Trois couleurs: bleu

(Three Colors: Blue, France/Pol/Swiss/UK - 1993)

by Vanes Naldi & Mike Lorefice
6/9/04 (Vanes 7/01)

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Benoit Regent, Charlotte Very
Genre: Drama
Director: Krzysztof Kiewlowski
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kiewlowski & Krzysztof Piesiewicz with collaboration from Agnieszka Holland,Edward Zebrowski, Slawomir Idziak
Cinematography: Slawomir Idziak
Composer: Zbigniew Preisner
Runtime: 98 minutes

VN: The blue of liberty, the white of equality, the red of fraternity, the connection between people. This is what polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski wanted to portray with his last work, the Three Colors Trilogy. Kieslowski tried before to look at how we live life, at the fact fate, humanity, goodness, and selfishness can change rules set in stone ages before. With his masterful 10 part TV Series Dekalog, he explored the Ten Commandments in a non-religious manner, achieving a poetic, brilliant tale of different lives in Poland. With Three Colors, now extending to France and Switzerland, he attempts to show how even those simple three words can be changed by our behavior.

ML: Kieslowski initially thought the ideas of the French Revolution were linked to the colors of their flag, but what he's really working on are ideals that are at the heart of any "free" country. What Kieslowski does in his major works is try to illustrate present day meaning of age-old concepts. There is nothing simple in Kieslowski's world because there are so many forces at play. Some, like the ever-present technology are always very tangible even though rarely the focus, but many are up for debate. Kieslowski refuses to give easy answers, instead allowing the individual to call events luck, chance, destiny, individual determination, or the hand of god.

Definition is one of the biggest traps films fall into. Probably the major aspect that makes Kieslowski a genius is the way he uses cinematic technique to avoid having to come out and tell us what he's up to. Commercial dreck wants us to understand everything as it happens. As soon as a character comes on the screen we are supposed to know who they are by the capitalist signals like the way they dress and the car they drive, or through all the stereotypes (though they can't be as obvious with some of them anymore since that might offend someone and then they might not pay next time). Kieslowski's work is about connection rather than identification; everything and everyone is linked, somehow, even though they probably don't realize it. He uses association - of words, colors, sounds, anything one can sense - and he trusts his audience.

One example of Kieslowski's trusting storytelling method is in Red where we find out Auguste (a character of major importance but minor screen time) broke up with his girlfriend Karin (barely seen) through a tracking shot from Valentine bowling to a different part of the alley where only a crumpled cigarette box and broken glass remain. We know they were having problems, and from previous bits that Karin was supposed to be there and Auguste just bought that brand of cigarettes, and Kieslowski trusts that we can assemble the pieces. There are several great things about this style. First and foremost, for once the audience isn't treated like imbeciles. Also, it allows Kieslowski to pack so much more information into one film. If Kieslowski made his films with the audience are mindless sheep mentality employed by Hollyplastic, they would have to be three or four times as long and they'd just stall rather than bounce. There wouldn't be that connection that the camera movements and sound effects provide; instead he'd spend the whole time telling us how things were connected. Finally, the lack of heavy-handedness allows the films to be fresh upon repeated viewings. There's always something new to catch because he works in patterns of linking devices rather than plotversation (extremely contrived "conversations" where the characters are really just explaining the plot).

VN: Blue is about liberty, but how far are we able to go to really achieve it? The character played by Juliette Binoche tries everything to rid herself of the memory of the great tragedy she suffered, but can't still reach the point where she's free, even after she rid herself of all material possessions. The memory of everything we do is present, and even if faded, it continues to mark our days. What this film is trying to teach us is that we can't reach that liberty we might envision because one isn't living if they are free from all ties to life.

White is about equality, or again what we think represents such thing. Karol goes beyond that; his selfishness doesn't make him realize what pain he's causing to his wife. His will for equality, or rather REVENGE, totally blinds him and almost erases the love for his wife. This topic might be something useful to compare to every group in this society, looking to be "equal", but in actuality wanting something more than that.

Red is about fraternity, and how fate can totally change the life of a person. Our neighbor could be the biggest love in our life, but we are so concerned with our own routine we might never meet them. We also might meet a person 40 years older that represents everything we've been looking for, but then refuse to more forward in the relationship because of barriers.

All three films deeply portray how unpredictable, how diverse life can be, and how simple things like the search for liberty or equality can be changed by our own will. All 3 films require you to think, and reward you at the end if you do so. They can stand on their own, but if watched chronologically, even better if in a short time in between, they will give you Kieslowski's message.

