Thursday, March 11, 2010

Three Colours marathon

Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993, Krzysztof Kieslowski)

In the purest sense, film is about moving images and sound. If a filmmaker and his crew can get that part right, they more than likely have a film on their hand. If, however, they use the moving images and sound to create a great story, convey emotions and transport the viewer to a different place, have the viewer feel what the characters feel and react to what the characters are reacting to, then the filmmakers have hit the preverbal ‘jackpot.’ Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski knew how to do just that, and while the man’s career boats an impressive body of work (such as The Decalogue), it can be argued that he is most remembered for his sumptuous Three Colours trilogy, a collection of films inspired by the French flag, with each strip of colour and, by extension, each film representing a thought, a feeling, a desire, an ideology cherished and defended by the French.

Blue represents freedom, and in the movie Blue an unfortunate woman named Julie (Juliette Binoche) discovers the most terrible kind of freedom. As the movie opens she, her husband and daughter are driving in the French countryside on vacation. Their car smashes into a tree, the result of which ends up being the death of the two members of her immediate family. With her husband and daughter gone, Julie chooses to set herself completely free of her former life. Not the sort of liberty one would expect to be studied in a film about ‘freedom.’ Relinquishing the past is a daunting task in Julie’s case. Her late husband was a famous and highly regarded music composer. Not only is the artist’s legacy a lasting one, but his colleagues know full well of the remarkable piece of music he had begun to work on before his sudden demise and wish to finish the man’s work and make it public. At first Julie will have none of it, preferring to sell off their beautiful property and destroy the music sheets written by her late husband, but certain things may persuade her to behave otherwise...

Story, growth of character and emotional beats are told in the most unique ways sometimes in Three Colours: Blue. Consider, for example, the visual setup for the scene in which Julie learns of the death that befell her husband and daughter. It is a marvellous, but at the same time devastating close up shot of her eye which reflects the vision of the sorry doctor who must deliver the news. Later we witness, in a sense, the burial ceremony through a small television set Julie is watching underneath her hospital bed covers. In both instances there is an intimacy and urgency to the scenes, all the while presenting some story development with visual flair. The colour blue itself makes consistent appearances throughout the film, be it the wrapping of a candy bar, the water in a swimming pool or the light’s reflection on a chandelier made of blue coloured rubies. In each instance, a different emotion is vividly evoked. What is so surprising is how this never comes across as obvious or, as the saying goes, ‘ham fisted.’ There is brilliance to how the camera angles, lighting and colour schemes of scenes all help to tell the story of this lonely and emotionally bruised woman. Never did I think that Kieslowski’s methodology was heavy handed or redundant. On the contrary , I was continuously impressed with how the filmmakers made succinct, intelligent and visually pleasurable use of cinema. True, pure cinema comes to the assistance of the storytelling. If the term ‘auteur’, often used by cinema buffs in reference to directors who make films with similar themes, stories and filming techniques, could only be applied to a select few directors, I cannot imagine how one would not put Kieslowski on that list. I don’t even see how one could hesitate.

But the visuals alone do not make up the staggering qualities of the film, no sir. To describe the music score, provided by Zbigniew Preisner, is a daunting task. At times gentle, at times operatic, the musical cues never clash with what the viewer sees on screen. Rather, they compliment the visuals. They aid Kieslowski and company tell this sad but hopeful story of a woman wishing to start anew after the tragedy to end all tragedies presents its cursed self. The music and editing are married together and provide the viewer with a unique experience that so few other filmmakers could ever replicate. The moments when a character asks a question or makes a remark which reminds Julie of her past life, she closes her eyes while the screen fades to black for a brief moment and a stunning piece of operatic music blasts its way into our ears. There is a sheer, naked force to Preisner’s score at times that struck me like a lighting bolt. Rarely had I witnessed a film in which virtually every piece of the cinematic puzzle (isn’t making great cinema a bit of a puzzle after all?) came to together as perfectly as they do in Three Colours: Blue.

I’ve discussed about nothing but visuals and sound thus far, which is rather unusual given how the actress at the center of this milestone picture is the talented and ever classy Juliette Binoche. Binoche’s resume is littered with interesting films and fine performances, but her abilities are, for some obvious reasons, put to the test in Blue. With so much of interest to be found in the music and cinematography, it could become quite easy for the main actor or actress to disappear, so to speak, in this plethora of cinematic creativity. Such is not the case with Binoche as Julie. She is living her character and all the technical aspects I have showered with praise until now really form an extension of who she at this point in her life. Her actions and mood changes are guiding the technical storytelling elements, not the other way around. And this is just as it should be in a good movie. That isn’t to say that if everything else took precedence over Binoche’s performance that Blue would be a disappointment, but it is reassuring to know that Kieslowski, who is so adept at giving life to such audio and visual experiences, respects the art of acting. Julie, as a character, is a fitting role for an actor of Binoche’s calibre. Despite the shocking early developments in the story, she never becomes purely embittered and distanced from those who live around her and choose to interact with her. Late in the film a character expresses how she had known all along that Julie is guided by a tender heart regardless of the circumstances, and this complexity in the emotions Binoche must convey only makes the performance all the more impressive. The interesting thing was how the quality in her performance that I describe now mostly made itself evident upon my second viewing of the film. I did like her when I first watched Blue, but perhaps I was too occupied with everything else on the screen at the time to take full notice of just how good Binoche is in this.

Which brings me to the warning I would like to share with certain movie audiences, some of whom may be reading this review. Three Colours: Blue might, and I stress the word ‘might’, come off as a bit overwhelming for certain people. It is different, it is bold, it is quiet, it is loud, it wears some emotions on its sleeve, at other times it is subtle... Not everyone will ‘get’ Blue. It is less of a film where character X does A, then B, then goes to point C to accomplish goal Z, and more of an experience through which the viewer is invited to understand someone befallen by tragedy and how they are pushed to overcome their initial period of darkness. There’s art house cinema and then there’s art house cinema. Blue is art house cinema. It is an opera, a painting, a collection of pictures which tell a thousand stories, a soundtrack. It is a perfect movie.


Anonymous said...

I think you hit upon all the key elements that make this film great and why it's my second favorite film of all time.

Binoche's performance here is easily my favorite performance of any film ever. I think the film would still work without out her with Kieslowski's skill, but it would likely suffer without her and most certainly wouldn't be among my top 3.

I look forward to your upcoming reviews on the other installments of the trilogy.

Are you planning on writing about The Double Life of Veronique?

edgarchaput said...

I briefly touch on the subject of Binoche's performance in comparison to the technical merits of the movie. Had she not acted as well as she does, 'Blue' would still be a fine film, but the quality of her actual performance elevates things to another level entirely.

About 'Double Life'...Well, I don't own the DVD, so I'd have to get a hold on that first (haven't seen it since early last year). I own the 'Three Colours' trilogy and realized I had simply never written about them, so I figured it was obvious that I should work on that while doing the epic Star Wars marathon. Maybe a review about 'Double Life' will appear in the coming weeks...

thevoid99 said...

Of the films of that trilogy, Blue is my favorite and remains my favorite film of Kieslowski of the four that I've seen along with The Double Life of Veronique. There was a lot I was drawn into and was devastated early on and even right to the end.

I wrote a review of the film years ago. It's been a while since I saw the trilogy and I think I'll watch it again since I've been out of the film world for a while.