Criterion Project #28: THREE COLORS – BLUE (1993)

Three Colors: Blue

Spine #588

Year: 1993

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

It’s been quite some time since I revisited the work of the great Krzysztof Kieślowski, and this is just the tip of the iceberg in my journey through his Criterion Collection titles (I’m still trying to figure how I’m going to tackle The Dekalog). I have to admit, I did not have the clearest recollection of his Colors trilogy, save for the tonal shift in Three Colors: White, so it was a delight to be able to wade back in again. Perhaps “delight” is the wrong word when discussing this film, but it’s a stunning achievement nonetheless.

Even without seeing it, you can probably ascertain the tone and theme of a work titled Blue. A young woman, Julie (the fantastic Juliette Binoche), loses her husband, Patrice, a world renowned musician and composer, and 5-year-old daughter in a devastating car accident. She wakes up in a hospital to the news that she’s lost the two people closest to her and begins the arduous process of continuing life with this gaping void.

The plot is less important, I’d say, than the emotional journey Julie and we, the viewer, must take. We’re immediately met with tragedy and sorrow, having no knowledge of what life was like for this family prior to the catastrophe at the beginning of the film. We’ll get bits and pieces of that throughout the film, though we’re never given a complete picture. From there we, as well as Julie, will have to piece her life together, both past and future.

I can only imagine the pain and guilt one feels from surviving an accident when those she loved the most did not. After a failed suicide attempt, Julie looks to remove the past from her future by selling their home, leaving friends behind, and ridding herself of all but a select few items. Before she leaves she severs ties with her closest friend, Olivier, a colleague of Patrice’s, having him first confess his secret love for her and then leaving him for Paris.

Once there she goes about adjusting to a new life. She rents an apartment and lives a solitary existence, trying to leave her pain in the past but scarcely able to do so. Kieślowski often employs colors and objects to indicate associations, most frequently, as you might expect, the color blue. One of the few possessions Julie takes with her is a lighted, blue mobile. At first she looks at the piece in anger, tearing off some of the blue beads upon realizing is was not taken away by the house staff as they cleared out the home, per her request. But when she moves into the city, the mobile becomes the centerpiece of her new home and new life, and a recurring motif for the visual language.

From this point on it ceases to be merely an object of anger. It becomes a mirror for Julie, at different times bearing her grief, sorrow, and/or tranquility within its cobalt beads. To me, colors are as much a character in the film as she is, often seizing the moment and casting an enchantment over the scene. We see Julie frequently seeking solace from her emotional state in the community pool at her new residence, which bears an engulfing ultramarine hue that seems to swallow her whole.

Much the same way, Kieślowski masterfully uses reflections and light refraction to convey Julie’s disjointed and fractured life. The first time we see Julie after the fatal accident she’s lying in a hospital bed, bruised and battered. When she opens her eye we see the warped, distorted image of the hospitalist reflected in her eye as he imparts the news that her family is dead and her life is unalterably changed. It’s such an incredibly dynamic use of visuals to complement the diegesis. Not only do we hear the harrowing news of the death of her loved ones, but we also get the skewed image of the person passing on the knowledge that she survived when the others did not.

Another example occurs right at the very beginning. On their doomed car ride, Julie’s daughter, Anna, is gazing out the rear window of the car as they pass street lights through a city tunnel. The curvature of the glass renders the lights blurry and unusually shaped, possibly denoting how peering backward, through life or otherwise, isn’t as clear as we expect it to be. In this way it takes on a thematic use. Whenever Julie looks back at her life before the tragedy, she finds out how distorted it really is.

On the flip side, visual tricks are used with sound and imagery as it pertains to music. Julie is hinted at being the real artist behind her husband’s compositions, which turns out to be one of the few connections they truly had. More than once we see Julie reading sheet music of an unfinished work that was intended to be a symbol of the unification of Europe. As her eyes scan over the page we hear the notes playing in her mind, with only the center of the frame in clear and legible focus, leaving the edges completely blurred until her gaze moves over it briefly. The focus given to the notes she sees and non-diegetic music we hear is, I can only ascertain, purposefully shown to denote its importance and power for Julie. She only maintains one friendship from her past life, that of Olivier, who, like music, is a representative of a connection to her late husband.

But the film also uses visual cues to indicate the broken pieces of Julie’s life. Several scenes use fractured light to keep us keyed in to this aspect. There’s a scene where Julie hears a ruckus outside her apartment and a stranger bangs on the door looking for help. She keeps quiet (a moment eerily echoed by Binoche a few years later in Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown) but after they have gone, she steps outside her door to see if anyone is there. No one answers, and before she can re-enter the apartment the door closes behind her and she finds herself locked out for the night. Accepting this inconvenience rather well, she sits down on the stairs outside her door. At this moment there are glimmers of light dancing around her face, whether it’s light reflected off a puddle or a street lamp refracted through a frosted window. There’s a separation of something that was once whole, like a ray of light. I see this as a way of symbolizing her fragmented life. There are many similar moments throughout the film keeping this thread present.

These touches really place the viewer in Julie’s mind in a brilliant way. The film fuses sound, light, and color to engulf your senses into her world, and that of Kieślowski. He’s in complete control, even if Julie’s isn’t. He often accompanies these flourishes with camera work to match the emotional intensity. Many shots linger on colors and optical effects, or draw you in with earnest close-ups such as the shot of Julie’s eye when the doctor is informing her of the death of her family. You feel that sting so much more because of the extremeness of the image and the distortion reflected off of her naked eye.

Honestly, I’m surprised I was able to communicate even this much about the film. It emanates a feeling that is difficult to put into words. I sat down to write this and all I could think of were images burned into my brain and the response they generated. Krzysztof Kieślowski was a singular filmmaker and as I stated at the beginning, I’m greatly anticipating revisiting the rest of his films.

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