Demystifying Three Colors: Blue

Essay by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997


For the uninitiated, Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colours Trilogy" was made back-to-back in 1993, following the success of his "Double Life of Veronique". The trilogy takes its name from the colours of the French flag and its themes from the ideals represented by those colours: blue (liberty), white (equality), and red (friendship). The trilogy was Kieslowski's last work, and is the best example of Kieslowski as Europe's finest film director.

Blue, the first of the trilogy, takes place in Paris. It stars Juliette Binoche (who can be seen as Hanna in "The English Patient") as Julie, the wife of prominent composer Patrice de Courcy. She finds herself having to deal with unwanted liberty when an automobile accident claims the lives of her husband and her daughter Anna. Her initial reaction while recovering in the hospital is to kill herself, swallowing a handful of painkillers stolen from the medicine lock-up in the hospital, but she cannot. From that point on, her energies are devoted to carrying out a 'spiritual suicide', in which she dissociates herself from the memory of her past-- she sells all the furniture and the family home, moves into a small flat in Paris, and destroys her late husband's last composition, a piece for the festival of European Unity. Along the way, she befriends Lucille, a prostitute/stripper that lives downstairs from her; falls in love with Olivier, her late husband's aide; and helps Sandrine, the mistress of her late husband who is carrying his child.

You always gotta hold on to something.
What did you say?

It is a slow-moving film, in the typical French atmospheric style-- a textured piece of cinema. It is an excellent example of what is described in "Film Art" by Bordwell and Thompson: "every component functions as part of the overall pattern that is perceived... subject matter and abstract ideas all enter in to the total system of the artwork." Given its name, "Blue", you cannot help but look for that colour in the film's carefully-sculpted scenes. Of course, the trick that Kieslowski has pulled on you is that he is forcing you to PAY ATTENTION to what is happening on the screen. And because your awareness has been heightened by this trick, you begin to notice the clever tapestry of form and function of this film.

No, I have only one thing left to do... nothing. I don't want any belongings, any memories. No friends, no love. They are all traps.

Visually, Kieslowski uses many techniques to convey the sense of loss and the internal conflict in which Julie finds herself. There are many shots from a first-person perspective; extremely tight close-ups of mundane events, such as a sugar cube slowly absorbing coffee, which convey the mind-set of catastrophic loss, where the significance of even minor events is heightened by the introspective mind. Julie is in a trance-like state, trying to shut out the world around her... so that she can break free of the pain she feels. Blue light, representing her past, creeps in around her at several points throughout the film, accompanied by her husband's music... but she fights it. Another example would be the scene where the old woman attempts to put a bottle in a recycling bin is virtually ignored by Julie as she is in one of her introspective trances. As you watch the other two films in the trilogy, this event recurs and you will notice how the different characters react to the old woman and reflect on the themes of the films.

The swimming pool which Julie frequents is an excellent metaphor for her introspection. She is always alone in the pool, bathed in a blue light, except for the scene where she speaks with Lucille. At one point, she immerses herself completely and stays underwater for as long as possible. But soon, she is compelled to come up for air-- which basically summarizes the development of her character through the film.

The most noticeable visual technique would be the odd fade-out/fade-ins that occur four times in the film. At each of the four points, Julie is in transition, deciding whether or not to push back the memories of her life before the accident, or to acknowledge them-- jumping between a painful reality and an emotionally devoid trance-like state. The first instance occurs when she is recuperating in the hospital, and the blue light is all around her. A reporter then shows up, who wants to interview her about her late husband. Julie turns down the reporter's request, denying the existence of the past. The second instance occurs when she meets a boy that found a necklace at the crash site. The boy offers to tell Julie about the moments just after the crash, but Julie does not want him to tell her. The third instance occurs when she is making the realization that her goal of liberty from the past is a hollow one-- she feels remorse having let a cat kill some baby mice that were infesting her apartment-- a necessary act. The final instance of the fade-out/fade-in would be when Julie decides to meet her late-husband's mistress. At this point, Julie is well on her way to embracing the past and to continue the legacies which she has so far ignored.

