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.

The Age of Innocence (1993)

In 1990, Martin Scorsese blew both critics and general audiences away with mob flick and tour-de-force of filmmaking, Goodfellas. In 1991, he followed that up with the less-praised but still-dark psychological thriller, Cape Fear. And then two years later in 1993 came The Age of Innocence – a romantic period film, adapting the 1920 novel of the same name by Edith Wharton. On one hand, this is a significant change of pace for a director whose claim to fame is gritty masculine dramas about working-class men. The vividly colourful flower arrangements, archaic furniture, and lavish costumes are a far cry from the dingy New York streets of Taxi Driver or the stark black-and-white photography of Raging Bull.

But this film is not so completely removed from Scorsese’s artistic fascinations that it feels like some impersonal oddity in his filmography. It is not just that he had dabbled in other genres outside his wheelhouse before, but his protagonist of Newland Archer is yet another character in Scorsese’s long line of male antiheroes with fatal flaws. On top of that, having frequently praised the swooning period romances of German auteur, Max Ophüls, The Age of Innocence may also be Scorsese’s most direct homage to the innovator of moving cameras and long takes.

Even though Scorsese’s camera almost never stops moving, he keeps finding immaculate frames in his scenery.
And of course, the florals in this film are astounding – these delicate pieces of set dressing always reflecting the characters they accompany, whether they are in soft pastels with May…
…bright red roses with Olenska…
Or in this gorgeous scene, a violently colourful array of flowers surrounding Archer all through the foreground and background.

As such, it is in his turn to the quiet, passionate yearning of two lovers bound by constrained cultural restrictions of 1870s upper-class New York that he surprisingly feels right at home, deftly tracking his camera through opulent 19th century mansions, following characters through colossal rooms, and then letting it detach to observe beautiful paintings hung upon vivid red walls, like it has a mind of its own. Meanwhile, a voiceover lifting lines straight from the novel plays over the top, at times introducing us to the characters who emerge within these unbroken takes, and then at other times listing off the period-specific items and people which his camera seems to obsess over.

“…a hired chef, two borrowed footmen, roses from Henderson’s, Roman punch, and menus on gilt-edged cards.”

There is something of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad in these hypnotic descriptions and rolling camera movements, though the significance goes beyond simple aural rhythms or its grounding of this narrative in a materialistic, aristocratic culture. Much of what this voiceover fussily lists off are antiquated artefacts that contemporary audiences cannot attach specific meanings or purposes to, but instead fill in with a vague, even mystical sense of nostalgia. They belong to a “hieroglyphic world” where “the real thing was never said, or done, or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs,” and as such they present to us an invitation to interpret this era through a lens of subjective impressionism – a lens which our protagonist, Newland Archer, is all too happy to adopt himself.

An obsessive fascination with antiquated artefacts of 19th century New York, as the camera rolls over these impressive collections.

Such a romanticisation of old-fashioned ideals might not be so readily apparent in the restless, frustrated attitudes of this New York City lawyer though. Despite Archer’s engagement to May Welland, the young, respectable daughter of a wealthy family, his encounter with her scandalous cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, quickly gives rise to an ardent, passionate affair between the two, as well as a frustration directed towards his society’s uptight Victorian ideals. There is an allure to the other side of the Atlantic where Olenska has spent much of her adulthood, and where bohemian lifestyles have eroded the rigid structures of high society. If only he were to live in a civilisation where performative gender roles and meaningless traditions were completely devalued, then maybe then he wouldn’t have to keep up this image of decorum, and he would be able to submit to his true romantic feelings.

And yet, in spite of these dreams, he paradoxically finds himself attached to the idealism of such archaic standards as well, particularly in how they preserve the innocence of his sweet, virtuous wife, which he cannot bring himself to destroy with honesty. Where Olenska dresses in red satin and black lace, and the settings of their passionate encounters seem to radiate vivacious scarlet palettes out to the wallpaper, curtains, and carpets, May is clothed in virginal white dresses. As much as Archer begrudges the neat conventions of 19th century New York, he thrives on the existence of this duality – and it makes a late reveal that May is not so naïve all the more devastating for him.

Magnificent blocking all throughout, using the whole frame and specific colour palettes to fill in these characters even more.

Liminal as they may be, memories are the only space where such fantasies can exist without contradiction or tension, and Scorsese heavily commits to maintaining the tone of an impressionistic look into the past, removed from its immediacy. The past-tense narration and the imagining of letters as being spoken in direct addresses to camera work to establish this sentimental, slightly artificial reminiscence, but it seeps even further down into Scorsese’ delicate long dissolves, dreamily flowing from one shot to the next like a fluid, effortless recollection. As Archer ages through the decades, a combination of camera pans and these dissolves drift through a single room in his manor, brushing over milestones in his life that have taken place since the departure of Olenska.