ML: Kieslowski is one of the most unpredictable directors because there doesn't have to be a plot reason for a minor event to happen. More and more, the central character(s) almost seem to be on an island because their paychecks have to be justified and it would actually take some work to develop secondary characters; the background basically consists of whatever image and products the studios are selling. Kieslowski, for reasons of intimacy, also only works with a few people, but there's always the sense that actual human beings exist in the background. These usually unseen people might help define the main character, for instance in Red when Valentine takes time out to greet a passer by. They might also make the film more realistic by causing a temporary distraction that has nothing to do with the story but certainly is something people outside of the film world are constantly dealing with.

VN: This is a final tribute to filmmaking by the Polish director, and it's a required viewing for anybody interested in character studies that go beyond manipulative plots, exploring what the film medium can be and at the same time delivering worthwhile messages about life.

First of the critically acclaimed Three Colors trilogy, Blue deals with love lost and liberty, and with emotions. Julie, played by Juliette Binoche, is the wife of one of the most famous composers in the world, such an important musician he's been given the task of creating the concerto for the unification of Europe. She seemingly has everything: love, financial stability, fame & a kid. Her life seems complete, up until the point where everything disintegrates. She loses her husband Patrice (Hugues Quester) and daughter in a car accident (as always filmed in the most brutally honest way by Kieslowski, this time not as slowly as in "A Short Film About Killing", but the image is about as powerful), and suffers injuries.

ML: Kieslowski films without exploitation. The "pleasure" normally associated with movie versions of destruction and sex aren't present in this trilogy. The accident scene is more about the hitchhiker Antoine's (Yann Tregouet) minor achievement in getting the ball onto the stick. We see a little bit of it, but it's not a big "highlight" with a stunt man, fire, explosions, and the like. It's instead about the audience wondering if they would have had the accident had they picked up the hitchhiker. Kieslowski doesn't say you should or shouldn't pick them up, but rather shows how every little decision could have a major effect, even if that effect is totally unrelated to the choice at hand.

VN: Julie wakes up, and in one of the most incredible and creative scenes of filmmaking ever, the doctor asks her if she was remembers what happened. We see the doctor's face reflecting on Julie's eye, like a mirror.

ML: I've never seen anything where reflection was so prominently and effectively used as in the Three Colors Trilogy, or really Blue & Red. This shot, with a 200mm lens, is certainly the standout. Kieslowski's visual concept though is not reflection on it's own, but using glass to show the state of the characters. Glass is his perfect metaphor because it simultaneously unites and divides. You can view the world through it, but at the same time it keeps you at a distance. Blue also has another superb shot near the end where the adequate understudy composer Olivier is in two pieces, split because he's trying to finish his late master Patrice's concerto.

VN: Julie's life totally changes from the moment she learns about her tragedy. At first, she attempts to see if she's able to feel again, to experience love after such a catastrophe. She calls a friend of her husband who secretly loved her for years, and finds out she can't love anymore, can't feel attached sentimentally to someone. She decides to forget everything, to rid herself of any emotion, any material object (she puts the house on the market) or attachment to people. She doesn't want to meet any of the people who knew her, and tries to forget everything about her past life, trying to set herself free from the haunting memories of the tragedy. It's a film about liberty, but not in a political way, just individual freedom.

ML: Kieslowski vowed not to make the trilogy political, so he's removed as much of that context as possible (without removing the reality of the settings and turning it into a Hollyplastic dream world where everyone is young, rich, and supposedly attractive). Rather than exploring what the terms are supposed to mean to the nation, he's examined them on an individual level. Freedom is living without any ties, contact, responsibility, work, past, etc. "Now 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," says Julie. Julie shut herself down as soon as she woke up in the hospital. Sleeping with Olivier (Benoit Regent) was not for her, but rather to get Olivier, the one person left that is extremely interested in her, to leave her alone by ridding him of his curiosity. Notice how she stresses her lack of perfection, her mediocrity after the scene to help make sure he doesn't still envision her as something special.

Olivier takes it upon himself to get Julie to return to living, though his button pushing methods wind up making things that much more painful. The film illustrates that in order to live you must have something to live for. In turn, this shows that a certain amount of containment is necessary, the personal level difference between freedom and anarchy. The sex scene at the end is particularly good at showing the theme of containment; it's shot through glass with Julie's face pushing against it.

VN: The most remarkable aspect of Blue is the way the film is shot, with filters that emphasize the blues and (complementary) greens, great use of shadows and lighting that make everything seem like a painting. There are also several objects in blue that are highlighted beautifully by the cinematography. The visuals are stunning, but also very simple and basic, for example the great image of a sugar cube slowly absorbing coffee, the water in a swimming pool, some crystals.

