Copyright © 1995 Mars Hill Review 2 May 1995 · Issue No. 2: pgs 150-153.
Blue is part of a trilogy of three films by Kieslowski. These films, Blue, White, and Red are best understood in the order of their creation. The themes of liberty, equality, and fraternity are developed in the trilogy. Kieslowski's films represent the three colors of the flag of France.
Blue (1993) begins with the riveting, impersonal machinery of a car and yet we realize within minutes that we are about to be invited to the interior of a woman's world with her psyche as our universe. I found myself wanting to follow through any possible doorway Kieslowski might offer, to gain an understanding and respect of his main character, Julie (Juliette Binoche).
The vantage point of the camera is within her optic nerve as she is coming out of unconsciousness. Even here the cinematographer (Idziak) propels you into the exchange. The hospital room is viewed from within Julie's frame of reference. Her face is reflected in the eyeglasses of the physician as she is told of the death of her husband and her five year old daughter, Anna. This becomes a scene few of us have dared to imagine.
Kieslowski hints from the beginning that Julie is strong willed and she will dictate how she will respond to the tragedy of losing her family in a car wreck. Olivier, a former colleague of her husband and her potential lover, brings her a hand-held television so she can watch the broadcast of the funeral of her husband, a celebrated composer for whom the nation mourns. Olivier says nothing to reach out to her--and by the texture of the film you sense that he knows she is a private person. She is a gifted musician in her own right. As she is thrust into grief we are drawn to respect her decision to grieve in her own way. It becomes apparent that to Julie de Courcy, a successful day is a day in which her desires are never elevated, her musical talent is overlooked, and her memories are lost. On one occasion the physical pain of running her knuckles over a stone wall until they bleed is preferable to the crippling interior pain which engulfs her.
Paris is a fitting backdrop for her quest to be isolated and anonymous. It stands in contrast to the warmth of the country estate that she once shared with her husband and daughter. The maid and the gardener of the estate see their lives as intertwined with Julie's life. The maid, Marie, weeps in the pantry. When Julie finds her and asks, "Why?" the maid says, "Because you are not. I remember everything." These words capture all that Julie wants to flee. It is chilling to see her set up a financial provision for the maid and the gardener but to break every attachment to these endearing friends, storehouses of her memories of Anna and Patrick.
Much like reading the daily entry in a friend's journal we begin to "read" or surmise, her interior thoughts. We become spies, in some ways a therapeutic onlooker, watching her singular movements through the City of Lights. She reveals her loss in "codes" to decipher. Yet anyone that has been depressed can readily identify with these muted attempts to annihilate memory and anesthetize pain. The sense of wanting to live in cotton is depicted as she sells all of her belongings and moves in to an apartment, stipulating that no children be tenants of that building. She is attracted to a chandelier that is made like a wind chime of prisms of blue cut glass. We ascertain much by what she leaves behind and by the one item she clutches, sharp glass.
Julie goes to a desolate indoor pool every day to swim and bury her grief. At one point a neighbor in her apartment building finds her swimming and questions, "Are you crying?" In this moment you see Julie's ambivalence. She is caught, and yet the barrier of isolation has been her cloak of control and she is dedicated to maintaining the illusion that it is life giving. She shares a fear with her neighbor, Lucille. For the first time the camera frame relaxes and you see an opening to relationship. The frame now is a close up of Julie and Lucille.
She will armor herself not in the photographs of her husband and daughter, but as she says, in "nothing." She is somewhat falsely brave with strangers, saying often, "I do nothing" and conveying with actions that she will never let this isolation be dissolved in human warmth. The tough veneer grows transparent in a brief conversation with her senile mother. She says, "Before I was happy. I loved them and they loved me; now I have only one thing to live for--nothing. I have no home, and I don't want any--now I have one thing left to do: nothing. I don't want any memories, no friends, no love; those are all traps." You see in Julie's eyes the hope that her mother will have memories and offer a maternal shelter from the pain of her husband's death and the loss of Anna. Hope is elevated in the viewer. Here again is the universal cry of the human heart: we all ask in a unique way for a parent to hold our hearts as they did when we were children. Though she strives to be, Julie is not a foreigner to matters of the heart. She worries about the squeals of baby mice in her pantry, she notices when a landlord knicks his face shaving, she supports the head of a street musician that is on the sidewalk after a night of exposure to the cold. Similarly she is not a foreigner in this moment with her mother. She is as defenseless against madness, longing, and disappointment as any son or daughter has been since the dawn of time.
