Monday, July 25, 2011

Classic Throwback: Trois Couleurs: Bleu (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993)

Bleu is a 1993 French film written, produced and directed by Polish auteur Kzysztof Kieslowski (The Double Life of Veronique) and the first in his wonderful Trois Couleurs Trilogy, which are themed on the French revolutionary ideals. The subject of Bleu, according to Kieslowski, is ‘emotional liberty’, which replicates what the use of the colour in the French flag represents. Blue is also representative of a cold mood, one of sadness and despair, which is exactly the world that Julie (Juliet Binoche) is plummeted into following the tragedy that opens the film.

Following the beautiful opening shot; a piece of blue cellophane held aloft by a child’s hand and catching the wind, there is an automobile accident. Julie survives, and is forced to cope with the death of her husband and daughter in the accident. In hospital she watches the filmed funeral for her family, where we learn that her husband was Patrice de Courcy, a famous composer and that her daughter Anna was just five years old. After being released from the hospital, Julie empties the house her family lived in and moves to an apartment in Paris with the desire to live anonymously, alone and withdrawn from the world. She doesn’t keep any clothing or objects from her old life, except for a chandelier of blue beads that was hanging in her daughter’s room and presumably belonged to her.

Julie hangs the chandelier in the centre of her apartment, using it as a personal collection of memories. Even when she initially rips off a thread of beads, she doesn't discard them, but instead keeps them tightly grasped in her hand. Julie disassociates herself in several different ways, re-adopting her maiden name and leaving for Paris without a word to any of her friends, including Oliver (Benoit Regent), a fellow composer and colleague of her husband, and her closest comfort following the accident. She throws memories of Patrice in the trash; including the score for his last commissioned, though unfinished work; a piece celebrating European unity. It is suggested that Julie actually wrote, or co-wrote much of her husband's work, which a visiting reporter pries into, in her attempted interview. Pieces of the music haunt Julie throughout the film.

On another occasion she crunches, even devours, a lollipop, which was wrapped in the same blue cellophane we saw in the opening shot. Memories of her past, as well as the secrets her husband left behind, interrupt her emotional isolation. As much as her life crashes along with the accident, she soon realizes she can’t escape her past and decides she has no choice but to face what she is trying to escape, befriending and aiding an exotic dancer, who lives in her building, along the way. The results are surprising, profound and incredibly moving. While Bleu chronicles the grief of a young woman essentially choosing to do nothing (decorating her apartment, visiting her alzheimer's suffering mother, swimming at the local pool etc.), it remains completely captivating all the same. 

Kieslowski, if it wasn’t already evident in The Double Life of Veronique and his earlier works, has a sharp eye for capturing fleeting emotions. His perceptive screenplay and careful control of the story breathes insight into the enigmatic workings of the soul. He fills every frame with meaning, with every layer, from the striking photography to the often-rousing score, serving a purpose. The experience is enhanced by Binoche’s powerful and mesmerizing performance, which hinges on subtleties and other physical nuances in its depiction of a broken spirit slowly pulling herself back together. The heavy utilisation of the colour blue gives the film an individual identity, differentiating it from similar genre films that centre on the grieving widow and mother.

The film also elegantly probes into the grieving process. Julie is used as a vehicle to display extremes of personality (her kind and generous nature is surrendered to a rude and bitter one as a result of her grief), whole she is gifted with a strong will, fierce independence and evident talents. There are numerous scenes shot with blue filters or blue lighting, and objects as subtle as Oliver's dossier folder share the title colour. Whenever Julie thinks about the musical score she has tried to destroy, blue light often overwhelms the screen. There is quite an extraordinary effect used by Kieslowski; that of cutting to black (often from a shot of Julie’s face), playing a brief burst of music, and returning to the exact shot of Julie as she reacts or responds to the situation she was momentarily distracted from. This is an effective demonstration of the profound effect the music has on her life, and is significant, because she realises she will be unable to move on unless she comes to terms with her emotions about the piece.

The climactic montage is certainly something very special, accompanied by the wonderful score reaching a peak. That closing shot is unforgettable too. Deciding to escape from her past when dealing with loss, Julie realizes she must embrace it, when her husband’s secrets start to surface and evasion becomes impossible. She meets her husband’s mistress, and helps Olivier finish the incomplete score. The film even leaves us with some questions to ponder. Whose score will be used? Will Olivier use his own composition, or will Julie reveal her mastery, and her involvement in her husband’s compositions? Clearly a good and generous woman, evident in her gesture of giving over her house to Patrice's mistress, you know what she will decide. Kieslowski doesn’t need to show this. It is revealed throughout the film, and in that final shot. 

There is elegance to Bleu, with beautiful moments flowing together to create this emotionally resonant piece, that functions, in a way, like the musical composition that Julie writes in the latter half of the film. Just as an orchestra is comprised of multiple instruments and movements, Kieslowski’s films are constructed in much the same way, especially the way Bleu is interrelated with Blanc and Rouge. The use of the score, though it has evident links to the narrative, perfectly accompanies the tone that the film adopts, with the images representing the unpredictable movements of Julie’s life, which themselves function like a beautifully composed score. These were the feelings that the film drew from me. Having seen Rouge multiple times, it has always been my personal favourite of the trilogy, but Bleu is a glorious achievement.


  1. I had to watch this film in French class, and it was a horrible experience indeed. It is probably a wonderful film, but there was a lot of noise in class and what I managed to get out of the film was just strange and confusing.
    I'm thinking of giving it a second chance though, after reading this.

  2. You summarize Kieslowski's skill well when you say he's able to capture fleeting human emotions. I think that's a large part of the reason why Three Colors: Blue is my favorite Kieslowski film.

    I also love the way he twists the idea of freedom and crafts something profound out of the idea that freedom is its own kind of trap.

    Great review. Look forward to reading your thoughts on the rest of the trilogy.

  3. This is the first film of Kieslowski that I saw and it's still my favorite. I was devastated by the emotional aspects of the film while falling for the Slawomir Idziak's gorgeous photography. I became hooked on Kieslowski since afterwards.

  4. @Lime(tte) - I know what you mean. There have been films I have watched at high school or even university that I didn't experience as I would have expected because of the environment. I recommend giving it another shot; it's a profound, moving and I think rewarding, experience.

    @ James - Yeah, he is so observant of his protagonists, effortlessly capturing a subtle tic or an expression which relays exactly what they are feeling. Credit must be given to Juliet Binoche, but Kieslowski knows what he wants from every scene, and seemingly insignificant moments have meaning. Yeah, you're right. In Julie's attempts to escape the memories of her family, and be free from emotional contact, she struggles to cope with her internalized emotions. Look forward to watching/writing about Blanc and Rouge over the next few days.

    @ Steven - I am becoming more hooked by the day. I loved Veronique, and Rouge. The photography was certainly something special.

  5. That chandelier scene is one of my favorite shots of all time.

  6. I really need to listen out for the music score next time, how its linked to the story and visuals.

    As you say, Kieslowski fills every frame with meaning, which makes it all the more remarkable he filmed all 3 films in such a short space of time. Some claim the strain of making the trilogy ended up killing him.

    Who will review Blanc (White) or me ? ( :

  7. They were his final films weren't they? It's possible isn't it. They are each a remarkable achievement in their own right. He never wastes any time with unnecessary sequences; they all serve a purpose. I think there is a very distinct link, and I felt like her life was unfolding in much the same way as a composition. Like a progression - from the dumps to a new beginning or something.

    I just reviewed Blanc! Guess I got there a little quicker :-p