ML: In the screenplay Julie's exercise was running, but cinematographer Slawomir Idziak had the idea to change it to swimming. Water fits into the film's color scheme far better, but also, similar to glass, there's another barrier. Obviously this one is more imaginary, but a couple of times we wonder if Julie isn't trying to drown herself to stay out of the world.

VN: The music is very effective, if different. Several soundtracks used for dramas try to "guide" us through the most dramatic moments by emphasizing certain aspects of the score, particular instruments and rhythms. Most of the sound we hear here isn't musical, but environmental, and when we actually hear music (from the concerto) it has a deep meaning because it's related to the dead husband's score.

ML: Kieslowski uses music to tell the story not to tell his audience what to think. The music in Blue has several meanings. It's a connection to the past Julie can't destroy, as well as a link to the future she can't shake. The homeless flute player, played by the flute player in composer Zbigniew Preisner's orchestra, mysteriously plays part of the unreleased concerto, highlighting the possibility of musicians to arrange the notes in the same way as someone else without being Vanilla Ice's.

VN: Juliette Binoche's incredible performance is one we almost didn't get. She had to turn down a cartoon role in that fake dinosaur video game/theme park ride Steven Speilberg passed off as a film (although that's nothing compared to what he passes off as a true story of historical importance) to work with a great director. In this very difficult role, the kind she's meant to play, she's perfect. Julie requires ability to convey emotions through facial expression, since dialogue and character interaction is rarely used. A lot of close ups reveal much more that what could have been done with action or dialogue, and Binoche's expression portrays Julie's condition in such a believable way that as time passes, we understand more and more how Julie is feeling.

ML: Binoche was doing an excellent job of choosing roles that tested her skills and resulted in a high quality film up to Blue (since then she worked with some of the right directors like Chantal Akerman, Andre Techine, & Patrice Leconte but Michael Haneke's Code Unknown, which like Blue is also about observation rather than plot, is her only standout film. In Blue, Binoche is not only largely silent, but she's very distant. She refuses to take the easy way out and mug for the camera, to go over the top like the Hollywood posers and do the silent scream for our sympathy.

I really enjoy Kieslowski's character studies because the characters aren't obvious; there aren't any "good" or "bad" guys in Kieslowski's films (with the possible exception of a few criminals that have minor roles). Everyone contains the characteristics that would make for either, and their situation, mood, and mindset at the time determine which come to the forefront. He does like to show the goodness in his characters, so their search tends to suppress the negative and unearth the positive because when the get past the inflicted impediments they find reason to live.

The distance Binoche keeps us at gives us a lot more freedom; we are actually allowed to decide what we think of her. The film is far more powerful for this, because like Binoche, it has to earn our emotions. We don't connect with Julie early on, like she doesn't connect with the rest of the world. It might take most of the movie for the audience to even like her, but slowly she recovers from her grief and we see positive characteristics that she had been suppressing. Certainly, this performance is far from the candy coated crap she delivered in the Lasse's dog Chocolat. It's probably the standout among the great work she did in Rendez-vous, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Lovers on the Bridge, and Damage.

VN: This is as much a character study as it is a visually stunning work, and while it isn't a conventional drama, be it for the "one woman show" Juliette puts on, the rare character interaction, the different use of music and the great detail on lighting, shadows and camera work, it's very compelling. Here, the plot's not the most important thing, Julie's mysterious drama is what we have to deal with. It's a very powerful film, but not something that will satisfy people not open to a non-conventional exploration of human character.

ML: The most memorable sequence in the film is the tight tracking shot of Julie scrapping her knuckles against a stone wall she passes. This is similar to a scene Emmanuelle Riva, who plays Julie's mother in Blue, did for Alain Resnais in his early classic Hiroshima Mon Amour. One of the things I so enjoy about Kieslowski is his integrity. Where "entertainment" would deliver something juvenile like shouting and a dogfight, Kieslowski, like Ingmar Bergman, keeps the focus on the issues the individuals are facing and only goes to an extreme in the rare instance it's necessary to emphasize the level. And while Julie's character may be incredibly destructive, she still follows a code, which keeps things on this personal level rather than taking things out on whoever is in the wrong place at the wrong time like in the "entertainment".

Though not a big spot like the knuckle scraping, I'm more impressed by a couple of more original techniques Kieslowski employs. Normally films fade to black to change scenes, showing the passage of time. Kieslowski, however, comes in and out of the same shot of Julie to signify her remembrance, showing she can't escape her history and live only in the present. In the strip club scene where Kieslowski shows Julie forming a bond with her neighbor, rather than the traditional point counterpoint cutting the scene is done through panning. The two get physically closer to one another as they are bridging their gaps emotionally, obscuring the generic "dancers" that formed the middle background. It might be part of a trilogy, and not even the best part at that, but Blue is a major work in every way.


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