The Essential Series: Blue (1993)

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.

Thursday Ten: Best Juliette Binoche Performances

Juliette Binoche has a new film coming out this week in limited release and much to my chagrin she costars with Channing Tatum and Katie Holmes. The Son of No One features Binoche alongside Tatum, Holmes, Al Pacino, and Tracey Morgan; quite the eclectic cast. But despite its hokey premise, it’ll hopefully remind American audiences of Binoche’s talents.

Binoche’s career began in the early 80s in French films before having brief success in America, wherein she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the film The English Patient. She has managed to maintain her profile in the States for a few years after that, as she scored another nomination five years later for the film Chocolat. But much like Tilda Swinton, her Academy Award victory has allowed those of the voting body to make do with acknowledging her talent, but ignore her work after the award. Not to go off on a complete tangent here, but it’s quite intriguing how there tends to be greater acknowledgement of the follies of one’s post-Oscar career rather than their success; Halle Barry is likely to never live down her role for Catwoman whereas Binoche and Swinton can string along career best performances without ever getting acknowledged by a voting body.

But enough of that – this is meant to be celebratory. Maybe for the few who will check out The Son of No One, they can follow it up by one of the many undoubtedly better films starring Juliette Binoche.

10.  Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (Michael Haneke, 2000)

If there’s one collaboration I’d like to see more of, it’s between Michael Haneke and Juliette Binoche. The duo worked on two films in the aughts, and both brought out the best in each other. In their first collaboration, Binoche operates very closely under Haneke’s direction, wherein there’s a lingering sense of reality to the proceedings. Perhaps it’s what makes their work together so convincing, but the two serve to elevate tension by evoking an unprecedented sense of reality to the proceedings – through Haneke’s lens and Binoche’s face, you’re wrapped up in the chaos of the film. It’s only when Binoche is off-screen does the film show signs of fatigue.

9.  Dan in Real Life (Peter Hedges, 2007)

Dan in Real Life doesn’t make any revelatory statements or attempt to bring nuance to a tired genre, but what it lacks in its writing and direction, it makes up for a strong chemistry between its lead characters. Featuring Steve Carell in the title role, Binoche could have simply played his amiable love interest and left it at that. But she instills a sense of humanity to her character, wherein you immediately grasp why Steve Carell’s character would fall for her. Her work in the film is the sort of thing that elevates the whole picture above what it is; which is the only reason a film like The Son of No One would get my attention.

8.  Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsaio-Hsien, 2007)

Hsaio-Hsien creates a very quiet landscape for actors to operate under. Flight of the Red Balloon is no different from any of his other films, in so much that it’s very deliberate and subdued. For an actress like Binoche though, she manages to capture your attention while maintaining a splintering sense of modesty. She manages to evoke a sense of quirkiness in her performance while having a firm grasp of what Hsaio-Hsien hopes to achieve in his muted tone. Like her performance in Code: Unknown, Binoche gives herself to her director’s vision, testing herself as a result, and subsequently gives yet another sincere performance.

7.  Mauvais Sang (Leos Carax, 1986)

In a pivotal role, Mauvais Sang is one of the few examples of a more submissive Juliette Binoche. While her contemporary roles have her positioned as a stronger female character, it was these smaller, passive roles that allowed audiences to embrace Binoche. Almost mouse-like in her features, Binoche tends to be shot in a manner that always has her head slightly down and eyes looking up; it is a technique employed by Leos Carax to great effect, wherein you simply melt at Binoche’s subdued and naïve nature. Future roles would allow Binoche to develop a far more dimensional character, but this is the sort of role of such restrained physicality that it’s impossible not to be moved.

6.  The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman, 1988)

The role. Juliette Binoche’s performance in The Unbearable Lightness of Being introduced her to American audiences, where she worked alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in an interesting take on Milan Kundera’s novel. The film is problematic: it’s gratingly long and questionably paced. But what makes the film work is the acting clinic on display. Both Binoche and Day-Lewis (with a dash of Lena Olin) lobby for acting space that fortunately has the room for it in its three-hour run-time. While not a success as a film, it’s an incredible example of how two actors can essentially sustain a film for a three-hour frame and make it look effortless.

5.  Summer Hours (Oliver Assasyas, 2008)

Oliver Assasyas’ Summer Hours employs Juliette Binoche in a similar manner that Hou Hsaio-Hsien did in Flight of the Red Balloon, though the world she inhabits is less meditative and more humanistic. That difference highlights a naturalistic quality that seems to emanate from Binoche – there’s a sense that she is just naturally disposed to being pleasant. And while she does relish in moments of bitchiness, the role is one that is largely calm and operates wonderfully under Assasyas’ restrained tone. It’s an interesting companion piece to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, wherein the twenty-year gap between films allows you to see how much control and restraint Binoche has developed over time.

 4.  The Lovers on the Bridge (Leos Carax, 1991)

Perhaps my favorite Binoche film, The Lovers on the Bridge is the sort of goofy romance film that relishes in its melodrama while redefining what constitutes as melodrama. While both Binoche and her co-star, Denis Lavant, give strong performances, the film is largely a directorial effort. But in Leos Carax’s odd blend of romanticism, surrealism, and extravagance, both Binoche and Lavant are forced to play characters that are oddly devoid of history; in that, it seems like their performances are largely improvisational. The whimsy of the world that Carax constructs is beautiful, but it’s Binoche and Lavant who take all that romanticism and make something out of it.

3.  Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)

If there’s a film that can be used as a marker for a turning point in Binoche’s career, it would certainly be Cache. This is the first role that I’ve seen of hers where I no longer felt she was capable of playing the sort of innocent, naive role; as she has aged, she evokes a sense of prestige to every role she has taken. Subsequently, Cache has Binoche in a world-weary role where there’s no room for nativity as she becomes the victim of surveillance. It’s one of the few films that serves to address the mental psyche of a Binoche character, wherein she slowly recedes in her mental state. She realizes that descent with sincerity that evokes sympathy and horror.

2.  Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

Part of what makes the film succeed, and what makes Binoche’s performance even more amazing, is the ambiguousness of Certified Copy’s narrative. The film’s central relationship is not clearly defined; the fact that Binoche only adds to the ambiguity and mystery of her relationship to William Shimell adds to how astute she is at controlling and restraining her performances. And as she is balancing the mystery, she engrosses us in Kiarostami’s mesmerizing dialogue, wherein she makes the most philosophical of conversations seem accessible to a layman. From her seamless integration of languages, to her weathered face as she applies make-up, Binoche gave one of her finest performances only a year ago.

1.  Three Colors: Blue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993)

There have been roles like those in Three Colors: Blue before. It’s hardly an original work; a woman is widowed and contends with the loss. But there’s an approach to how both Kieslowski and Binoche approach the character that makes for a revelatory experience. Three Colors: Blue evokes the sense of guilt and loss felt by Binoche’s character through exquisite framing, but it’s Binoche, who seems to be exercising and mastering her craft. Her face still possesses that glow of innocence, but as the film progresses, it begins to harden.  The restraint and command she has in her films of the aughts is unrefined; it’s a film that’s just as much about loss as it is about recklessness and unpredictability. The depth and layers of conflict that Kieslowski constructs for Binoche is unparallel; she responds with an equivalent performance.