Criterion Cuts: “Three Colors: Blue”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

This next movie starts off a three-week mini project as I crack open the very pretty box of Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy. For some background, if you don’t know, Kieślowski decided to create a series of three movies based around the colors of the French flag, and the ideas behind the French Revolution (liberty, equality, and fraternity). The movies themselves explore those themes in a philosophically complex, often contrary and ironic sort of way, but upon release were heralded as instant classics of cinema.

And that’s actually everything I knew going in. Getting a (moderately) pricey box set, even on sale, is a big commitment for a blind buy, but I knew that if I was going to watch them I might as well not do things half-way. So what will follow in the next three weeks is each movie discussed as I watch them, which means while Blue won’t reference the other two they might reference Blue. The movies are unrelated outside of the overarching conceptual theme, though, so that should be okay.

Blue (1993)

A couple and their young daughter are driving in the countryside one overcast day. They drive passed a young man, so busy with a wooden toy that he barely notes their passing until to one side he hears the sudden squeal and the hollow crunch that anyone who has ever heard in real life knows only occurs when a car crashes. He runs over to the car, wrapped around a tree. Thus are we introduced to Julie (Juliette Binoche), the only survivor.

Julie is the wife of a famous composer, Patrice de Courcy, who is mourned publicly on television and in the news while Julie contemplates suicide. She gets right up to the edge of sneaking into a nurses’ station in the hospital and eating a mouthful of pills, but spits them out, unable to take the step that would end her life. Yet, haunted by the memory of the family she lost, and feeling utterly unable to cope with the attention and grief of that tragedy, she continues to feel overwhelmed by a despair she can’t begin to properly process.

In nearly as dramatic an act as committing suicide, she sets all her affairs in order with her lawyer and then cuts herself off from life. She burns the work that her husband had been developing when he died (and of which she was rumored to be assisting on), sells all her possessions, and then walks out on her life. She sets up in a pretty but desolate Paris apartment. Her housewarming is burning the contents of her purse, leaving her with nothing aside from a blue chandelier that is hinted belonged to her daughter. Forcefully alone, rejecting her past for the comfort of anonymity, she moves past coping and back to a sort of numb stasis, where she seems and acts and believes she is okay, without dealing with what needs to be dealt with. The only person she retains contact with is her mother, suffering from some form of dementia, a woman who has involuntarily achieved the state of no-history that Julie is striving for.

Julie's isolation is one of the most dominant emotions in the film, creating a world we only see from a distance.

Unfortunately, the lesson she learns (and the theme of Blue) is that people can never truly be liberated from their pasts, memories, and the world around them. To exist is to have baggage, and slowly things begin to intrude upon her carefully constructed null space no matter how hard she tries to push them away. It happens, most logically and most maddeningly, with music. She begins to hear the music she and her husband were working on in moments where emotions dare to flare up, her reactions often accompanied by a swell of the music and the movie itself fading to black as her internal state is expressed in a brief snippet of song.

The intrusions become external manifestations, too, sometimes with surprising overlap. She watches, detached and uninterested, as a man gets assaulted in the street; yet when he runs into the apartment looking for somewhere to take shelter his pounding on the doors as he climbs the stairwell is the approaching crescendo of rhythmic percussion. It rises closer and closer, then passes her and fades, but it’s enough to draw her out of her apartment. Enough that a gust of wind locks her out of her apartment, and she’s forced into a position where she comes across a neighbor, another woman who works as a stripper and is generally ostracized by the rest of her neighbors.

In a cafe she recognizes her husband’s composition coming from a beggar on the street playing a recorder, though the movie takes no particular care to decide whether its more an echo of a memory or the eventuality of an idea spilling out into the world whether she wants it to or not. She seems ready to let that be that, but fate seems to intrude. Her new friend calls her to the club one night, asking for support during a particularly emotional event. While there, Julie manages to see her first news report in ages, a report that’s in part about her. It seems that her husband’s work survives, and that her husband’s former assistant Olivier (who Julie slept with one night before fleeing, in an attempt to strengthen her break from her old life and loyalties) is piecing it together, with or without the help of the now mysteriously vanished Julie.

The mobile is the one thing Julie carries with her, a single link to the past she's trying to run away from.

This is finally enough to draw Julie out of her self-imposed exile, feeling betrayed by someone she thought would respect her wishes. Olivier, in his defense, admits that he accepted the request with the intention of it bringing Julie out of hiding where he could admit that he’s hopelessly in love with her. Julie, still numbed by her emotional amputation, gently rebuffs him through simple apathy. Her only interest seems to be in hearing what Olivier has done to the only legacy left of her husband. When she hears it, she offers corrections, no longer interested in hiding her role in its composition, offering the one note she kept that is the key to unlocking his original intent with the piece.

