DVD Review Of Blue
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/28/06
Krzysztof Kieslowski was one of the more interesting filmmakers of the last quarter century, and the centerpiece of his claim to greatness is the Three Colors (Trois Couleurs) trilogy of films that he wrote and directed in the early to mid-1990s, filming them all at the same time. Blue, White, and Red represent the three colors of the French flag, and symbolize the three virtues of liberty, equality, and fraternity respectively. Blue (Bleu) is the first film in the series, and was released in 1993. The color blue also resonates for its associations with depression and coldness, that are well demonstrated in the film. It was deserving of the many award sit garnered, such as winning Best Film at the Venice Film Festival and the Goya Awards, as well as star Juliette Binoche (who looks like a prettier Julia Roberts, as well as a better actress) winning Best Actress at Venice and the Cesar Awards.
Yet, Kieslowski made a wise choice to depoliticize his films, for the freedom that Blue deals with is not political but personal and emotional- a hoped for freedom from memories, and not the cheap sort that Hollywood would foist, such as a woman running away from an abusive boyfriend. If only more artists (think Latin American writers) could learn that political statements can be made slyly and subtly and wield far more power than overt preaching. Another wise move he made was to cast this film as a picaresque, whose main character is delineated in small strokes, with scenes that do not drive simple plot not character development, but stand alone and apart as merely defining her state of mind.
The film starts with an automobile accident that kills off a husband and father, the famous musical composer Patrice de Courcy, and his five year old daughter Anna. The only survivor is his wife, named Julie de Courcy neé Vignon (Juliette Binoche). This is foreshadowed when we see a shot of leaking brake fluid from the car when the daughter is let off the side of the road to urinate. Fortunately, the crash occurs off camera, not in the melodramatic style a Hollywood film would drool over. Interestingly, at the end of the film, after the credits, Kieslowski has a sly tweak when he notes that, since the car is an Alfa Romeo, any loss of brake fluid, and the accident, are purely fictional events. When Julie wakes in a hospital we see an extreme close up of her pupil reflecting the image of her doctor. It is an objective shot of subjectivity after Julie regains her consciousness after an unspecified period of time. This ellipsis of death to the opened eye has a great psychic resonance to the viewer, in a way mere words cannot. She recovers, after a fey attempt at suicide by overdose at her hospital, and decides to abandon her country estate and set out for an anonymous life in Paris. In one scene, Julie comes upon her old maid who is crying. She asks, ‘Why are you crying?’ The maid answers, ‘I am crying because you are not.’
Julie refuses to deal with her emotions in the obvious ways, and runs away from them, but this does not mean she lacks them. Part of this involves seducing her husband’s writing partner Olivier Benoit (Benoît Régent), on an old mattress, the only thing left in her empty house, so that he will see she is an ordinary woman, and she can delude herself that she is cold, perhaps deserving of her loss. As the film progresses, Julie strives to deal with her husband’s unfinished composition, Song For The Unification Of Europe- written for that hoped for ideal, and really written by composer Zbigniew Preisner; her own fears from childhood- such as needing to borrow a neighbor’s cat kill a mother mouse and its babies- a task I had to perform far too often at a former job; her mentally ill mother (Emmanuelle Riva)- who is constantly shown in the reflections of glass that surround her, as walled off from reality as Julie longs to be; her attempts at a new life, and many other things.
The film has many moments that are just real life occurrences, like the appearance of a flutist who fascinates her with droll apothegms like, ‘We all must hold onto something,’ or an old lady so stooped she cannot put a glass bottle into a recycling bin. As the film progresses, two other women emerge as important, a stripper named Lucille (Charlotte Very), who lives in Julie’s building, and who befriends her after Julie will not sign a petition to boot her out; and Sandrine (Florence Pernel), her dead husband’s mistress who is pregnant with his child. When Julie confronts her at a courthouse restroom all she can ask is, ‘Did he love you?’ It is a mark of the intelligence of this film that it does not opt out for the cheap American way of resolving conflicts. Both females act in mature ways. There is no catfighting, much less some sort of ‘erotic’ attraction that develops between the two women. Such non-lowest common denominator reality has no place in the cinema that emerges from Hollywood. And if not violence or sex as a response, a Hollywood film would go for cheap sentiment. There would be a trite ‘moment of revelation’ that is really not so deep. Instead, the two women just deal with their situations as most people would.
Olivier later reappears in the film, and Julie turns to him after finding out of her husband’s betrayal. They work on completing his symphony, which she earlier thought she had destroyed- but which was saved by the female clerk whose company stored her husband’s things. Julie makes it better than Olivier had done. She starts reaching out, even giving Sandrine her family home, so the mistress can raise her husband’s baby there. The film ends with a poetic montage of many of the people who have become incidentally tied to her post-accident life, and then with a shot of Julie crying a single tear, as she nakedly sits at a window and looks out at life.
There are many exquisite moments of visual poesy, such as the obvious usage of the color blue, but also in scenes of Julie swimming, while hearing her husband’s music in her mind. One time she even curls up into a fetal ball and floats. Another technique that Kieslowski uses is to have blackouts not at the end of a scene, but as dramatic breaths in time between stressful moments when Julie needs to steel herself for life’s rough patches. The blackouts occur several times, at key moments, such as at a café, at a public pool, or when she is told of Patrice’s affair. Binoche gives one of those performances that is dominating because it is so total and so reserved. There is no scenery chewing here. In one scene, when Julie tries to deal with her rage, instead of screaming she starts crunching a lollipop- a devastating scene that shows violence restrained but intense. Moments as this do not appear in typical plot-driven films that care little of character development.
