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The sex in the three-hour French film “Blue Is the Warmest Color” is constant and protracted and graphic. In fact, the first sexual encounter in the film between two women could almost be described as “epic” in the relative time scale of sexual encounters in “serious” films (as opposed to blatant porn).

But then every scene in this movie begins to feel protracted after its first hour.

It is almost an absurd understatement to say that we Americans can’t begin to claim familiarity with this level of sexual activity in a film meant for commercial, albeit “art house,” exhibition.

If the scenes had involved the primal taboo of commercial American film exhibition – an aroused male – we would never have seen this film at all. Nor, I doubt, would the Cannes Film Festival jury, led by chairman Steven Spielberg, have unprecedentedly awarded the festival’s grand prize, the Palme D’Or, to both the film’s director and its two female stars.

Leave it to a filmmaker as accomplished and open-minded as Spielberg to understand. No film as full of wholehearted commitment to presenting sex as this one is should ever be attributed alone to its writer/director. Without the level of emotional abandon of these two performers, there would be no film.

The Cannes prize was followed by international journalistic controversy, including debates on the ancient and somewhat jejune question common to prurient (often worried) audiences everywhere of whether the sex we’re watching is real or simulated. Frankly, at this level of intensity, I doubt that particular distinction is all that meaningful, although both actresses have, of course, been eager to tell the world it was simulated.

The trouble with all this sexual reportage (it has been understandably constant since those Cannes festival showings) is that as crucial as the erotic content is to convey to people how rare the film is, it doesn’t begin to explain why it should win such a world film prize or why it’s so good.

This is a marvelous film about first love. Sexual awakening is, to be sure, the most arresting part of that, but when the whole three-hour experience is over, it is our hearts and minds that have been most affected, not our glands.

It takes a while, in fact, to see just how wonderful this film is, but that’s because protraction – of absolutely everything – is the very essence of “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” There is virtually no single scene in the film that doesn’t go on too long.

By the end of the film I was moved by everything in “Blue Is the Warmest Color” taking too long. That’s part of its power. We’re watching the course of love in a hugely intense relationship between two young women, one of whom is supposed to be 16 when first presented to us, even though the actress was 18. (I confess here that her all-too-convincing age when we first see superb young actress Adèle Exarchopoulos made me more than a little uneasy. In American culture of the 21st century, we are far from comfortable with a movie adolescence as naked in every way, literal and emotional.)

At the end of the film, we have seen something like maturity result years later, with all of its loss and regret and enforced wisdom.

The film was an adaptation of a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, and the French title of the film is “La Vie D’Adele, Chapitres Une et deux.”

When we first see young Adele, she seems very much a teenage schoolgirl – a little giggly and, in several wonderful scenes, with the immense appetite for food that growing teenagers have (and that many decades later will fill them with mystification, bewilderment and humor). It is one of the film’s many detailed triumphs that you watch Adele attack food in this film with unembarrassed lust.

It’s how she will soon attack life – until maturity hits. Her first sexual encounter with a boy is a heartbreaking disappointment. But from the first moment Adele sees blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux) on the street laughing with arms amorously around another girl, Emma inhabits her waking and sleeping libido. She fantasizes about her, forces a meeting, and the rest of the movie is all set up for us.

The tale of their erotically charged relationship is as attentive to social status detailing as it is to carnal enchantment. And it is, in the eyes of many viewers of the film, the source of all the emotions that happen at the dénouement.

Adele wants to be a teacher and becomes one. Her graduation from teaching the littlest ones, whom she can love and guide so tenderly, to first-graders, with whom she has to be demanding, is one of several of the movie’s heartbreaks presented to us in passing without comment but protracted enough to make sure we get the point.

Emma is an artist, whose nude portraits of her lover are her first art to attract major attention. Her passion for art versus her passion for Adele takes the mature turn that gives the film’s finale its enormous emotional sweep.

We see so much “coming of age” garbage in our films. How beautiful to see it presented so rubbish-free.

Among the many controversies attendant to this movie’s reception since it was first exhibited in this country is this one: A New York theater announced that wall-to-wall carnal content be damned, it wouldn’t enforce the film’s NC-17 rating.

I don’t endorse that stand, but I completely understand it. How amazing our society might be if we let smart teenagers see coming-of-age movies as sensitive and wise and true as this one is.

It’s a beautiful film worth all the attention.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com