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Non-Review Review: Three Colours Blue

This week we’re taking a look at Krzysztof Kieślowski’s celebrated “Three Colours” Trilogy. We’ll be publishing reviews on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, so check back and sound off.

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy is generally regarded as one of the landmarks of European cinema, one of the great cinematic accomplishments of the past few decades. I find it hard to disagree. A cynical and bittersweet (and, occasionally, just bitter) look at the ideals of the French Revolution (liberty, equality and fraternity) filtered through the three colours of the French flag, Kieślowski’s three films are powerful studies of human nature, exploring the way that we react and interact in this strange and surreal world that we share with everybody else.


Before I begin discussing the first instalment, it’s worth reflecting on the trilogy as a whole. My first experience with these films came when I was in my early teens. Having recently been allowed to install a small television in my bedroom, I was beginning to develop my own tastes in cinema. I had the major channels to feed me American classics and modern blockbusters, but Channel 4 was instrumental in introducing me to the more eccentric films outside the confines of the mainstream. The channel was populated with oddball and eccentric scheduling, introducing me to American autuers like David Lynch and David Cronenberg, but also running extensive and fascinating “foreign cinema” seasons.

In hindsight, it’s hard to overestimate the role that such a channel played in developing my cinematic diet. Sure, a lot of the films went by forgotten, but it was this relatively small British broadcaster who introduced me to Japanese horror like Ringu or the Korean Oldboy, and it was through this television station that I first caught Krzysztof Kieślowski’s trilogy. As little more than a boy, I didn’t know what to make of them. I knew that they were fascinating and intricate. I knew that Kieślowski was a filmmaker of great skill. His ideas resonated with me, even if I didn’t always feel like I had the best grasp of what he was saying.

A gem...

Over the years, my appreciation for the films has deepened, though I have yet to feel fully satisfied that I’ve unwrapped the riddle at their core. Part of me doubts that I ever will. And I think that’s fascinating – it means that there’s always something to find or digest while watching the films. I came away from this recent viewing with even more questions and observations than I had from the last time I caught the three. However, though film critics are quick to throw around labels and to lavish praise on this Polish autuer, I think the most stunning thing about these three films is that they are so very accessible.

Directors and projects we typically denote as “arthouse” tend to feel noticeably fringe and a little bit alienating to casual movie-goers. My parents could never sit through Being John Malkovich, for example, and my extended family never really engaged with David Lynch’s fascinating vision. The Three Colours Trilogy is a subtle and complex work, but it never locks the viewer out. While there’s always a hint of ambiguity, it’s never too confusing. My family were able to move in and out of the films, laughing at Three Colours White or sympathising with the judge from Three Colours Red.

Hitting the right notes...

I think it’s a fascinating aspect of Kieślowski’s work, and something that tends to get overshadowed when we talk about the film as part of “great world cinema” or “great European cinema” or various other sub-groupings. They are surely all those things, but they are also just plain great cinema, and there’s no reason that the average cinema-goer should hesitate to jump into these three films, despite their impressive cinematic reputation.

Three Colours Blue is the first of these three films, and it’s a powerful introduction. Kieślowski takes the ideal of “liberty” and twists it around in the most bitter manner possible. Our lead character, Julie, survives a car crash that kills her husband and her daughter, and struggles to deal with the grief and isolation in her own way. She is, in the most disturbing manner possible, “free.” Kieślowski examines the process of grief, and how our reactions to loss are seldom as easy or as predictable as we’d like to believe they are. Julie, for all her suffering and loss, only cries twice during the film.

Why so blue?

Instead, she spends the movie isolated. “Freedom”, by its very nature, must mean a complete lack of any reliance or dependence on anybody else. It’s interesting that the blue on the French flag is positioned opposite the red, never touching – because the concepts of “liberty” and “fraternity” seem almost diametrically opposed. It’s something that the director plays with in his first and third films, and perhaps why the middle instalment feels quite so strange. Julie isolates herself completely. She cuts herself off from her friends, plans to sell her belongings, leaves the man who seems to truly care for her.

Julie moves into an anonymous apartment building, and doesn’t want to know anything of her neighbours. When one calls around looking for her to sign a petition to evict a “loose woman” from the block, Julie merely remarks, “I don’t want to get involved.” She’s completely free in all sense of the word. No obligations, no responsibilities, no connections. A lowly street musician advises her, “You’ve always got to hold on to something.”However, to do that would make her vulnerable and dependent, trapped and captive to that thing she needs to hold on to.

