in Criterion Month

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

I had assumed that the Three Colours trilogy, being based on the ideals represented in the French flag (liberty, equality, fraternity), would be inspiring, moving stories about each of those themes. I just took that for granted, even when I read brief synopses of each film and couldn’t mentally map them with the themes very well. It wasn’t until I actually read about director Krzysztof Kieślowski that I realized what his point of view was. He grew up in Soviet Poland, and many of his films were censored and subject to forced re-shoots. By the time he was making the Three Colours films, Kieślowski had to rely on foreign investors just to keep making movies. He described himself as having “one good characteristic, I am a pessimist. I always imagine the worst. To me the future is a black hole.” And that is why I had trouble with this series.

Blue is the first of a trilogy of lightly connected stories. It stars Juliette Binoche as Julie, a French woman who, at the beginning of the film, survives a car crash that claims the lives of her husband and young daughter. When she wakes up in the hospital, she quickly resolves to kill herself, but doesn’t have the nerve to actually commit suicide when she gets her chance. Instead she decides to cut off all human connection from her life, and erase everything linking her to the way things used to be.

So the liberty Blue wishes to embody is emotional liberty, the freedom to change the course of your life for whatever reason you want. But Julie’s reinvention is troubled almost immediately because her husband was a famous composer working on a song meant to be the anthem of a united Europe following the end of the Cold War. This brings the press, who ask if the composition was finished and if it was true that Julie actually did a lot of the writing. Furthermore, Olivier (Benoît Régent), one of her late-husband’s collaborators, calls and she decides to sleep with him, and he admits he’s always loved her. Even the kid who witnessed the accident pops up, trying to return a necklace he found at the scene.

What’s worse, Julie’s new life brings new connections too! After selling her enormous house and moving to a Paris apartment, she quickly (and accidentally) befriends a neighbor, Lucille (Charlotte Véry). Lucille becomes an emotional crutch for Julie, but Julie will have to return the favor before our story’s over. Worst of all, the media found out about Julie’s husband’s mistress (Florence Pernel), so now Julie totally has to go find her and see what that’s all about. So really, there is no escape for Julie, and the only person who has true emotional liberty is her mother (Emmanuelle Riva), who has such terrible Alzheimer’s she doesn’t even recognize Julie and is confined to a nursing home.

That’s pretty dark, man. Perhaps even darker than Solaris, the other movie I saw from a cynical Soviet director this marathon. Pessimism is one thing, what bothered me was how Blue also seemed… inhuman? Julie’s story is mostly her reinventing herself as a single person and finding a way to move on after her husband, which she accomplishes by finding out more about his past. That alone is kind of weak, that a woman can’t get over her husband’s death without finding out he was cheating on her, but at least it fits with what I understand about Kieślowski’s perspective.

However, two people died in that car crash, and it sure seems like nobody is talking about the daughter. I would imagine it’s even more traumatic, even more of a life change, to lose a child. Maybe it’s just too sad for anyone to talk about? Julie beats herself up in silence plenty, and keeps a mobile in her home (the only artifact of the past in her apartment) but for me this needed to be a more explicit part of the story. Where was the rest of Julie’s family? Where were the babysitters, other parents, teachers, doctors, and everyone else that gets into your life when you’re a parent? Blue is a movie about emotional liberty, expressed as a reaction to grief, and honestly I didn’t find it that emotional a movie.

On the other hand, I did find it technically fantastic. Each film of the trilogy plays up its color visually, and I think Blue does it the best. Obviously there’s an easy connection between grief and “the blues,” but Kieślowski nonetheless found many creative ways to express this stylistically, without doing anything tacky. Most strikingly, there are the swimming scenes where, in her isolation, Julie begins visiting a pool alone, an amazingly solitary act shown beautifully. The editing also deserves acclaim, especially for the way it uses music. Julie is trying to escape her life in music, and the way is bursts into the story throughout is ingenious.

All that said, since I won’t be writing about the rest of the trilogy, let me tell you I liked the other two movies more. White is more of a dark comedy, with an amazing, terrible ending, and Red, well, I’ll let Colin tell you about Red, but it’s maybe the best. The little touches in each movie that connect them are magnificent; there’s a recurring image of an elderly person trying to recycle a bottle that changes depending on each theme and particularly I love how one scene in Blue is revisited in White. It’s a fascinating trilogy, I just found it all so at odds with my personal philosophy that it never resonated with me. I’ll have to come back in another 10 years and see if an older, bitterer version of myself likes it more.