I'm fine. I have everything here. The TV... I can see the whole world.

During her search for liberty, Julie learns valuable lessons from the different people she meets. She visits her institutionalized mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's. Her mother is representative of the extreme of liberty that Julie seeks. Because of her condition, she cannot recognize Julie as her daughter-- a metaphor of the lack of meaning in relationships if there is no acknowledgment of shared history. Her mother spends her day in a hollow existence, 'seeing the world' on her television-- an illusion of freedom. She is free to see the world, but unable to interact with the images on the screen due to the lack of emotional connection with the events around her. This also ties in to the scene in the hospital at the beginning of the film, when Julie is watching the funeral of Patrice and Anna on a small television. The television, while bringing the world and a sense of liberty to the viewer, is also a distancing device that isolates. In the end, in a short scene, Julie watches her mother from outside the window of the old age home, and then turns around to begin continuing the loose-ends of her life from before the accident.

When the accident occurs, there is a boy on the roadside. He takes a necklace and then feels remorse for having taken it, so he contacts Julie to try and return it to her. Unfortunately, at this point, Julie is still on her quest for liberty, so she tells the boy to keep the necklace. However, all is not lost. Julie learns the importance of context-- nothing has meaning unless you understand the events that led up to it. The boy asks Julie about a strange comment her dying husband was making immediately after the crash. Julie then explains that he was telling a joke just before the crash and he had a habit of repeating the punchlines. The boy could not understand the context without the benefit of previous experience.

Do you have enough money, my child? To get by?
I have enough.
That's important.. you can't give up everything.

Lucille is very similar to Julie, in which she has a tortured past which she tries to liberate herself from. She is very sexually-liberated, working as a prostitute out of her apartment and as a stripper in a seedy nightclub (it's also important to note that as a matter of habit, she does not wear underwear). When she visits Julie's apartment the first time, she notices the blue crystal mobile that Julie brought with her from the family home, and remarks how she used to have one, implying an episode of catastrophic loss in her life. Because of this revelation, Julie becomes aware that she is not the only one who feels pain and isolation. Later, she calls Julie in the middle of the night because she needs her help. Lucille is apprehensive about performing on stage, because she sees her father in the audience, and cannot face him. By the time Julie arrives, her father has left, but Lucille is still grateful. Julie begins to question the path that she is on, having seen the life that Lucille leads.

The music is so beautiful, you can't destroy things like that.

In the end, Julie re-establishes the connections with her past, and like the continent upon which she resides, shifts from a state of liberty into a state of union. She gives the family home and name to Sandrine's unborn child and she completes the composition for the celebration of European Unity, she allows herself to love and be loved by Olivier.

Being the first part of a trilogy, Kieslowski attempts to inject intertextuality into films to show linkage between them. The old woman and the recycling bin is one such attempt. For those of you into cinematic Easter eggs, pay particular attention to the scene where Julie is at the courthouse, looking for Sandrine. She looks around and walks into a courtroom where a trial is in session. The audience is briefly given a glimpse of a divorce trial before a court officer kicks Julie out. Of course, this divorce trial is the opening sequence of the second film, "White". Dominique (Julie Delpy) is seen sitting with her lawyer, and Karol Karol's (Zbigniew Zamachowski) voice is heard arguing with the judge about 'equality'. The significance of this odd scene is revealed in "White", where Julie walks in on the trial in the background.

In conclusion, Kieslowski has done a masterful job combining the disparate elements of film-making together to emphasize his thesis-- cinematography, music, lighting, and dialogue. It is a film that can be viewed again and again and interpreted as many ways. Truly representative of 'film as literature'. "Blue" also serves as an excellent showcase for Juliette Binoche and is a good primer for the rest of the trilogy.


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