Blue is the Warmest Colour is a luxuriously and literarily elegant film, boasting a visual extremism that envelops us in its characters’ visages and a powerful erotic charge that’s explicit but never exploitative. From the early exhilaration of love to the annihilative power of secrets and resentment, this epic French-language drama spares us nothing in its portrayal of one young woman’s first experience in the ways of the heart, which she happens to share with another woman.

So naturalistic, unaffected and believable is the work of French co-stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux — in the year’s best female performances so far — that it hardly feels like you’re watching a work of fiction. That goes for the moments when they engage in lustful, unadulterated sex onscreen. No matter the orientation, such frank, contextually rich depictions of voracious, but sated, sexual appetites are rare.

Unsurprisingly, these scenes — of which there are several that run for minutes at a time, but make up a comparative blip of the film’s 179-minute running time — have become Blue’s calling card since it earned the prestigious Palme d’Or, the equivalent of Best Picture, at May’s Cannes Film Festival. Just this week, the internet lit up with articles about real-life lesbians’ responses to the sex scenes, then an article about another lesbian responding to those responses. So goes the Ouroboros of popular culture.

Each scene plays out with inimitably explosive intensity — to a degree that the actresses used molds of their genitals to avoid direct contact. While the film undoubtedly earns its incendiary NC-17 rating, this is no skin mag tucked inside the dust jacket of a highbrow classic.

Blue avoids the tag of tawdry, cheap pornography by evoking the raw ardor and intimacy that surround an initial sexual encounter. As Adèle (Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Seydoux) make love for the first time, it feels like a discovery of their physical and sensual sensitivity. And although Tunisian co-writer / director Abdellatif Kechiche’s camera stays as close to them here as it does during scenes of dialogue, it feels nothing at all like the puerile fetishism of a heterosexual male. It’s just a physically expressive continuation of the acute character observation in scenes when they’re fully clothed.

Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, has all but disowned Kechiche’s adaptation, branding his direction of the scenes “brutal” and “mechanical.” With all due respect to her opinion, I would ask what greater authenticity she truly believes a female, or lesbian, filmmaker would have brought to the scene. What does it really matter if the women are positioned at proper angles respective to their genitalia or moving against each other the right way? Moreover, what would be the “right” way for anyone to have sex? Quite honestly, one of Blue’s most intriguing, well-developed themes that spins out from its erotic content is more philosophical than anatomical: Can pleasure, dictated as it is by such individual desires, ever truly be shared?

The accuracy of Blue’s sex isn’t all that people are talking about aside from the movie itself. Kechiche’s planned two-and-a-half-month shoot ballooned to five, and it’s said that 750 hours of dailies were shot. Both Exarchopoulos and Seydoux have echoed crewmembers’ accusations of hostile filming conditions, including “moral harassment” and labor law violations, and said they would never again work with Kechiche. The director himself, during an interview in September, said he felt the film should have never been released because it was “too sullied.”

The making of Blue sounds like a miserable experience, but Exarchopoulos, Seydoux and Kechiche have emerged with a triumph in which they can take pride for their entire careers. In a rare move, the two actresses received the Palme d’Or prize along with Kechiche. It’s a perfect honor to their commitment, which, as much as his direction, fuels this emotionally taxing, but fascinating, drama. All of the ballyhooed sexual content feels like a complement to all of the dreams, ideas and disagreements Adele and Emma share long before, and after, their bodies unite.

Plus, as Blue unfolds, Exarchopoulos and Seydoux’s facial expressions during the amorous scenes become far more fascinating anyway – for what they reveal about the complex dynamic evolving in what is now a relationship far removed from any single, transitory encounter.

Furthermore, Blue is only about Adèle and Emma as a couple. It’s neither a screed against intolerance — lesbian slurs are mostly confined to a brief schoolyard-taunting scene — nor a film in which either woman defies her family with sexuality; Emma’s bourgeois parents seem to know she’s a lesbian, while Adèle’s blue-collar folks are oblivious to sexuality of any stripe and, after a certain point, never heard from again. (The film rockets through years of Adèle and Emma’s lives together, sometimes requiring a few seconds to let sink in how much has passed.) Blue doesn’t have to strain for social-issue poignancy, instead soaring on these two actress’s terrific interpretations of their love, warts and all.

When we first meet Adèle, she’s a bright high-school girl with an empty gaze waiting for something worthy of fixation to fill it. Exarchopoulos makes you feel her frenetic, futile search to find the spark in what she’s told is normal teenage behavior, as well as the sadness in her struggle.

Her attempt to date Samir (Salim Kechiouche), an affable, wannabe metal musician from her school, is half-hearted, despite the quickness with which they rush to bed. “It was great,” she says when they’ve finished, and she’s telling the truth, albeit not in any orgasmic sense. It’s great to her because it emboldens her resolve toward curiosity rather than resigning herself to a complacency with which she’s not comfortable (although a mistaken-intent encounter with a female classmate still awaits).

That Blue is also not dismissive of Samir as a libidinous lunkhead proves instructive for what eventually befalls Adèle, who comes to have stars in her eyes. Samir sees in Adèle a chance to be “better,” as well read and open-minded as she is. When it ends, they both shed tears. Such is the peril in idealizing a partner as a vessel for your self-improvement.

Adele feels a moonstruck moment in a busy crosswalk — a lingering, penetrating stare at a blue-haired, slightly older woman who, although she has her arm around someone, cranes her neck to glance back at Adèle. Not long after indulging her masturbatory fantasies for this woman, Adèle finds herself face-to-face with her after sneaking into a lesbian bar. Her name is Emma, and she’s about to finish art school.

At first, it seems improbable that Emma would be so nervous in her flirtations with Adèle — especially with a naïf stumbling onto her well-trodden turf. But then we realize we’ve only envisioned Emma through Adèle’s romanticized point of view. She is not so simple as a symbolically dominant force of nature. Her struggle is complex as well — a bohemian college girl about to collide with the cold, hard reality of a Parisian art scene where she may never be anything more than a hanger-on.

As Emma and Adèle begin to see more of each other, Sofian El Fani’s severe cinematography practically pries apart the actresses’ pores to peer into their cells — as if to gaze at the very essence of their existence as a couple. Although camerawork so precise you can track the trail of a tear and the pulse of a snot bubble may sound invasive, it makes Emma and Adèle’s burgeoning tenderness, and its inevitable curdling, all the more involving. It’s the visual aggression of late-period Lars von Trier without any of his usual attendant misanthropy.

Conflicts about their identities come to form the wedge driven between Emma and Adèle. Ultimately, neither woman seems to truly know who she is – one sexually, one socially. Is Adèle there only to be Emma’s model and muse, her individuality consigned to interpretations on gallery walls? And is she so certain that she really identifies as a “lesbian”? Furthermore, does Emma’s seemingly iconoclastic demeanor obscure true desire for more conventional comforts of adulthood?

In a third act stuffed with high-intensity confrontations, loaded words and judiciously shed tears, the bravery, vulnerability and risks in Exarchopoulos and Seydoux’s performances grow exponentially. It culminates in a resolution both unforgettably beautiful and unremittingly bleak — suggesting that sometimes gaining true forgiveness may mean giving up true love — and Kechiche isn’t afraid to let us see these characters barely survive the aftermath.

Blue may be the color of one of the hottest-burning flames, but such ignition eventually fades. As Adèle and Emma navigate their love’s violently fluctuating temperature, Blue is the Warmest Colour lets you live in their joys and miseries. It’s a revelatory love story that delights, shatters, bruises and lingers long in the memory after the final frame, and it’s one of the absolute best films of 2013.