FILM REVIEW: Three Colours - Blue (1993)

Three Colours - Blue (France, 1993)
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski
Starring Juliette Binoche, Benoit Regent, Emmanuelle Riva, Florence Pernel, Guillaume de Tonquedac

Stanley Kubrick said that Krzysztof Kieslowski was one of the few filmmakers who could
“dramatise ideas rather than just talking about them… allowing the audience to discover what’s really going on rather than being told. [He does] this with such dazzling skill, you never see the ideas coming and don't realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.”

Like many times before, Kubrick was spot on, and Three Colours – Blue is proof of it. For while it is not the strongest of Kieslowski’s films, nor the best instalment of the Three Colours trilogy, it is a deeply intelligent and subtle film which rewards and flatters its audience while inviting them to do the intellectual legwork. It manages to take a relatively simple story about bereavement, and preserve its beautiful simplicity while expanding upon the greater themes present in and around such events.

The most obvious feature of Blue is its beautiful cinematography. Slawomir Idziak captures a wonderful range of blue shades which reflect th
e underlying theme and tone of melancholy. As in Red, the titular colour is everywhere to show how the corresponding emotion permeates everything – for just as the red brotherly love surrounds and ultimately prevails in society, so the blue sadness is everywhere in life.

There are very few shots in which something blue does not feature, as Kieslowski shows how one tragic event can contamin
ate everything and alter our perception of reality in the unhealthiest ways. The colours range from the faded blue folders containing the compositions to the glaring ultraviolet of the swimming pool. Even the score itself is shot in an inky blue, with some interesting lens work which illuminates individual notes as the camera scrolls along.

Other visual tropes, however, do not work quite so well. There is a running motif of ‘blackouts’ throughout the film, in which Juliette Binoche’s bereaved wife remembers life before the car crash: her husband’s music starts up, the screen goes to black for a few seconds, and then returns. It’s an interesting device, hinting perhaps at the concept of synaesthesia (the confusion of senses, such as seeing colours when you hear music). But ultimately this is used too often and too close together to seem genuinely effective. Likewise there seems little purpose in the ‘worm’s eye view’ of the car which opens the film, since it isn’t referenced or repeated later like so much in Kieslowski’s work.

Running in tandem to the visual theme of melancholy, we have the central narrative theme of liberty, or more specifically emotional liberty. The film focuses more on negative freedom (the freedom from something) than on positive freedom (the freedom to be or do something), although the film suggests towards the end that the two are irrevocably intertwined.

The theme of negative liberty is mainly comm
unicated through the distance of the central character. Julie has positive freedom, insofar as she is able to do whatever she likes. But she takes no pleasure in this freedom, and her bereavement causes her to disconnect from the life she had before. She throws her husband’s most recent compositions in a skip, puts the family home up for sale, reverts to her maiden name when finding a new apartment, and tells the man she has just slept with that he will not miss her. Binoche gives a powerful performance, showing just how traumatised and distant this woman is, and in turn just how life-changing grief can be.

There is a comparison between Three Colours – Blue and Pink Floyd – The Wall, since both are visually powerful statements about self-imposed isolation, caused by deep psychological trauma. But where Pink Floyd – The Wall is terrifyingly upfront about its psychosis, with much of its content being played for shock value, Three Colours – Blue is much more internalised and minimalist. It invites you into the character’s pain, up to a certain point, and never loses sight of the all-important humanity at the heart of the story. Where Alan Parker plays on the distance to show how degenerate a man come become, Kieslowski maintains a level of intimacy: we are rebuffed by Binoche, but we never feel disrespected.

As with Pink, Julie de Courcy’s isolation is steadily tested both by chance encounters and the lasting power of her late hus
band and his friends. There is a fleeting undercurrent in the film surrounding the relationship between freedom and chance. At the beginning of the film a boy is trying to get a ball onto a stick, failing miserably with each passing attempt. He then accomplishes the trick just before the car crash happens. Similarly, Julie’s one-time lover, who is attempting to finish her husband’s final work, admits that he found her by chance as much as perseverance.

The first test which Julie undergoes is the man being beaten up in the street: she could intervene and stop it, but she reasons that it is none of her business and therefore she does nothing. In this instance her inaction would appear to damage his chances, but later on her inaction brings her friendship: in refusing to sign the landlady’s petition, the prostitute living on the floor below befriends her and looks out for her interests. Kieslowski is being deliberately equivocal with us, arguing that while the freedom to do nothing is still a big part of liberty, it is not for that reason to be readily condoned.

As the film wears on, it becomes increasingly clear that Binoche’s character is finding it hard to let go of her past. The biggest clue to this is the fact that she keeps her blue beads hanging in the new flat. The glass beads are like vessels in which the sadness and memories have become permanently trapped, but rather than being repulsive they are so much a part of her that she cannot bring herself to throw them away. Similarly, when she visits the strip club to unwittingly help her new-found friend, she begins to open up a little more, acknowledging that some good can come from her current circumstances.

So many foreign films pride themselves on being unnecessarily complex; in an attempt to part from clichés and genre conventions, they tie themselves in knots and lose their audience along the way. While it is therefore obtuse to complain about Blue being too simple, when compared to the whole trilogy this is slightly problematic. We get all the quality we associate with Kieslowski, including the ambiguous ending which fits with the remit of it being an anti-tragedy. But because its story is so stripped-down, Blue has none of the mystery which Red has, either in its story or its style, and even when it veers close to Red in its conclusion, it doesn’t pack quite the same punch.
Despite these little niggles, Three Colours – Blue is a sumptuous and stylish film, and a fine beginning to Kieslowski’s trilogy. Binoche’s performance is very impressive, matching Red’s Irène Jacob for both intrigue and charisma. Kieslowski’s direction is masterful, the film is beautiful to behold and the central themes are conveyed with artful subtlety. Most of all, the film is a reminder to all of us of the need for love and the freedom that it brings. To echo its final lines, if were have not love, we are but hollow brass.

Rating: 4/5
Verdict: Sumptuous and stylish, though not as good as Red


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