The thematic ideas and inspirations that sparked Three Colors: Blue (1993), though typically ambitious in scope, seem sketchy when compared to the intense experience of watching this exquisite film. We know that Krzysztof Kie?lowski’s Three Colors trilogy corresponds to the three hues of the French tricolor, and also to the French national principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and that Blue refers, however loosely, to liberty. It’s also generally said that Blue is an antitragedy, just as White is an anticomedy and Red an antiromance. Yet so manifold and bittersweet are the ironies at work in Blue that these framing ideas do little to help us face its creative challenge, which is to understand and empathize with someone to whom we might otherwise feel no connection—someone we might even envy or resent—a relatively wealthy woman blessed with talent and good looks, as she freezes out everyone she knows.
Blue’s idea of freedom is willfully perverse. Julie de Courcy (Juliette Binoche), at the peak of her powers, seeks to erase all trace of her former life with her classical composer husband and their daughter, both of whom are killed in a car crash that she survives in the film’s opening minutes. That former life is eloquently evoked in just a couple of images of Julie’s daughter: the child’s hand holding a sheet of creased blue tinsel out of the car window; a medium shot of the girl looking curiously out the back window as the car goes through a tunnel.
Julie’s subsequent attempt at self-negation suggests more than one interpretation. Unable to go through with suicide, she wants to disengage, to be cold, to isolate herself in a low-key existence. Since she can’t physically do away with herself, she tries to do so psychologically, to annihilate her persona by removing all the props and trappings that made her who she was. Kie?lowski and coscreenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz at first present this fragile new life as a kind of limbo, a space in which Julie can limit her world to the bare necessities. But the way her new existence is depicted is full of the ambiguities typical of this director-screenwriter pairing. On the one hand, Julie’s modishly spare apartment is a pleasant refuge, but in the context of the film’s moral questions about love and what binds people together materially, it can also be seen as a manifestation of contemporary solipsism, Kie?lowski’s critique of a lifestyle often expounded in 1990s popular culture as a kind of freedom—that of the “Me Generation.”
Another layer of, perhaps unconscious, social critique arises out of the contradictions of Julie’s decision. The new identity that she adopts so aggressively—albeit while striving not to be cruel—can be seen as an embodiment of a certain idea of feminism, of a desire to no longer be dependent on even the concept of a male partner, the maternal instinct, or the family unit, things that are now ashes in her mouth. In the context of this film, Kie?lowski seems to be frowning upon Julie’s decisive isolationism, one that may also be linked to an older, bohemian idea of how artists should live. And this points to a key question posed by the film: Who really was the artist of the couple? Is Julie, as the film hints many times, the actual composer of the music we hear, or was she at least an equal partner in its creation?
What this repositioning of Julie’s injured idea of self does for Blue is provide room for all these speculations about who or what she may become, and let us empathize with her self-transformation, because we, too, are freed, to some extent, of the baggage of who she was. The film binds itself to her. She still looks every inch the creative consort of a successful artist, but we soon see with what detailed thoroughness this young woman sloughs off the worldly rewards of her husband’s fame, as if she seeks some spiritual solace in being ordinary—and in the process, the film brings her closer to the audience.
But the first thing from her past that Julie can’t escape is in her head. In the most ironic sense of the cliché, she must face the music. It’s when a snooping journalist greets Julie at the hospital where she’s recovering that she hears the first burst of a loud orchestral movement that momentarily shuts out everything else—it is a section, we discover, of a concerto to commemorate the reunification of Europe. Yet this is a kind of shutting-out she doesn’t want, one that transports her back to the creativity that links her to her dead family. The music strikes at key moments throughout the film, suffusing Julie in blue light. Not even holding her breath underwater can drown it out.
Binoche gives a brilliant minimalist performance, putting much of herself into it, and indeed, she and Julie seem to have much in common. Blue came at a pivotal moment in Binoche’s career. The daughter of an actress and a sculptor, she first made her mark at the age of twenty-two, as the muse of the notoriously difficult French auteur Leos Carax, starring in his debut film, Mauvais sang (1986). Her breakthrough international success came opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). By the time she’d illuminated Carax’s hubristic romantic epic Les amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) with her life-affirming presence, she was the hottest art-house actress on the scene. Then beauty and fame took her down some blind alleys: Peter Kosminsky’s rather chocolate-box production of Wuthering Heights and Louis Malle’s faintly tawdry Damage (both 1992). Blue came along at precisely the right moment for her. It restored her in the eyes of her art-house fans, who recognized that she was now a formidable actress as well as a screen icon.
Kie?lowski encouraged Binoche to wear her own clothes, to be the chic woman-about-Paris that she was in 1993: transcendently beautiful—pale, dark-haired, feminine yet slightly boyish—intelligent, self-possessed, pragmatic. We can soon tell that her Julie doesn’t have the ruthlessness to carry through her plan to completion—the sight in her flat of mice with babies forces her to borrow a cat from a neighbor, but she can’t watch the consequences. Julie’s flaw, in this context, is her conscience. She is not, after all, so invulnerable that she can do without help. And this is perhaps the script’s turning point, the moment when Julie reluctantly has to break the carapace she has created and face humanity again, the moment when some sense of community becomes necessary to her. This change is reinforced when another neighbor, Lucille—who cleaned up for her after the cat had done its work—panicked by her father’s visit to the club where she works as a stripper, asks Julie to come and see her.