Yet, there are also moments of true humanity, such as when Antoine, the teen hitchhiker who was first on the scene of the crash, asks her if she wants to know what happened just after the crash and she says no. Then he asks of what her husband meant by something odd he said, before he died. She explains that it was a joke: a woman can’t stop coughing. A doctor gives her a pill. She takes it, and asks what it’s for. The doctor says it’s the most powerful laxative there is. The woman wonders why she got a laxative for a cough. The doctor tells her, ‘Now try coughing!’ Moments like this undercut the claim that Julie is all coldness. There is another scene, early on, where Olivier comes upon Julie upstairs in her house, after walking up the stairs, sees her in pain, and just walks downstairs without a word. This humanizes him, and makes the viewer root for him to win her heart, but it is so brief a moment that it can easily be missed.
Kieslowski also wisely has many scenes not directly tied to Julie’s
dilemma, but which link it to the other films in the trilogy. There is the scene
of the old lady trying to deposit a bottle in a recycling bin, whose opening is
too high for her to reach. It recurs in the other films, even though they are
set in different locales. This is pure symbolism, but so slickly and subtly
inserted that it is easy to miss. In fact, Julie misses the whole thing play out
near her because she is daydreaming in a park. The other scene with linkage is
when the courtroom scene from White becomes a small snippet of Blue.
Later, all of these characters will appear at the end of Red, but in this
scene Julie is at the courthouse,
looking for Sandrine, her husband’s mistress, and walks into a courtroom in
session. She is denied entry, but we get a glimpse of the divorce trial from White,
where Dominique (Julie Delpy) is seen with her lawyer, as the voice of Karol
Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) argues about equality. In White, Julie will
be briefly seen walking in the background, walking in on the trial.
The cinematography by Slavomir Idziak is incandescent. He fully deserved winning the award for Best Cinematography at the Venice Film Festival. Color in color films is rarely used as effectively, and some people have attacked the film for its ‘unrealistic color palette,’ but this is nonsense. All films are art, and this film makes no pretense in trying to conform to reality, in its color palette, use of narrative ellipses, in its blackouts, nor any other techniques. One can argue if it’s apropos, which I think it is, since the film is largely internal and subjective, but whether or not it’s well used is simply not at issue. Aside from the main musical composition within the film, the rest of the scoring by Zbigniew Preisner is rarely too much. These are characters subject to grand emotions, and their thoughtfulness is apropos to the music used to convey their states of mind.
The DVD, part of a boxed set of the trilogy put out by Miramax, has an interview with Binoche and other participants in the film- including comments on some scenes, some featurettes on Kieslowski, a Kieslowski student film called Concert Of Wishes, and an audio commentary track by Kieslowski expert Annette Insdorf. It is a very bad commentary, one of the worst I’ve heard. Like many of the worst Kieslowski critics, she expends far too much energy alternately masturbating over filmic minutia, and overanalyzing it to the point of absurdity. As example, she speaks of the blackout moments only coming to Kieslowski in the editing stage of the film, and not being in the original screenplay- an interesting observation, but goes into no greater depth as to the significance of the moments, nor how their provenance has any relation to the moments themselves. She similarly goes on and on about far too many other differences between the screenplay and the finished film, rather than detailing what is actually onscreen. That sort of comparative analysis would have been better placed in a featurette.
The worst example, though, is when she repeatedly claims that Julie is not dealing with her past. This is demonstrably false. She is dealing with it, but at an arm’s length. It is there with her all the time, and is the very raison d’etre for the film. Another bad example comes when she tries to claim that some shots of blurred vision are shot that way because they are subjective shots from Julie’s point of view, and after the accident she had hurt her eyesight. First, there is no evidence in the film that Julie’s eyesight was ever damaged. She is later given a clean bill of health, and since we see other shots in the film from her subjective point of view, clearly this is not the reason for the blurring. The few times it does occur are at key moments when Julie is focusing on something, like her husband’s composition, and each note is irised in upon, with blur about it. That such an obvious technique, whose meaning is transparent, throws a so-called expert, says far too much of what is wrong with criticism and ‘expert testimony’ on the arts these days.
On a more subjective level, there is a preciousness and superficiality to the whole commentary, as if we are watching a miracle occur, rather than an explicable work of art. This is really grating with Insdorf’s deliberately stylized French pronunciation of names, like Julie not as Julie, but Zhoo-Lee! It is like listening to a deluded acolyte or disciple rather than an impassive critic, and this is clear when she states the obvious over and again- as in a scene where Julie rubs her fist against a stone wall. We can easily discern it’s so the character can feel something; we do not need the fawning Insdorf to manifest this. Also, in the great closing sequence of the film, Insdorf goes overboard on the associations that tie the characters together, as the dead Patrice’s finished score plays. The connections between the dead Anna and the fetal sonogram of Sandrine’s child have obvious resonance and connection, and the scene where Olivier and Julie are having sex in what seems to be a terrarium, that could be an underwater scene, has obvious connections to the imagery of the pool, and the glass surrounding Julie’s mother. Yet, Insdorf refuses to allow the viewer to view things as they will, too often imposing her own limited and wrong interpretations on the film.
Nonetheless, this detraction is only in regards to the DVD package’s extras, not the brilliant film itself, although Miramax really should have offered dubbed versions of the films, for film is a visual medium, and reading subtitles ALWAYS detracts from a first viewing! I started this review by stating that Krzysztof Kieslowski was one of the more interesting filmmakers of the last quarter century, and I stand by that claim. The only thing a viewing of this film will add to that claim is to append the term great to that description, for Blue is a flat-out masterpiece. It is as mysterious as a work of Antonioni, symbolic as a film of Bergman, humane as a work of Fellini, and precise as a work of Kubrick. That’s good company to keep, and this film earns such companionship.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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