Few films have displayed the true artistic potential of the long dissolve like The Age of Innocence.

Back in days of his youth, the notion that he might at least maintain his May’s innocence gives some justification to his decision to remain by her side, and yet as 19th century social conventions fade and May’s life is cut tragically short, he still cannot bring himself to elope with Olenska, the woman he claims to love most. After all, who knows what troubled reality he may face if they actually were to settle down together? This fantasy of the past is far more preferable, and as such their relationship only exists in how he chooses to remember it. We recall a scene earlier in the film where Archer stares from a distance to her standing on a pier, facing a bright, golden ocean like an ethereal, unreachable figure. But within the comfort of his own memories, the past is malleable, and it is in revisiting this moment in his own mind that she finally turns to meet his gaze. The age of innocence as Archer perceived it might not have ever existed, but when filtered through a lens of self-absorbed nostalgia, it can manifest in whatever form he wishes.

As much of this film takes place in close-ups and elaborate interiors, the minimalism of this exterior long shot stands out, rightfully becoming one of Archer’s most treasured memories – even if he does slightly alter its details the second time round.

The Age of Innocence is available to rent or buy on YouTube and Google Play.

The Piano (1993)

Jane Campion | 1hr 54min

There are few films that one could justifiably open a discussion about by praising its score, but when the movie itself is titled The Piano, there aren’t many better places to start. Michael Nyman’s classical score revolves around a central theme played by Ada McGrath, a mute Scottish woman whose arranged marriage sees her sent to New Zealand with her daughter, Flora, and her piano, shipped all the way from her homeland. When her new husband, Alisdair, abandons it on the beach claiming there is not enough room in his house, it is picked up by another local, Baines, who lets her earn it back in exchange for sexual favours disguised as music lessons. 

Though Flora acts as a link between Ada and the world as her sign language interpreter, this form of communication has its limits. The music she plays is the purest manifestation of her real voice, carrying through a rich, full-bodied expression of her restless soul as her fingers glide up and down the keys, the slight details of its shifting tempo, dynamics, and pitch shaping our perception of her fluctuating emotional state. Nyman’s theme “The Heart Asks Pleasure First” is often there in the diegesis of the film, but it also continues to appear in his non-diegetic musical score as well, its lilting melody and persistent, flowing bassline combining to carry the eloquence of Ada’s voice through even when her piano isn’t immediately within reach.

Ada and Flora playing together, communicating a mutual self-expression and understanding.

The single most dangerous threat in The Piano is that posed by Ada’s own husband, Alisdair, whose rejection of her musical instrument goes beyond a lack of appreciation for her talent, and becomes an active attempt to silence her, desperately beating her into the role of a submissive housewife. It is a testament to Holly Hunter’s performance as Ada that beyond the way she moves with her music, so much expressiveness can be found in her often-stoic demeanour, commanding the screen even when Alisdair is flailing for domination in his relationship. Beside her is a nine-year-old Anna Paquin who, in the role of Flora, transcends the usual expectations attached to child performances by delivering an outspoken straightforwardness in amongst her tantrums and fibs, balancing out the male egos present elsewhere in the cast. Together, the two make for a powerhouse acting duo of swelling emotions, rising and falling like reflections of Nyman’s delicate musical score.

Two of the great performances of the 1990s, almost polar opposite characters displaying a compassionate love for each other.

When it comes to director Jane Campion’s choice of shooting location, it is impossible to undersell the importance of the New Zealand beaches and brush in setting up Ada and Flora’s emotional arcs as strangers in a foreign land, particularly as they are caught in wide shots shrinking them against the grey, misty shoreline. Along the sand, Ada sits at her piano among her possessions, forming the impression of a makeshift home in a beautiful but inhospitable location. With the horizon places towards the bottom of the frame, Campion’s focus remains on the cloudy skies above, offering a gentle ethereality upon which the black shapes of people and furniture are imprinted. In this gorgeous imagery the beach becomes a place of transience, belonging neither to the civilised homes and lush rainforests of New Zealand, nor to Ada’s native Scotland, and it is here where she frequently lingers with her heart split between both places.

Tremendous form in these beautiful, recurring long shots, always with the horizon placed low in the frame.