I once described Julie as an anti–femme fatale, by which I meant that she destroys the memory of her man after the fact of his existence, and she remains fairly enigmatic despite the film’s focus on her. We assume she was a good wife and mother, and one of the few clear things we learn about her husband is what he thought of her: “That you are good and generous,” she is told. “That’s what you want to be. People can always count on you.” The other telling detail about him is that he liked to repeat the punch lines of jokes. This is a typical barbed bouquet from Kie?lowski and Piesiewicz—the husband told jokes, so maybe he was a fun guy; but he repeated the punch lines, so maybe he was a pedant.
One thing that seems clearer in retrospect about the films Kie?lowski and Piesiewicz made together—from No End (1985) onward to Kie?lowski’s final film, Red (1994)—is how immersed in legal issues they are. Piesiewicz was a lawyer, and his forensic approach to moral dilemmas seems as powerful a force in the trilogy as Kie?lowski’s humanist pessimism (though both, finally, are subordinated to an aesthetic that some have dubbed the “agnostic sublime”—see the ending described below). Some of the central questions at the heart of Blue are what constitutes a person’s property and what is the ethical way to disburse the trappings of a life now ended. Julie, the widow, is clear that she wants none of the actual physical property, but when she uncovers an unknown part of her husband’s existence (one connected obliquely to the law—it causes her to blunder briefly into a courtroom scene from 1993’s White), she feels guilty that she failed to notice any hint of her husband’s secret life. It is this discovery that brings her the clarity of vision about her life that she had lost and tried to regain by stripping everything away. Knowing that her husband was not exactly who he seemed to be allows her to be less tough on who she was herself. This is the moment of recognition, amplified by all the earlier, unavoidable encounters with people who broke through her shield—including the ones with her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother (played by Emmanuelle Riva), whose mind has already erased Julie, mocking her attempts at self-negation. Instead of freeing herself, Julie had imprisoned herself. Now she is able to reclaim her past life, including control of the property (much of which she’ll give away), and break out of her overwhelming grief.
Kie?lowski is the master of the telling detail, and seeing Blue again makes me think that he is one of the great originators of what has become the international style of so many films shown at festivals, films that favor low-key acting, an oblique approach to subject matter and scenes, the off-kilter photographic image, and patience with passing time. What his imitators’ work often seems to lack, however, is the lyrical intensity we see in Blue’s mise-en-scène, and the adroit use of images suggestive of the inner life. The prologue of the few moments leading to the car crash is itself a master class in pared-down visual storytelling, but its very austerity leads us easily into Julie’s reduced world, in which breath on a feather, or the distorted reflection of a white-coated physician in her eye, simultaneously describes her fragility and the diminished field of her awareness.
Some critics feel that the later phase of Kie?lowski’s work, from The Double Life of Véronique (1991) on, is too glossy and politically vague when compared with his Polish work, but what Blue and the rest of the trilogy have that the earlier films lack is a much greater ambition to tackle the enormities of the day—the unification of Europe being the most obvious idea put under the microscope. In 2002, I suggested to readers of Sight & Sound that Blue should be considered a serious candidate for one of the top ten films of all time in a poll the magazine conducts every ten years. Though I conceded that Kie?lowski’s film might seem of modest reach when set beside, say, Citizen Kane or Battleship Potemkin, the objection disappeared for me both in the context of the trilogy as a whole and when I considered how rich a portrait of spiritual survival in the contemporary world Blue was painting. To me, the film seemed, and still seems, to examine the feminist rallying cry “The personal is political” with greater scope and sensitivity than any other. And its rich ambiguities leave enough room for us to see that the price of freedom depends on what kind of freedom you want.
But nothing in a Kie?lowski film is ever straightforward, and Blue’s ending gives us one of the great examples in cinema of that supposedly masculine idea of woman’s unfathomability, the Gioconda smile. In a montage seen while the completed concerto’s choral ending plays, with lyrics drawn from Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we are reminded of the people who have crossed Julie’s path—Antoine (the hitchhiker who witnessed the accident), Lucille, Julie’s mother—who constitute the community she can’t shake off. At the very end, Julie is in tears, but right at the last moment, the corners of her mouth turn a tiny bit upward. Binoche says she smuggled the smile past Kie?lowski, so in this case, the source of the image may be female after all. In any case, Julie’s smile does not necessarily mean that Blue’s ending is “happy” in a conventional sense, for surely the prime lesson of Kie?lowski’s film is the one so difficult for the Me Generation to swallow. It is that absolute freedom and love are opposites.
Nick James is the editor of Sight & Sound magazine. His book on Michael Mann’s Heat was published in 2002. He has written for many publications and is a frequent contributor to the Observer.