No-one knew what planet she was flung in from when they first clapped eyes on Adèle Exarchopoulos. For me, like a lot of critics I imagine, it was the 2013 Cannes press screening of Blue is the Warmest Colour, for which the actor went on to share the Palme d’Or with the film’s director and her co-star, Léa Seydoux. Which was an unprecedented move at the time, but one for which commentators did not bat an eyelid, because it was so obviously deserved.
By that I mean this was a film in which the dedication and intensity of the performances were so integral to its success that it would seem strange to direct the plaudits elsewhere, or to just a single point of that central creative triangle. And that year’s jury head Steven Spielberg was clearly aware of the fine alchemical balance the film achieves.
Blue is the Warmest Colour might be remembered for its lengthy and graphic sex scenes, but in fact the abiding image that comes back to us over and over again is that of Exarchopoulos slurping up over-cooked spaghetti drenched in marinara sauce. An iconic scene that only works because of the blithe way she eroticises what should be a completely banal action.
Fast-forward to present day and Exarchopoulos is back doing what she does best: immersing herself in a role which, on paper, would seem fairly straightforward, but enhancing it through her dedication to the small tics and glances and expressions she pulls between moments. In Léa Mysius’ The Five Devils, she plays a loving if confused mother, an emotionally absent wife, a dedicated swimmer and diver, and a yearning and excited lover – sometimes all of the above simultaneously.
It’s hard to pinpoint what it is about Exarchopoulos that makes her so unique as a performer, but it’s perhaps a natural sensibility she brings to performance: she exudes a level of confidence that means she’s rarely a completely pitiable presence in a film, even when her character is being passed through the emotional mill. There’s clearly something very wrong going on in the background of The Five Devils, as her errant daughter goes off and makes potions and her husband’s estranged sister returns to their life, but she’s able to transmit a sense of ambient control.
One of the markers for this sensibility may be her voice, which is almost baritone in its bass-heavy timbre. It is rich and velvety and hugs the words as they emanate from her lips. In Emmanuel Marre and Julie Lecoustre’s 2021 scathing workplace satire Zero Fucks Given, she plays a flight attendant on a budget airline who is simply going through the professional motions so she can enjoy the random nights and evenings in far-flung locales.
Even when speaking in English, she manages to bring a don’t-mess-with-me edge to her various altercations with passengers. In one scene, a young woman attempts to bring a bag over the size limit into the cabin, and Exarchopoulos gives her no quarter in saying that she’ll have to pay extra to bring it on board. It’s a harrowing, if strangely recognisable sequence in which we see that the dehumanising practices of the airline are starting to rub off on her and roll back her natural deposits of empathy.
Her upcoming role in Ira Sachs’ Berlin-set three-way romance, Passages, is something a little different for Exarchopoulos in that her character has to suffer the humiliations brought on by the impulsive Tomas (Franz Rogowski) who romances her character despite, until very recently, being partnered up with printmaker Martin (Ben Whishaw).
There’s something quite cold and practical about the way she enters into this lopsided relationship. She’s hopeful that Tomas may be sincere in his professed love, but there’s a maternal aspect to her – which comes through in scenes of her day job as a school teacher – which suggest that, secretly, she knows he’s an impetuous and ill-behaved little boy.
As she does in The Five Devils, Zero Fucks Given, Passages and more, she continues to subtly elevate characters who would otherwise sink or swim in terms of how they’re projected towards the camera. The range she goes through in The Five Devils is astonishing, particularly as the story does have an otherworldly bent to it. And in Zero Fucks Given, there’s a employee training segment where she has to demonstrate her best on-the-job smile, and it’s completely haunting.
The Five Devils is released in UK and Irish cinemas this Friday, and streams exclusively on MUBI from May 12. Zero Fucks Given is now streaming on MUBI. Passages will be released in cinemas and on MUBI this year.
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Published 23 Mar 2023