The sweetest a Kieślowski movie is likely to get...

The film treats Julie’s loss almost as a divorce. When asked for her name, she states, “Juliette Vignon. I’m going back to my maiden name.” She’s her own person. Her only acquaintance in the whole world notes that Julie is going through something akin to a very painful break-up. “Something must have happened to you,” she observes. “You’re not the type somebody dumps.” The movie ends with Julie meeting the other woman in her husband’s life, and seeing that her husband will continue on through the baby growing in his mistress’ belly. In a scene that establishes it as pure French cinema, the pregnant woman is puffing a cigarette while breaking the news.

Julie wants to feel. “Why are you crying?” she asks a maid. “Because you’re not,” the maid explains. Julie tries everything. She makes love with her husband’s partner. She destroys anything she holds dear, burning mementos and selling her property. She drags her hand along a stone wall, bloodying the knuckles. She just wants to get past the big empty numbness that she feels at her core. At her new favourite café, Julie’s “usual”is coffee and ice cream, a strange mixture of hot and cold she mixes together to cancel out either extreme sensation.

Hardly light entertainment...

Kieślowski has stated that the actual “three colours” theme is incidental, that it was only inserted into the trilogy of planned films when the money came from French financiers. He stated, in an interview with the Oxford Union, that the films would probably have turned out the same with or without the theme. If this is so, it demonstrates his skilled craftsmanship. The themes are perfectly integrated with the films, and I think Three Colours Blue is perhaps the best example – although I’d argue that Three Colours Red is the best-looking of the three films (and the best overall), Three Colours Blue has the most perfect synergy going one.

Kieślowski was a master of symbolism and imagery, a filmmaker who took the utmost care to make sure everything was captured perfectly. It’s no coincidence that Stanley Kubrick was among his most ardent fans, and there’s a wonderful story about the director looking for the perfect brand of sugar to absorb the right amount of coffee in the right time for a single shot. Here, the director beautifully uses blue to underscore Julie’s heartbreak and her bitter “liberty.”

That sinking feeling...

Blue is the sky, big and vast and empty. Blue is the sea, deep and bottomless. We’re treated, on television, to images of skydivers falling into a seemingly endless blue, or a person on tightrope trying not to get lost in the big empty void. It’s the perfect illustration of Julie’s central struggle – fighting not to fall into that big empty nothingness, and to stay on the tightrope with nothing but blue all around here. The films look stunning, and it’s hard to find three films that look so elegantly fantastic.

I think there’s something to be said for Kieślowski’s wonderful shot composition. So much of the movie is big and vast and strangely silent, demonstrating the director’s confidence. We don’t witness the opening car crash, but we see the aftermath: the car looks tiny at the bottom of the screen, against the big and seemingly eternal blue sky. Kieślowski beautifully contrasts these big sweeping shots with intimate closeups (on sheets of music or on a stray feather), in many cases creating a sense that infinity can be seen in the background of these impressive little moments. At certain points, as the emptiness threatens to consume Julie, Kieślowski fades the screen out for a second, a wonderfully old-school technique that the director uses well.

Everything just went out the window...

There are other nice touches. The soundtrack feels incomplete, as the notes and chords from her husband’s unfinished symphony seem to haunt and overwhelm her. In one absolutely lovely sequence, Julie herself directs the soundtrack, and we actually ear the music she is composing inside her head. It’s a wonderful little moment that perfectly illustrates the depth of Kieślowski’s skill. It’s absolutely stunning.

There’s a wonderful irony in the composition at the centre of Kieślowski’s film, perfectly capturing his wry and slightly bitter sense of humour. It’s fascinating to watch Julie attempt to compose a symphony for “the Concert for the Unification of Europe”, when the people populating the film can’t even seem to interact properly. After all, if simple people can’t relate to one another, what chance do entire nations have of doing the same?

A rocky road to recovery...

And, of course, the movie teases us with ambiguities. Why didn’t Julie attend the funeral? Was it that she was unable to, or was it simply that she chose not to? Does the film suggest to us that Julie was actually responsible for her husband’s lauded work, and simply toiled away with any credit? There are never really any answers, just questions – but I don’t mind. They’re fascinating to digest, and the movie gives us enough to chew as we try to work out our own answers.

