Thursday, February 9, 2012

Modern Film Classics: Kieślowski’s “Three Colors: Blue”

"Freedom! Horrible, horrible freedom!” – The Simpsons

There is an accident. We see this not from the driver’s or passengers’ point of view. We see this in longshot, as if we were another car passing by it just moments before it happened, and the sight appears in our rear-view mirror. Just a sound; just enough to alarm; just not enough to betray the extent of the damage.

Julie de Courcy (Juliette Binoche) is the lone survivor of the crash that opens Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1993 film Three Colors: Blue. She is the wife of an accomplished classical music composer, arguably the most important in all of France. The accident kills him and their young daughter. As Julie recovers in the hospital, we find out that the media have been following her husband for months while he has been carrying on an affair, that the marriage was in trouble, and that the accident dealt Julie such a crushing blow that she was still in the hospital recuperating while the lavish public funeral for her family took place. She breaks into the hospital pharmacy, bent on killing herself with a lethal overdose, but is unsuccessful. She is eventually released and is left to deal with her grief while in an emotional stalemate. How paralyzed by grief is she? When Julie sees their faithful housekeeper upon her return, and asks her why she’s crying, the housekeeper replies, “Because you’re not”.

This is merely the first ten minutes or so of Blue. We follow Julie as she sizes up her life, contemplates her surroundings, and slowly builds a new life for herself, one away from the public eye. Julie returns to her maiden name, sells her home and belongings, provides for the housekeeper, and sets up in a small apartment in a nondescript area of Paris to try and live her life peacefully. She is quietly hostile and closed off to reporters asking her invasive questions about her emotional state. Thinking she could leave her past behind, there is but one relic from her past that haunts her: her husband’s final work, a symphony dedicated to the reunification of Europe under the EU banner, and it’s not yet complete. Should Julie carry on with her life, or should she honour her husband’s legacy by letting the piece play? Julie is herself a trained musical composer and could work on it.

To fully understand Kieślowski's film, one must look at the double meanings behind its title. The first of the three films in the celebrated Three Colors Trilogy,  Kieślowski intended the film to explore the colours of the French flag. Blue represents liberty and freedom, and here we see freedom in its cruelest form. Julie has been cruelly severed from everything in her life, but she wasn’t by any means shackled or burdened by her family. She loved her husband and child, and this notion of “freedom”, by  Kieślowski's interpretation, treats it in an abstract form, showing a discomfit between its conceptual manifestation and real, palpable tragedy. What it really connotes is choice and what one can do when there are no longer any responsibilities. Anyone who has lost a loved one, or even a job, can attest that its loss or grief can be frightening and bewildering.

And what is one to do with this new freedom? Julie, freshly set up in Paris, decides to visit a local café and have a coffee with ice cream in the middle of the afternoon. Why? Because she can. She sees her husband’s best friend and offers him her body, not because she loves him, but because she knows he has long desired her and she is “free” to give herself to him. Julie stops seeing him after this encounter, and she appears not to have enjoyed it. She also finds her husband’s mistress, just for closure. You know in an American film it would end in a catfight or some sort of positive or negative affirmation, but you won’t find that here. All that is left are choices and measured responses. Is this what freedom means?  Kieślowski makes a cold application of the concept to everyday life, and then he asks, with all this freedom, what is one to do? What gives meaning, weight and dignity to our choices? Julie makes her choices accordingly.

The second meaning behind the title is the mood itself. This is a film awash in grief, and is about the grieving process itself. The colour scheme, too, is immersed in blue, calming the senses (or is that drowning emotions?), measuring out a narrative pace like a cinematic metronome. Although it is not delineated as such, you can tell – without explicit or at the very least, obvious – telltale signs that we are witness to the key emotional stages Julie experiences. Parts of the film itself can be akin to classical depression, or the stage where one is beyond grief and is simply in that place where nothing can be felt or experienced (a topic also explored in Lars von Trier’s extraordinary film Melancholia). Julie appears to be going through the motions in her life, attaching herself to no affiliation, creed or religion, casting herself adrift and seeing if she feels anything. Some people grieve through a long therapeutic process, recovering by engaging others. Julie hurts and heals alone.

This doesn’t mean that  Kieślowski has made a depressing film. As Roger Ebert always says, a bad movie is depressing and no great film, no matter how grim its topic, could ever be considered depressing. This is a meditation, a contemplation of things past, of how to perceive the present, and how to shape the future. Not much happens by way of conventional narrative in Blue, exactly. Everything is internal and yet there is considerable depth in Binoche’s accomplished performance that she can convey everything without saying much. Sometimes you can tell more about a person’s emotions or the way they think by reading their face, or hearing the smallest intonation in their voices or the way they say something. They betray everything.

Kieślowski's Blue is the first part of his magnificent Three Colours trilogy. It is available for streaming on Netflix. I look forward to sharing my thoughts on the next two parts of the trilogy with you in due course.