has complained that the director abused them, that the working conditions were horrible, and that she would never work with Kechiche again. The director says they almost killed him. I say it’s a damn fine film that brings home the brutal ecstasy of first love. I was exhausted. In a good way.