Hot-button issues come to Film Center

— Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Film Society

“Blue Is the Warmest Color,” the controversial, award-winning French film about a teenaged girl’s sexual rites of passage, opens this weekend at the M.V. Film Center. While extended and explicit sex scenes between the two central female characters make this a film not everyone will choose to see, it powerfully evokes the transition into maturity of its heroine, Adele, played by Adele Exarchopoulos. In an unprecedented move, director Abdellatif Kechiche, along with co-stars Ms. Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, who plays Adele’s lover Emma, were collectively awarded the 2013 Palme d’Or at Cannes.

The film opens in a Lille classroom where 15-year-old Adele is following a discussion of “La Vie de Marianne” (“The Life of Marianne), the 18th century novel by Pierre de Marivaux. A phrase from the novel, “how do you understand that the heart is missing something?” reverberates through the rest of the nearly three-hour movie.

The director relies so heavily on extreme close-ups that the camera seems to dissolve the physical boundary between Adele and her internal states of mind. Ms. Exarchopoulos excels at conveying the transparency of this not-yet-fully-formed adolescent as she pursues the activities of a typical teenager, chatting with her friends, going on a date with classmate Thomas, cruising the city’s bars, and enjoying dinner with her working-class parents. Love strikes with the force of a thunderbolt when Adele meets blue-haired Emma (Ms. Seydoux), an older, more sophisticated fine arts student who is a lesbian. The two pursue a torrid affair that over time burns itself out. Emma moves on, but Adele is paralyzed by her first real love.

The plot in “Blue Is the Warmest Color” unfolds episodically, almost like a Frederick Wiseman documentary where the camera records whatever happens next, rather than following a conventional narrative arc. Although the film was scripted, Mr. Kechiche had Ms. Exarchopoulos and Ms. Seydoux improvise, based on their initial read-through of the script. The result is to create dialogue that sounds as close to authentic as is cinematically possible. Incorporating other cinéma vérité touches, the director had his two stars avoid make-up and doesn’t employ a music soundtrack.

The movie does not focus exclusively on Adele’s sexual and romantic awakening. It also contrasts the differences in backgrounds between Adele and Emma, who in addition to being older than Adele, comes from a more intellectual, middle class family. While Emma aspires to be a successful artist, Adele is happy to pursue a career as a teacher, a choice the film implies is socially inferior. Eating scenes serve as a motif to reinforce Adele’s sensual nature.

Most of the controversy over “Blue Is the Warmest Color” concerns its explicit portrayal of sex between Adele and Emma. Julie Maroh, who wrote “Blue Angel,” the 2010 graphic novel on which the movie is based, has suggested it doesn’t accurately depict lesbian sex, and others have questioned whether the sex scenes are overly aestheticized or as filmed by a male director verge towards pornography. While the sex in “Blue Is the Warmest Color” lies at the heart of the film, it ventures well beyond that aspect of the two characters’ relationship. It remains a remarkable study of the passage into adulthood of a young woman who finds herself attracted to another woman.

“Wadjda” & “The Dallas Buyers Club” Return

Also playing at the Film Center this weekend are “Wadjda,” the portrait of a Saudi girl who longs to have a bike, and “The Dallas Buyers Club,” which opened last weekend. Starring Matthew McConaughey in a tour-de-force performance, “The Dallas Buyers Club” tells the real-life story of a Dallas rodeo ne’er-do-well, Ron Woodroof, who contracted AIDS in the mid-eighties and found a way to acquire the drugs –– still not approved in the U.S. –– that he and others with AIDS needed to extend their lives.

The early scenes of Mr. Woodroof’s debauched activities in “The Dallas Buyers Club” are as graphic as any in “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” The difference is that this character is heterosexual and promiscuous, as well as drug and alcohol dependent. Once the homophobic Mr. Woodward learns he has contracted AIDS, he campaigns to find the drugs that will alleviate his symptoms but are not yet approved in the U.S.

He finances his operation by forming a “Buyers Club” for AIDS victims and wages a one-man battle against the Food and Drug Administration, which at the time was dragging its feet in approving AIDS drugs. Once a homosexual cross-dresser named Rayon (Jared Leto in another of the movie’s stand-out performances) enters his life and becomes his business partner, Mr. Woodroof learns how to let go of his homophobia. “The Dallas Buyers Club” paints a grim picture of how the AIDS epidemic was initially handled in the U.S. but it tells an important story, and the initially offensive Mr. Woodroof transforms himself into a latter-day hero.

“Dallas Buyers Club,” Thursday, December 5, and Saturday, December 7, 7:30 pm; Sunday, December 8, 4 pm.

“Blue Is the Warmest Color, Friday, December 6, and Sunday, December 8, 7:30 pm.

“Wadjda,” Friday, December 6, and Saturday, December 7, 4 pm. All films at M.V. Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $12 (MV Film Society members $9; 14 and under $7).