It’s at the same time that she discovers that her husband had been having an affair, an action that so startles Julie out of the frozen image of the past she had been both keeping around and trying to ignore that curiosity draws her to meet this woman. She seems sympathetic to Julie’s motivation, but there’s an obvious complication: she’s pregnant with a child unknown at the time of Patrice’s death. The consequences of this knowledge begin to unravel the tightly wound world view Julie had been keeping throughout this entire experience, finally nudging her in the direction of building a new one, one that includes dealing with her own losses.

In a world without memory, Julie fills her time with tactile sensations: things as minor as a sugar cube in tea take on weight and significance.

For a movie that’s obstensibly about liberty, Blue presents an argument that liberty is a double-edged sword. Separation from all history and obligation might in theory be possible, but the personal sacrifice required is vast. Julie’s new life, her empty Parisian apartment and her drifting, goal-bereft life? They seem desperate, the kind of freedom only available to those who already see themselves as condemned. It’s a desolate freedom, one that nobody could truly enjoy. But on the other side, the loss of liberty, the engagement with others and the give and take of trust and obligation and emotion, brings with it the demands of investment. She can have happiness, but it comes with sadness and entanglements. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, even when talking about relating to other people.

Yet, despite the film’s final insistence that true liberty is a trap, there’s a more spiritual freedom involved in giving that up for concepts like relationships and compassion and engagement. Julie ends up relating to this woman who would have been her rival if her husband survived. She ends up contributing to the piece her husband left, crafting it into something new with the new mind and hands of Olivier working with her. It’s metaphorical of the building of a new family unit, not the same and perhaps painfully flawed, but something real and tangible. I think it’s telling that it’s only at the end, when Julie and Olivier have finished the piece, that Julie is allowed any emotional response. She stares into the camera, out a window, and cries. But even as her tears lead into a fade to black, there’s a small smile growing on her face. There’s catharsis, freedom, in suffering the demands of life.

Music dominates much of the film, and in more complex ways than the composition that the plot hinges around.

And the final shots of the film, a montage of all the people Julie touched in her retreat from life, evokes one of the themes that will recur throughout the trilogy, a concept of fate or circumstance. There’s a perception, expressed differently but no less strongly in the other films, that all of the world is connected in ways that are impossible to understand by the persons involved, but express themselves through the omniscient eye of the narrator. Julie’s retreat puts her in a place where she meets someone who draws her out a step, and puts her in a position where she discovers the next piece of the puzzle of her recovery. It’s circumstantial, to be sure, but that’s the subtlety of the narrative. What affects us is rarely obvious or chosen by us, it’s just the natural unfolding of life, as subjectively guided or random as a person viewing it wants to interpret it.

And that’s the real grace of Blue, I think, the care with which it constructs this terrible scenario of grief and how it approaches a very misguided, human attempt to subvert it. Julie’s recovery comes not from the grief of her situation, but the little sparks of moments shared between people, or between us as the viewer and her in her most private moments. It’s that humanity, the kinds of small meaningful kindnesses that in her grief she could never imagine, that end up drawing her out into a place of healing. Obvious liberty, Blue offers us, is an easy trap. It’s the ties that bind us, restrict us, that enable a greater sense of being.

What follows is the ending to the movie, shared here for the enjoyment of anyone who cares. Not sure it would have the same meaning without the movie that proceeds it, but it’s a beautiful piece of music and images almost in its own right. I include it mostly for myself, as it brings me to tears just thinking about it, to say nothing for rewatching it.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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5 Responses to Criterion Cuts: “Three Colors: Blue”

  1. “Julie’s recovery isn’t painful.” That must be a kind of humour or something. I guess some truly believe the film is about grief since an accident occurs at the beginning of the film. And of course, there’s closure, isn’t there? When one has come to terms with said grief. I saw this film when it first appeared in the early 90’s. For almost a couple of decades I thought, aha, but now I realize that I haven’t got a clue what the film is really about. There is a woman in a huge amount of unrelenting pain. She is still in the same pain in the closing scenes of the film. Oh yes. The grin. How could anyone miss the grin at the end? Yes. Kieslowski aiding us toward our conclusions and the evidence we seek. How long does it take for anyone to pick up on what he does? In my case, almost two decades. It’s the sincerity in people’s beliefs that is so disturbing. Now there is only one thing I am sure of – the film has nothing to do with death, grief or liberty.

  2. Pingback: Criterion Cuts: “Three Colors: White” | The No-Name Movie Blog

  3. Pingback: Criterion Cuts: “Three Colors: Red” | The No-Name Movie Blog

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