‘Three Colours: Blue’ is the first film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s celebrated ‘Three Colours Trilogy’ produced in 1993 and starring Juliette Binoche in the role of ‘Julie’. The collected: ‘Three Colours: Blue’, ‘Three Colours: White’ and ‘Three Colours: Red are all said to represent the three colours of the French flag and the ideals they represent: ‘liberty’ (blue), ‘equality’ (white), and ‘friendship’ (red). ‘Three Colours: Blue’ is perhaps the most well-known of the three films and both boosted the popularity of French New Wave cinema, the career of Juliette Binoche and the work of Krzysztof Kieslowski outside of Europe. This article will begin to analyse the film in greater detail, particularly focusing in on its successes.
The plot is set in Paris, and centres on Julie’s struggle to recover from a horrific accident she was involved in that resulted in the death of her husband and a beloved young daughter. After suffering such a terrible trauma, she begins to devote the rest of her life trying to completely erase her past from her memory: from moving to Paris, to selling all the furniture and belongings that inhabited her former life with her family. At the time of his death, her husband, a famous and respected composer, was in the middle of a new musical composition written for a newly united Europe to celebrate the end of the Cold War. Consumed with grief she destroys the musical sheets on which he was working.
It is a film that is rich in textures, which is fairly typical of French cinema. It is atmospheric, multi-layered and more meaningful with every viewing. As expected from the title, the colour blue features predominantly – a significant use of mise-en-scene throughout the piece. The use of the colour in, for example, a blue chandelier or a blue-lit swimming pool, allows the director to permeate the colour’s meaning in the film, blue being a colour that connotes great sadness as well as liberty. The title also prepares the viewer to look out for the colour, which heightens its effect.
Julie’s struggle for freedom from her grief and former life is the main strand of plot. In one particular, seemingly stand-alone scene, Julie sits in a cafe and the camera shoots a tight close-up of a sugar cube absorbing coffee from her cup. It may seem insignificant, but Kieslowski’s decision to focus on this moment infers how Julie has begun to take notice of the mundane in exchange for the more pressing matters of her life such as her burgeoning grief for the loss of her family. Kieslowski expanded on this in a master class saying,
“Quite simply, we are trying to show how the heroine perceives the world…We show a close-up of a sugar cube soaking up coffee to show she is not interested in anything outside…in other people, their business, in the man who loves her and has found her after a long search. She’s not interested in anything at all- just the sugar. She concentrates on it in order to be able to discard other things.”
At four key moments in the film, Kieslowski includes moments of a fade out and a fade in back to the scene. They appear to occur when Julie experiences a breakthrough in her recovery or at a significant turning point in the plot, for example when she meets her husband’s pregnant mistress and decides to give her family home to her. Here, Julie accepts her husband’s infidelity and chooses to do good in order to learn from her past. Another fade in occurs earlier on the film whilst Julie is still in hospital recovering after the accident. A journalist comes to speak to her, wishing to talk about her husband. She refuses, unwilling to face her past. These pivotal moments in Julie’s life are pinpointed in the editing of these scenes – the viewer is shown her emotional state explicitly in this way. The editor of ‘Three Colours: Blue’ Jacques Witta elaborated by saying:
“…punctuating the film with fades in order to gives the music more space and highlight the emotions… Traditionally the fade-to-black is not used for this; traditionally it is used to show time. With a cross fade we show a short time between two moments, for a longer time we use the fade-to-black….we used the fade-to-back in the middle of a scene, to quickly create a space, a suspense…to quickly create a pause with significance.”
Music also plays an important part in the plot, as well as in the director’s creative vision. At various parts of the film, Julie’s husband’s unfinished composition plays, and it appears that despite destroying much of it herself, the memorable tune still plays on her mind. There is a particular scene where Julie is in the blue-lit swimming pool (a returning example of mise-en-scene), and she goes under water presumably to drown out the music she continues to hear, but it is no use. Another example of this is in an early sequence when Julie is stood by a piano. She hears her husband’s composition, and yet no one is sat playing the piano. She slams the piano down and the music stops, which challenges the idea of diegetic and non-diegetic sound. The final composition, completed by Julie’s husband’s business partner (who also incidentally is in love with her) is played in full at the end of the film over a montage of all the different people Julie has encountered over the course of the film, despite her attempts to isolate herself from the rest of the world. It is a touching and fitting moment in the film. As Annette Insdorf in her book ‘Double Lives’ explains:
“Since the sequence begins and ends with Julie, it seems as if all these people are now part of her. There is genuine closure as the film ends: she has completed the concerto and fulfilled the mourning…Having tried to live in “liberty” – without memory, desire, work, or commitment – she is ironically returning to love.” (p.51).
Though it is often said that this film must be watched along with the other two films in the trilogy, ‘White’ and ‘Red’ (as one Amazon reviewer joked “why buy the trousers and not the whole suit?”), I believe that ‘Three Colours: Blue’ can stand alone in its own right. If viewed solely as an interesting tale of one woman and her coping with grief, then the film is entirely satisfying and is one that can be universally appreciated. By the end of the film as we see a hint of a smile on Juliette Binoche’s face and we believe as a viewer that her character has made a turning point in her development. ‘Blue’ is a visual and arousing cinematic experience, one that deserves repeated and in-depth viewings. It is a film that people return to again and again and continues to be celebrated and talked about nearly 18 years after it was first made.
- Annette Insdorff, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski, New York: Miramax Books, 1999