Abdellatif Kechiche in New York
Eric Kohn Abdellatif Kechiche in New York

In May, Abdellatif Kechiche and the cast of "Blue is the Warmest Color" looked like they were on top of the world. The French director of the acclaimed dramas "Black Venus" and "The Secret of the Grain," Kechiche had completed what was possibly his most ambitious work to date, a two-and-a-half hour coming-of-age drama about a pair of young female lovers (19-year-old newcomer Adele Exarchoupolos and rising star Lea Seydoux) who fall in and out of an intense romance as they grapple with big ideas. While the media focused on a graphic six-and-a-half minute sex scene between the women -- at one point misreporting it at 20 minutes long -- the high profile jury, headed by Steven Spielberg, saw a much bigger picture.

Not only did "Blue Is the Warmest Color" win the Palme d'Or, but the jury stipulated that the top prize belonged to both Kechiche and his two actresses as well. A widely circulated snapshot from the occasion captured the euphoria of the moment: Kechiche, his eyes closed and his face seemingly frozen in a Cheshire Cat grin, surrounded by his giddy stars as they planted smooches on either side of his face.

It was a nifty photo opportunity, but it would eventually provide ammunition for critics perturbed by the perceived masculine gaze in Kechiche's depiction of sexuality. A few weeks after the festival, that perspective took on greater ramifications when 27-year-old Julie Maroh, whose graphic novel provided the basis for Kechiche's story, posted a blog deriding the film's "so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn." She found the scenes laughably unrealistic. "This was what was missing on the set: lesbians," she wrote in French after attending a screening. "The gay and queer people laughed because it's not convincing, and find it ridiculous."

The conversation surrounding the movie would grow even more heated when both actresses seemingly turned against the project, describing the shooting experience to interviewers as so degrading that they never wanted to work with Kechiche again. In a remark he would later recant and explain as an off-the-cuff expression of frustration, Kechiche told a French magazine that audience expectations ahead of the movie's theatrical release led him to decide it shouldn't be released at all.

READ MORE: Abdellatif Kechiche Corrects the Record On "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

Four and a half months after Cannes, Kechiche sat down for an interview in a downtown Manhattan hotel looking little like he had in that celebratory Cannes moment. He was dead serious, reserved and seemingly afraid to offer beyond a few words of insight about his movie at a time. More than anything else, Kechiche looked tired, and so did his translator.

Abdellatif Kechiche, Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos win the Palme d'Or for "Blue is the Warmest Color."
Abdellatif Kechiche, Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos win the Palme d'Or for "Blue is the Warmest Color."

Kechiche had faced controversy surrounding "Blue is the Warmest Color" in his country as well. "I didn't think when were shooting this film that there was still such a taboo against homosexuality in France," he said. "But of course there was this desire to talk about a community that's not necessarily visible in cinema." He said he resisted the temptation to politicize the drama. "The danger was to turn it into something that would be a militant or flag-waving kind of film," he said. "I didn't want that. I didn't want to do it in a sort of frontal fashion."

It was an odd choice of words given the topic. But despite the heft of the nude scenes in "Blue," its prominence in complaints against the movie created the perception that the scenes dominated it. Instead, the protagonists spend much of the movie clothed and engrossed in dialogue. At its center, Adele drifts through her first high school romance before meeting and being entranced by the slightly older art student Emma (Seydoux), with whom she finds herself liberated by the prospects of talking philosophy and literature over wine.

Yes, together they attend a gay pride parade, but Adele consumes more screen time on her own: The French title of the movie is "The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 & 2," and when the action shifts from its first part to its second, several years have passed. We witness Adele grow up, both physically and emotionally. Ultimately, Kechiche tells a story primarily focused on his titular heroine's transition to young adulthood, along with the various fluctuating emotions she rides to get there.

"The challenge was to get past all of the discussion so that any audience member could really identify with the characters," Kechiche said. It wasn't entirely new terrain for the director: In 2010's similarly lengthy "Black Venus," Kechiche foregrounded the plight of Sarah Baartman, a 19th century woman exhibited in freak shows throughout Europe. The grotesque exhibitionist desires that Baartman faced make the role of lust in "Blue" look fairly coy.

"In 'Black Venus,' you have a woman subjected to the looks of others, who's in a position of prostitution," Kechiche said. "In this film, we're really talking about pleasure and something that's ignited by passion." He refuses to discuss the choreography of the sex in "Blue" in terms of the conceptual implications that have been lobbied against it. "Unfortunately, I don't ask myself these questions," he sighed. "I broach the topic from an aesthetic point of view."