As the awards season enters its hibernation period, there’s simply not a whole lot to talk about in contemporary cinema. And given that I haven’t even seen a 2012 film, material for this blog has been a little scarce. But while I may be ignoring what’s in theaters at the moment, I’ve kept busy by engrossing myself in films of old, particularly addressing some of my cinematic blinds spots (the films of the 1930s, for one). It’s a trying experience in some cases, as there are clear technical and narrative limitations that obviously held filmmakers back. But by that same token, some filmmakers of the 30s had to display an acute sense of wit in the way they presented their material. Unfortunately, for every home-run discovery (W.S. Dyke’s The Thin Man, Mitchell Liesen’s Midnight), I’m bombarded with disappointing efforts (James Wales’ Frankenstein, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant, and perhaps most surprisingly, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow).
What does this have to do with Three Colors: Blue? Well, after a succession of disappointing features, I needed to watch something that I knew I would enjoy. And after nabbing a blu-ray copy of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy in an Oscar bet from my lovely girlfriend, I figured it would be the perfect remedy to my funk.
Three Colors: Blue (1993)
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski
I’m avoiding writing about the Three Colors trilogy as a whole because it’s a large canvas that I (and most critics) would not be able to succinctly summarize and analyze in a written form. The trilogy’s density does not lend itself to easy analysis. While I would love to look at each individual picture and write an extended analysis for all three, I do have a day job that prohibits that sort of thing. While popular opinion places Three Colors: Blue at the bottom of the totem pole in the trilogy, it actually stands as my favorite.
Krzysztof Kieslowski begins Blue with a nauseating shot, where the viewer is placed behind the tire of a moving car on a highway. We’re moving forward with an obstructed view, which essentially establishes the narrative course that the picture will take for its 98 minute runtime. Kieslowski’s cinematographer, Slawomir Idziak, hues the opening of the film under a tinge of blue. It’s a technique that superficially distinguishes it from the other films in the trilogy, but also underscores the emotional tragedy on display. In the film’s critical opening moment, we see a car crash into a tree and we see a landscape shot where the sky is tinted a dull blue.
The Three Colors trilogy derives its meaning from the French Republic’s motto of Liberty (Blue), Equality (White) and Fraternity (Red). Thematically, Blue is the densest of Kieslowski’s trilogy, as he takes the concept of liberty and associates it with memory and love. As the picture develops, a woman named Julie (Juliette Binoche) was the lone survivor of the car crash that took her husband and children. From here, she attempts to disassociate herself from the pain and anxiety of her loss.
The concept of liberty becomes a pivotal aspect to Julie’s ability to cope with her loss. Is the weight of her loss preventing her from attaining true freedom? Are we bound by our relationships to people to the point that it limits our freedom? In her attempt to attain “true” freedom, Julie sells off her possessions and destroys her husband’s final composition – a work that she herself had a hand in composing. Yet the memory remains. In an attempt to find a flat, she gives her married name first, only to retract and give out her maiden name. And she still keeps a memento from her past – a blue crystal mobile that belonged to her children. The mobile’s presence in the center of her living room serves as a constant reminder of her loss, therein preventing her from ever truly disassociating from her past.
Kieslowski’s ability to take superficial objects and infuse them with a sense of time and gravity plays a significant role in Blue; perhaps moreso than the other two pictures in the trilogy or even the object-heavy The Double Life of Veronique. In addition to the mobile, particular items like the rolled-up copy of her husband’s unfinished composition and the cross necklace all serve to address the film’s theoretical framework. They are items that essentially serve to come back to Julie, serving to reinforce that one cannot break free from their past.
What makes Blue particularly effective is that Kieslowski addresses Julie’s concept of true independence – disassociating herself from any and all people – as the sort of thing that people should not be striving for. In an important scene, Julie assists a street flute player lying on the ground. She places his flute box under his head as a means of support. The flute player responds to Julie as he clings to his flute box, stating that “You have to hold onto something”. The line carries obvious weight, particularly given that Julie’s husband and the vagrant share musical sensibilities. It’s also hinted that the flute player plays her husband’s music, another coincidence that carries spiritual weight in Kieslowski’s world.
Julie’s relationship with her mother perpetuates Kieslowski’s theme of addressing the costs of “true” freedom. As Julie attempts to meet her mother, who stays at a nursing home, we see Julie observe her mother through a glass window. Julie's mother suffers from dementia, so any news on the recent loss of her daughter's husband and children are lost upon her. They still exist in her mother’s memory. This obviously complicates Julie’s desire to disassociate herself from her loss. Is Julie’s desire to disassociate herself from the tragedy strained by her mother? Kieslowski realizes the boundaries between the two characters through glass, a visual cue that Asghar Farhadi utilized to a great degree in his A Separation. In Blue, the glass unites the physical and mental constraints that prevent Julie from break through.
The picture curiously bookends with images involving glass. In the first scene, Julie breaks a glass pane when she is hospitalized, utilizing the broken window as a diversion for the nurse attendant. It’s here where Julie almost commits suicide upon discovering the loss of her family. It’s the most emotionally expressive we see Julie, at least up until the end, where Julie has sex with a man who has been courting her. Kieslowski frames Julie’s face as she is pressed up against the glass. She never breaks through though. Instead, Kieslowski follows it up with a scene where Julie pensively stares outside, tears visible, while the sound of her husband’s music permeates the score. The score swells as Julie seems to have accepted that one cannot be truly free if they are living to escape their past.
Blue is filled with these sorts of alliterations and motifs. It’s the sort of picture that can be mined extensively for its symbolic language and spiritual density. I’ve barely scratched the surface of its meaning, both as a singular work and as the beginning of a trilogy. But this most recent viewing provoked a response in me that simply had to address some of the more compelling, if not superficial, aspects of the picture. Krzysztof Kieslowski was a director with a deep-rooted personal connection to all his films, whereupon he strove to create pictures that reflected a spiritual perspective. With pictures like Blue, White, Red and 1991’s The Double Life of Veronique, he expands and contracts his perspective to illuminate something deep in the audience.