However, the crack that opens for a split second is slammed shut. The painful barrier between them is solid as the moment is lost forever. Her mother, debilitated with memory loss calls her Marie-France and shows how terribly she is mistaking her for a distant relative frozen in time.
Just as memory is frozen, real time is equally stagnant. The camera focuses on the satisfactory world of the mother, the television. You wonder if Kieslowski is communicating that an instant replay of reality is all the world of the nineties can offer. The TV is just as deadening as Julie's drowning of her pain in the blue waters of the indoor pool. The camera fixates on the TV screen as an elderly man bungee jumps. Julie de Courcy leaves the nursing home more alone than when she left the city for the lovely, shaded lawns of the facility. Once again the benefit of isolation is underscored rather than challenged. Wanting or offering an invitation to love is seen as absurd.
The movie gives the anatomy of one woman's depression. Kieslowski fashions a character that struggles with the same question Jeremiah asks when he pleads with God to be dismissed and granted anonymity (Jer. 20: 9 "But if I say, 'I will not mention him or speak any more in his name, his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.'")
Music is the medium Kieslowski uses to illustrate her struggle with memory and giftedness. She does everything to neutralize her senses yet she is a composer of passionate music. At key moments when memories are too piercing for Julie to suppress, the filmmaker assaults our senses with the flood of blue light and the fanfare of her husband's orchestrated work. The score is resplendent with passion as it was written to be performed simultaneously in twelve different cities to commemorate the unification of Europe.
At one point when she is stubbornly wanting to leave his work incomplete, she passes her finger over a page of empty bars. She touches the page beyond the last notes that he had penned--and in her mind the composing goes on. The juxtaposition of her desire to deaden her soul and her intuitive sense of which notes and instruments are needed to bring elegance to the concerto is a powerful tension in the film. Her creativity is a river that flows in spite of her feeble attempt to divert the flow. She is captured in a bind. Olivier, ultimately sets the stage to ambush her. He brings the project of completing the concerto to her and in doing so calls her out of self-imposed isolation. He says, "It was a way to make you want or not want."
Blue is a complex psychological study. It does not rush you through the disclosure of the protagonist's existential battles. The artistry of character development is equally exceptional. Juliette Binoche is gifted in her simplicity with the character of Julie. She is convincing in the subtleties of the role. She captures Julie's hollowness and detachment one moment and her devouring loneliness a moment later.
Kieslowski narrows the focus of liberty to the story of one woman. If she is going to create, she will create in the tension of memory and the tension of relationship. Reacquainting with Olivier and the raw experience of wanting to compose music heightens one form of tension and brings about resolution of another. As we can attest, wanting and grieving honestly will seem like suicide--yet there is joy in seeing the end of her suicide pact. There is a moment at the end of the film when she stands and lets a visible tear fall down over her face. You sense that she is crying for the first time over the loss of her family--and crying without shame.
Julie de Courcy originally sought freedom by extricating herself from her life story. This removal is impossible. This is most clearly seen in her decision to give her husband's name and estate to the woman he had loved that is carrying his child. She will find her life intertwined with this woman and child and have a legacy. To deny this grows more untenable as the film progresses. Her kind heart cannot ignore the people that cross her path or the notes that invade her memory. As the theme of liberty is developed it runs parallel with the theme of interdependency. On a large economic and political plane the infant countries of Europe will unify. And on the personal plane, Julie will allow her life to intersect with the lives of others. Isolation is set in contrast to unification.
Kieslowski was commissioned to direct three films--Blue, White, and Red. Each film illustrates the uncanny way that lives intersect. By depicting the daily struggles of a his characters, Kieslowski develops significant universal themes. Though the films can be viewed independently, there is enjoyment in seeing in each a blending of the themes of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The three works underscore the perplexity of the human condition--the notion that we destroy others by living strictly to serve our own purposes. The characters in the films are realistically empty and self-serving. Only one individual in the vast number of characters in all three films lives consistently with the value of supporting and sacrificially loving another person. He is the hope that amidst great sorrow and selfishness there is the ability to bless others.