Three Colors: Blue (1993)

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

You’ll find a more detailed examination of this film is in Jeffrey Overstreet’s book Through a Screen Darkly.

We can’t watch Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy the way we watch other films. The stories are told in different ways… through colors that represent virtues, feelings, memories. They’re bound together by themes of liberty, equality, and fraternity, which is what these three colors of the French flag represent. But, like all Kieslowski work, the themes shine through a glass darkly, and deserve much contemplation and discussion. The parables and poetry he crafts speak more subjectively than objectively.

Blue is a story about the journey from grief and brokenness to rebirth, told on a woman’s face. And Juliette Binoche’s face is a rare and expressive canvas. She plays Julie, the wife of the world’s “greatest living composer.” The media debate how much influence she has in her husband’s work, as she is rumored to be quite a talent herself. So when disaster strikes and her husband and daughter are killed, Julie finds herself on the run not just from the horror of what has happened, but from the media as well.

Her husband was in the days before his death working on a symphony to celebrate and encourage the unification of Europe. Now, even as she grieves, Julie must decide what to do with the unfinished composition. Her husband’s assistant Olivier pressed the matter, determined to see the work finished as completely and truly as it would have been by the composer himself. Oliver pursues her for notes, for insight. But he pursues her for more than that as well. He has been in love with her for years.

Possibilities of a new future, of finishing her husband’s work, of taking his place in the media eye… these are threatening and sickening ideas to Julie, who wants more than anything to forget. Determined to deny her own circumstances, she runs away and tries to find a new life for herself. The only things she takes with her is a small mobile of blue glass crystals, a fitting symbol of her suspended tears, her razor-edged grief, beautiful, fragile, luminescent.

But there is nowhere to run. Her husband himself seems to follow her like a ghost, in the form of an ominous musical motif, the opening notes of his symphony. Even as the symphony represents the broken Europe, it also prods toward healing, toward unification, to resolution.

And so Julie and the music become powerful metaphors for Europe as a whole. Broken by tragedy, edgy and violently angry, scarred by betrayals of the worst kind, and unable (or perhaps merely unwilling) to forge the bonds of relationship that she will need in order to move on and build a healthy future.

The box you’ll find in the video store calls Blue a “sexy mystery.” I haven’t the foggiest idea what that means. It is mysterious, and Binoche is not exactly unattractive. But this movie is something entirely different and absolutely unique. Like Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique, the more you watch it, the more you will understand it, and the more questions and possibilities present themselves to you.

This is, in my opinion, Kieslowski’s masterpiece.  Do not expect action or adventure. Kieslowski was tight-lipped on matters of faith, but he is an artist with a strong Catholic sensibility, and he understood the power of symbolism. He demonstrates this in the way he brings meaning to colors, to expressions, to something as simple as dipping a sugar cube in a cup of coffee. Everything is deliberate and reflective of everything else, and yet it flows across the screen effortlessly, and gives us the unnerving feeling that we are missing astonishing beauty and poetry in everyday life . The attentive viewer will be told a profound story of emotions, death, and resurrection, through a film of remarkably sparse dialogue and absolutely no narration. This is the director’s gift.

And the actress herself is a marvel. Juliette Binoche is my favorite actress because she can deliver complicated and fascinating performances like this one without any scenes of intense melodrama. She was not even nominated for an Oscar, although this is the most impressive performance I saw by any actor in the 90s. Her expressive, yet restrained work here fully realizes one woman’s descent into anger, agony, doubt, desperation, fear, hope, and rejuvenation.

If you watch this film once and wonder “what’s the big deal?”, don’t worry. Kieslowski’s films are like great literature. Only in second, third, and fourth viewings does an audience begin to grasp the rewards of such refined and intricate work. Treat yourself to a new kind of moviegoing experience. Spend some time with this trilogy.

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