Epic in length and intimate in scale, the new film by the Tunisian-French director Kechiche collected the Palme d'Or at Cannes. In a break with tradition, the top honour was awarded jointly to Kechiche and his two leading ladies (the only women apart from Jane Campion to have won it).
The actors' inclusion was apt: a joint best-actress award would have not done them justice. The 19-year-old Exarchopoulos' brave and generous performance offers such direct access to her emotions that it is virtually impossible not to fall in love with her.
The film tracks her character, also named Adele, over half a dozen years from teenager to young woman. We meet her as a college kid for whom schoolyard gossip ranks much higher than study, even if she finds difficulty engaging with the young men who are drawn to her.
Her first glimpse of blue-haired blonde Emma, an uber-cool fine arts student several years her senior, is not exactly what the French call a coup de foudre, but Adele quickly finds herself drawn into sexual fantasies.
Emma, for her part, is hard to read: we can't tell at first whether her gaze is predatory, proprietary or protective. Their sexual relationship, when it begins, seems utterly natural, but it's hard not to shake the sense that one will emerge with deeper scars than the other.
Shakespeare wrote that "there's no art to find the mind's construction in the face" but Exarchopoulos proves that wrong here. Abetted by Kechiche's direction, which frames so many shots in extreme close-up, she uses her fresh good looks as a screen on which her entire inner life is projected with aching clarity.
The film abounds in beautifully observed details that have a real ring of truth: Emma's father exults in his daughter's happiness; Adele's parents have to be told that Emma is helping her with homework - and the sparing use of a discontinuous editing style neatly reflects characters' internal dialogue.
Whether the whole is substantially more than the sum of its spellbinding performances I'm less sure. The sex scenes - one in particular - are so sustained and explicit that it is hard not to see them as prurient, even fetishistic. Kechiche has defended them as necessary to convey the women's passion for each other, but what Hitchcock said about suspense goes for sex on screen: it is more effective to have the audience always expecting it than ever seeing it.
That aside, there is no denying that this is an extraordinary, deeply moving film, which is sure to be in my top 10 list at the end of the year.
Cast: Adele Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Running time: 179 mins
Rating: R18 (explicit sex scenes and offensive language) In French with English subtitles
Verdict: An erotic epic of drop-dead brilliance