Three Colors: Blue begins in abstraction. Swells of thick sound, punctuated by moments of gasping air, ride alongside a tire pushing against pavement. Hands out of a car window, grasping bright blue foil blowing in the wind. Faces washed over by headlights. A young man’s face, waiting eagerly for the next car’s potential ride, framed against thick fog. These hazy images resonate, even as they remain disconnected from each other. Suddenly, the images are cut short by a crash off-screen. When the car’s wreckage is shown, its occupants’ last breaths seem to pour out of it – a distant scream, a ball and steam flood from the vehicle. A pause, a brief recollection and then abstraction again: the camera filming Julie’s (Juliette Binochet) eye up close as she refocuses on a doctor speaking to her. Her eye flinches and seems to fight back.
The viewer is immobilized by the intimacy of the new situation, locked in to Julie’s perspective. Completely stuck in paralysis and confined to a hospital bed, she is told her husband and young daughter died in the crash. She tries to lash out against the news but cannot. She experiences her family’s funeral via satellite monitor, witnessing the grand emotion of the event (her husband a world-famous composer) from a detached feed. We see her pained reaction, the televisied funeral merely an artificial event, empty of meaning. Almost immediately, she attempts suicide, breaking into a hospital pharmacy for repeated handfuls of pills. Caught by the attending nurse, she stops herself realizing she’s now on the other side of the glass, being examined instead of examining herself, an animal observed.
Krzysztof Kieślowski and his cinematographer, Sławomir Idziak, affix Julie’s world in Blue through windows and frames. She always seems behind and outside, away from the action. Binochet is a master at conveying the depth burrowed underneath a visage stripped bare. Her performance here is tied shut and tightly sealed, unknowable and shielded. Others in her life try to come in and embrace her suffering but are swiftly rebuffed.
“Why are you crying?”
“Because you’re not.”
Julie decides to live alone, a stark decision made with haste. Everything goes, no memories or remnants of her family are to remain in her life. The house is sold and her husband’s unfinished scores destroyed. Confronted with a chandelier in her daughter’s room, blue gems glistening in the afternoon light, she tries to rip out the fixture. Pieces fall into her hand, but the chandelier remains affixed. The jewels stay with her, setting up a recurring image of luminous blue light Idziak references often.
Loneliness and depression are fleeting moods to capture on film. First, how do you capture desired isolation, that aching desire to be alone and left that way? Too much emoting and you replace emptiness with maudlin overreach. Depression hits beyond tears; no outward release comes, despite one’s desire for it. How do you film the hollowing out of one’s core? In the dismal depths, any mustered response is welcomed but never comes.
We see Julie test these waters, hoping for something: a slammed piano lid or the casual destruction of family heirlooms fails to rattle her. In a maddening scene, JB paces down a stone wall with her fist parallel to rock, excoriating flesh against the stone. The shot is real, her wounds bleeding out (Kieślowski refused to shoot it without some kind of protection for Binochet, but she beat him to the punch). The scars remain through the film as reminders of her attempts at to reach out and connect with the world.
Kieślowski gives his protagonist room to roam, creating an all-new life out of her misery. Kieślowski almost seems intent to give his film over to Julie’s character; he imposes no unnatural order; his frame and plot never feel put upon or fixed. The film sees things solely through her eyes, prone to her insular headspace. Blue contorts itself to her will. It blacks out in Julie’s peak moments, losing itself in the fleeting return of emotion. Color, especially the titular one in a variety of shades, overtakes the frame and viewer repeatedly as memories break through Julie’s dour world.
Her character is refreshing in her frustration. The few films focused on female protagonists revert to simple archetypes: either the tough-as-nails, take-no-shit survivor or the wounded animal, terrified and hurt by the world around her. Binochet’s Julie goes against these characterizations: she is hurt, yes, but she’s defiant towards projecting vulernability to others. She’s hardened by the experience, too, but instead of fighting for survival, she withdraws into herself. Kieślowski and Binochet craft a character together who embraces all of these parts, deeply flawed but defiantly ferocious in her newly willed yet unwanted independence.
As memory returns, a new passion peeking through the darkness, the screen goes black. The effect is unnerving. But then, after the sudden darkness, music erupts, her husband’s unfinished work shaking off the cobwebs. Its reemergence lasts longer each time, a siren call for Julie to reconnect. Kieślowski continues through this stretch to frame her behind glass, encased, but her attempts to remain independent, free in her own liberty, cannot last.
Throughout the film, we see Julie’s nervous, unsure attempts to reconnect with others, whether with her husband’s colleague, Olivier (Benoît Régent) or her neighbor, a sex worker named Lucille (Charlotte Véry). When watching a television tribute to her husband, Julie realizes he carried on a long affair with another woman. Binochet, driven to complete the tenuous connections she has been building, uses this information to cast off those last remaining shadows. Tracking down the woman, now pregnant, she wills away the home, estate and possessions to the overwhelmed, somewhat embarrassed woman. One can sense
Olivier tells her he has secretly worked on the unfinished score, only to have Julie reveal in return she wrote some of the last work as well. Their sometimes forced, sometimes fruitful, collaboration drives the rest of the film, as Julie attempts to navigate her way back to others, free but no longer able to remain alone. As Julie becomes entangled with these past remants, she realizes she can’t remain independent, a bastion of liberté from her past life. She returns to the score, guiding Olivier’s changes to the piece, realizing the work (meant to celebrate the end of the Cold War) has meaning to those other than her own. The completed piece, sung with rich gravitas by a Greek chorus, is full-blooded, a passional outpouring of everything Julie has withdrawn from her life.
It’s easy to unfurl a story with a set, tidy end or moral: “A woman learns a lesson about loss.” “The protagonist realizes independence from others is not possible.” and so on. Kieślowski rejects such a tidy summation, exploring all facets of Julie’s personality, both fulfilling and frustrating. The film isn’t afraid to show a difficult, stubborn protagonist, more interested in self-fulfillment in the moment than lasting closure. Kieślowski commits to exploring how liberté plays out within the life of a woman with no attachments or obligations — literally nothing left to live for except herself. We become witnesses to Julie’s experiment as she fumbles in an attempt to merely survive.
Her travels, unfinished by the time the film stops, will continue. Julie’s journey is not one purely of self-discovery, but one of re-discovery and revelation. Her journey circles back to the lasting connections we must make with others in navigating our world. Kieślowski lets us follow along on her journey. To reach answers — even the shaky, uncertain ones, always a faithful step into unknown waters — we have to realize the steps there are just as crucial as the conclusions reached.