As much as Campion’s impressionistic imagery and Nyman’s music artistically speak for Ada’s thoughts and feelings, she is not entirely vocally silent in The Piano. Bookended with voiceovers that offer a glimpse into Ada’s mind, a connection is built in her direct address to the audience. Like the music she produces, she speaks lyrically and with cadences, reflecting on the fate of her piano now sitting at the bottom of the ocean, like a restless spirit put to sleep. Quoting poet Thomas Hood, she recites:

“There is a silence where hath been no sound,

There is a silence where no sound may be,

In the cold grave, under the deep, deep sea.”

Ada may never entirely be at home in New Zealand, as she herself admits to being considered the “town freak” when struck with a physical deformity. But like her sunken piano, existence in such incongruous conditions goes on. And while she learns to communicate with her environment in other, more conventional ways, there is a newfound tranquillity that can be found in the resounding quiet.

A peaceful, ghostly silence beneath the waves.

The Piano is available to stream on Stan, and available to rent or buy on YouTube.

Groundhog Day (1993)

Harold Ramis | 1hr 41min

Harold Ramis’ talents clearly lie more in writing than directing, but it is hard to ignore the formal accomplishment here in the theme-and-variation narrative structure of Groundhog Day, which itself has become a template for so many other variations of the same concept. It follows the standard set by It’s a Wonderful Life and Back to the Future in using a time travel/parallel universe conceit to mirror different realities within a single location, and furthermore using that in its struggle with cynicism to eventually reach an optimistic depiction of small-town America. Any misgivings one might have about Groundhog Day’s relative visual blandness are immediately made up for in this economic structure, lean screenplay, and Bill Murray’s career-defining performance.

Not an especially stunning film, but the design of this diner is fantastic. Stopped clocks everywhere, Phil caught in a moment in time.

Ramis wastes little time getting into the meat of the narrative, as it is only 7 minutes in before we hit our first Groundhog Day, and 17 minutes before we get our first variation. Almost everything we see in this introduction has a formal counterpoint later on – “I Got You Babe” playing on the radio, the frustratingly peppy presenters, the landlady checking in on his stay, Ned Ryerson, “Bing!”, the puddle, and the polka song keep turning up with slight divergences, each time being filtered through Phil’s fluctuating state of mind.

Then there are the variations within variations, especially as Phil tries to charm Rita by following the same formula every night, constantly fine-tuning their interactions. This type of formal repetition would usually just make for a cohesive film, but here it becomes mind-numbingly inescapable, actively trapping us with Phil in this milquetoast limbo. Even the groundhog itself aptly shares his name, helplessly and insultingly tying him even further to this one day.

Trapped in limbo, and forced to encounter the gratingly cheerful Ned Ryerson every day – a man who embodies everything Phil despises about Punxsutawney.

Beyond the remarkable narrative structure, Groundhog Day develops Phil’s character arc through its exploration of solipsism – by definition, “the view or belief that the self is all that can be known to exist”. Phil has always assumed this his life is more significant than everyone else’s, and his newfound immortality seems to prove that is true. The universe singles him out as someone “special” while everyone around him dies at the end of every day, only to be replaced with a new person when the clock strikes 6am.

And yet what he wouldn’t give to escape this mindless repetition and return to normality. While everything around him remains the same, he runs through the full gamut of emotions and mentalities. Confusion, concern, recklessness, manipulation, disappointment, depression, narcissism, self-improvement, selflessness – there is a lot that rests on Bill Murray’s shoulders in bringing authenticity to Phil’s wild, mood-swinging journey, and he carries it all with ease, grounding each development in Phil’s outspoken, self-reliant, but ultimately insecure manner.

Much of this world literally revolves around Bill Murray, and he delivers with a hilarious, dark, and moving performance.

Though at first Phil learns the personal details of everyone in this town just for his own entertainment, this eventually leads to the recognition of the flaw in his solipsistic perspective. A single day to him is their entire existence, and at this turning point he realises that his immortality is only relevant in how he can improve their transient times on Earth. The homeless man who dies every day and who Phil keeps trying to save becomes a motif representing the citizens of Punxsutawney, as Phil eventually recognises that there is nothing he can do except comfort these people before they disappear into oblivion, only to be replaced with younger versions of themselves the next day.

With Phil finally bringing his life down to everyone else’s level, balance is restored – he is no longer immortal, and neither does the rest of the world cease to exist at the end of every day. For the first time they are all on equal footing, and Phil’s arc from self-proclaimed god to man is complete. In using its tremendous form in repetition as the basis for such a rich character arc, Groundhog Day just keeps allowing for more surprising revelations on each rewatch, giving it, quite ironically, a “timeless” quality.

Groundhog Day is available to stream on Binge Australia, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.