At first blush, Blue sounds terribly over-conceptualized. Most ominous is that this is the first in a movie trilogy by Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski. The second film is titled White, and the third is, yes, Red.
Before you swell with patriotic pride, be advised that these are also the colors of the French flag, and that Kieslowski associates each color with a concept from the French Revolution's phrase: liberte, egalite, fraternite.
For Kieslowski, blue equals liberty, white connotes equality and red is fraternity. This is not Kieslowski's first foray into conceptual film. He's perhaps most noted for The Decalogue, ten films based on the Ten Commandments. He followed that project with The Double Life of Veronique, about a musician whose soul is half-Polish and half-French. I was mystified by Veronique, and more than a little discouraged when I saw that Blue also deals with a mysterious musician.
Julie (Juliette Binoche) is riding with her husband, famed composer Patrice, and their daughter when their car crashes, killing Julie's family and leaving her alone in the world. All of Europe is desolate over Patrice's death, as he was working on a concerto celebrating the unification of the continent, an event near at hand at the time of the crash. Julie is left nearly mute with devastation, and considers committing suicide in the hospital.
Though Binoche plays Julie almost wordlessly, Julie's despair comes as a relief. I was never able to get a toehold on Veronique, but here I understood what was happening. A woman who has lost everything has to decide if life is worth living. In terms of the "liberty" conceit, this seems a bit forced, as Julie's near-absolute freedom isn't chosen. It's not as if she left her family in search of herself.
So it's probably best to shove Kieslowski's grand concepts out of your mind and concentrate on his story. He's got a strong one here, though not so strong that it'll make you feel that European film has been given new life.
The Polish Kieslowski is sometimes referred to as a Catholic filmmaker. I'm not sure how he feels about this label, but as a sort of suffering Our Lady, Julie does make sense, and her climb up from death amounts to both a kind of resurrection and a faltering march along her own via dolorosa, complete with pit stops for self-flagellation.
We learn that the life Julie and Patrice had led was to some extent a lie, or at least a mystery. For one thing, he had a mistress she learns about only after his death. For another, the film plays with the notion that Patrice wasn't the real composer of his music, but that self-abnegating Julie did the work while he took the credit. It's an intriguing idea, but one Kieslowski doodles with.
So is Julie now in search of some kind of authenticity? Yes and no. Her story unfolds in an agreeably ambiguous manner. On the one hand, she sees and seizes a chance to grow, at least out of the depressed state in which we originally find her. On the other, when she discovers her husband was a fraud, she doesn't reject his memory. In what are perhaps the gestures of a contemporary saint, she learns to love, albeit coldly, even his lies.
At times Kieslowski overplays small touches, trying to wring significance from every wobble of a spoon, but in general his heightened visuals carry the otherwise understated story. Some scenes, such as those preceding the car wreck, are little masterpieces of editing and camera position. The music, recorded by the Warsaw Symphony, is particularly haunting.
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Binoche makes a fascinating martyr. Her Julie doesn't say much, but her tense body language shows how angry she is, while the light in her eyes always implies that she will finally emerge from her shell. It's not a performance that draws us in; Binoche is too honest an actress for that. The last thing any of us really wants is to get too close to a bereaved and angry human being.
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. With Juliet Binoche, Benoit Regent and Florence Pernel.