Juliette Binoche gives an absolutely stunning performance as Julie, a woman trying to cope with all the stuff that has happened to her. It’s a stunning central performance – as much as Kieślowski’s skill and craft went into the film, Juliette is the character who must hold it together. She doesn’t have the benefit of the strong supporting cast that the other two films have, due to the nature of her character. I think she does an absolutely stunning job, and it’s perhaps appropriate that she’s the actress from the trilogy who made the biggest impression afterwards.

She's hot and she's cold...

Three Colours Blue is a strong start, and I’d argue that it would be a classic film on its own merits. However, the fact that the rest of the trilogy still lies ahead makes it even more fascinating and compelling.

Read our reviews of the complete Three Colours trilogy:

6 Responses

  1. Although I’ve definitely heard of this trilogy, but I’ve always assumed that they were too “artsy” for me to get into them. If Being John Malkovich is considered alienating compared to Three Colours Blue, I guess I’ll give them a shot.

  2. Well worth a shot. The opening and closing films in the trilogy are just incredible. The first is probably the best made of the three, but the third just so perfectly captures the key themes. And it actually has an ending that could be construed as “happy”, which is always a plus – given how surprisingly cynical and depressing the films can be.

    Highly recommended.

  3. Reading this again has bumped the box set up to the top of my To Watch list, studied these in Uni and the story behind Kieślowski’s vision and development of the films (in conjunction with whoever would pay) was fascinating. He had once said that if a German person bought in, he would call them Black, Red and Gold. I remember liking White the most of the three, as it was more a black comedy, but all films were solid in their own right.

    Also, Amen to saluting Channel 4 – and now Film4 – for still showing a great variety of movies

    • Interesting – we had the opposite reaction to the three. I liked White least of the three by a considerable margin. It just seemed a bit… “on the nose”, and I don’t think Karol and Dominique ever seemed as interesting as the other leads in the two bookending films.

  4. The screen fades to black marked specific turning points of the film – what turning points I will leave you to ponder about.

    The sugar cube explanation given on the DVD bonus section is Kieslowski’s dry sense of humour directed to the pretentious film critic who might sup it up. In reality, Kieslowski did one, perhaps two takes, for a scene. This came as a shock to Binoche because of the way she had gotten used to being directed by other directors.

    “Over the years, my appreciation for the films has deepened, though I have yet to feel fully satisfied that I’ve unwrapped the riddle at their core.” I barely have scratched the surface of the trilogy after nearly 18 years, let alone unwrapped the riddle at their core. If you find out, let me know.

    “We don’t witness the opening car crash.”
    Why on earth would anyone want to see the car crash? What possible knowledge would that add to one’s understanding of the film? We see a sneak shot of leaking brake fluid but… Kieslowski never implied that the brakes failed. He simply provided the audience with an inside view which may or may not be connected to the crash.

    “Why didn’t Julie attend the funeral?”
    For the same reason as the hundreds of other reasons shown throughout this film – emotional detachment. After all, the film is about lack of liberty, not liberty.

    Alexandre Fabbri

    • Thanks Alexandre. I’ll defer to your knowledge on the cube.

      You seem to have picked up on some of my observations as criticisms. The remark about the car crash wasn’t an accusation, just an observation. We see the build-up to it in spine-chilling detail, with those beautiful shots of the leak. We don’t see the crash, merely the prelude and aftermath. As you said, detachment and disassociation. We don’t see the horror, but hear about it second hand – putting a layer between us and the events, like Julie watching the funeral on television. Of course, this assumes it was the brake fluid. Cause and effect would suggest that it was, but – as I’ll discuss in Red – cause and effect might be a bit different here than in the real world.

      As you said, you could watch for fifteen years and find something new each time. Although I never saw the film as lack of liberty, but a twisted version of it. Julie is detached and independent. Her life is, in theory, more free than it ever was. No obligations, no commitments. She sells the property, moves out of the family home. Liquidates everything so there’s no attachments. And the irony is that, without these ties, she still traps herself – she’s numb and isolate, and can’t grieve properly, because that would involve acknowledging how dependent she is.

      It’s freedom. In the most horrible manner possible. Like equality in the next film – everyone is entitled to be equally unhappy.

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