Three Colours: Blue (1993)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 39min

The Three Colours trilogy is not the first time Krzysztof Kieslowski has woven cultural ideals deep into the structure of his cinematic work, and nor is it the first to shift styles so dramatically between each part. But where his Dekalog series took the Ten Commandments as its the foundation, it is the French values and flag colours which he takes particular interest in here, centring his first instalment, Blue, on the virtue of “liberty” as laid out in the motto of the French republic – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”. This is not a revolutionary or political liberty, overthrowing some oppressive elite, but rather an emotional liberty seeking independence from the chains of past trauma. The blue palette that pervades this film in every shade imaginable sinks it into a deep melancholy, as one woman, Julie, tries to build an entirely new life to move on from the loss of her husband and daughter in a fatal car accident. 

Kieslowski’s blue hangs in the evening sky, gently tinting it with a pale shade of indigo. It artificially lights up an entire swimming pool, encasing Julie in a royal azure that leaves her paralysed with grief. It is also suspended in tiny sapphires that dangle from a mobile her daughter once owned, refracting light through its shards. While she goes about destroying every remnant of her old life, trying to free herself from the depression, she can’t quiet bring herself to part with this glittering memento. She is entranced by it, and in close-ups Kieslowski obstructs her face entirely by its delicate beads. 

Kieslowski uses the full spectrum of blues in his lighting and decor, exploring their subtle distinctions and emotional implications.

The use of glass as prisms through which light is distorted is infused with Kieslowski’s filmmaking right down to his lens flares, dancing flashes of blue around Julie at her lowest moments. In one moment that seems to hit like an epiphany, he even passes a close-up of Julie’s face through an intense cobalt filter. Such skilful manipulation of colours makes for a sensitive framing of Juliette Binoche’s devastating performance, within which we witness a swirl of powerfully conflicting emotions that can’t quite break through the all-consuming numbness. Sleeping with her husband’s old musical collaborator, Olivier, doesn’t do much, nor does she find success in trying to erase memories that only bring pain. 

A quick, sharp flash of blue, hitting like an epiphany.
Blue lens flares delicately dancing around Julie’s face. Even when it isn’t in the production design, it is there in Kieslowski’s lighting.

But every so often, something does find its way through to move her on some level. Kieslowski’s trademark cutaways to tiny symbols of larger ideas flourish in Blue, not just in those representations of the distinct colour scheme, but in small displays of Julie’s overwhelming emotional state. In one shot as she tunes out of her immediate surroundings, she lightly dips the corner of a sugar cube into her tea. Kieslowski only holds on this for five seconds, but it is enough for us to see it absorb the brown liquid before she drops it into the cup. Perhaps Kieslowski is painting out an image of Julie’s gradual succumbing to her depression, or perhaps it is more positive in elucidating her need to re-join society. Either way, these impressionistic close-ups draw us into a mind disconnected from the larger world, searching for meaning and beauty in the smallest, most fragile objects we typically look over. 

Shallow focus in these extreme close-ups of significant symbols – both Kieslowski and Julie’s focus on these objects are intense and purposeful.

The motif of incomplete orchestral music composed by Julie’s late husband, Patrice, also cuts through to her closed-off soul, though rather than wilfully applying her precise focus to it, it haunts her everyday life like a stubborn ghost, arriving at the most unexpected times. The reminder is enough to cripple her physically, and often Kieslowski will also fade his screen to black as if mentally blacking out before returning to the exact same scene, disorientating our perception of time. It mostly manifests in her head, though there is something fatefully mystical in the way it emerges within the melody played by a random street busker who claims to merely be improvising. 

The glittering blue mobile continuing to hand over these scenes even when it isn’t the focus, a reminder of Julie’s deceased daughter.

It would seem that Patrice’s half-written choral composition cannot be put to rest until it is finished, and for as long as Julie denies her connection to the music, she cannot find peace with it. Although Olivier is the one taking the lead on this project, it is evident only she, the one who was married to Patrice and knew him better than anyone, who can understand his legacy in a meaningful way to let it keep on living. 

Wonderful form in the use of Patrice’s orchestral music like a ghost that needs to be put to rest, returning at unexpected times and mentally destroying Julie.

This is but one level of her reintegration back into society though. While Julie runs from the past, she also meets new people in need of emotional support much like her. The boy who witnessed the crash and now needs closure from its sole survivor, a neighbour who has been ostracised from others in the apartment block due to her sex work, Patrice’s mistress who is pregnant with his baby – the ways that Julie touches these lives is not always fully planned or conscious, but in the small ways she has turned her grief into compassion, she incidentally obtains a healing within herself.

The graceful montage that ends Blue drifts the camera past all their faces, finding completion in their own stories as Patrice’s finished piece of music plays out operatically over the top. In finding reconciliation with the colourful and musical displays of melancholy that Kieslowski embeds intohis film, there is still ultimately some closure to be found for Julie – not in banishing these ghosts entirely, but rather in making wistful companions out of them.

An elegant montage of all the people whose lives Julie touched to end the film, luxuriating in blue lighting.

Three Colours: Blue is currently available to stream on Mubi and The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

4 thoughts on “Three Colours: Blue (1993)”

  1. How’d you rank the 3 Kieslowski (supreme) masterpieces. I’d go like,
    1. Blue
    2. The Double Life Of Veronique
    3. Red

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    1. Still planning on getting to someone of his earlier work so we’ll see whether those come into it, but of his masterpieces right now I would go:

      1. The Double Life of Veronique
      2. Red
      3. A Short Film About Killing
      4. Blue
      5. Dekalog

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      1. I still feel that Blue is the best of all his films after A Short Film About Killing.

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