Three Colours Blue was the film that made me a cinephile. It was among the first films I wrote about, after I first watched it at the age of fifteen. It is the film that both shaped, and thus limited, my view of what cinema was capable of, and that first viewing eight years ago was akin to a religious experience. It tells a simple story, of a widower coping with the loss of her husband and daughter in a car accident, through her attempts to ‘free’ herself from her grief (the film is modelled on the French ideal of liberty), and yet seeing it for the first time I felt my soul being lifted up, to places other films were simply incapable of reaching. It was the first film that felt like it was being born inside my eyes, relentlessly alive and almost conscious.
It didn’t feel constructed so much as it felt sculpted. Previous films I had seen were made, but this film felt carved, out of time, images, and emotion. The impact it had on me was immeasurable, and to date has never been equalled.
It also gave me an easy answer; what’s your favourite film? someone might ask. And I could say Three Colours Blue without thinking.
Later this week I will move to Brighton, in what is the biggest life-event since I went to university. In a way, this move is bigger, since university was prescripted to me from the age of eleven, when I was accepted into a grammar school, a badge of privilege that will be with me forever; conversely, this move to Brighton has been decided largely on a whim. I will be living in a hostel, and money will be exceptionally tight. I am going to have to leave most of my possessions at my parents house (the ones I haven’t sold to raise money for accommodation), and that includes my copy of the Three Colours Trilogy.
To commemorate, I decided last night to watch Three Colours Blue for the first time in four or so years, only the third time I have ever watched it overall. I am, ostensibly, a different person from who I was when I was a teenager.
Starting the film, I was concerned that the places where the film had touched me were now closed for business; this was a film that had, for better or for worse, formed a small kernel at the core of my identity, and the idea that I might no longer enjoy it scared me. This probably speaks more to my experiences of the last five years than anything else. University was, frankly, turbulent. For every good thing that happened (making the friends that I will have for the rest of my life, getting a distinction, learning about the world, engaging with feminism, becoming a more ethically minded person), there seemed to be something worse to counter them.
I developed crippling anxiety, which still dogs me to this day. I became cynical, and hard, rhapsodising angrily about the injustices, real or imagined, of the Conservative Party, dimly aware of how insufferable I was being, but aware enough that this left me feeling guilty and unlikeable. I cultivated a larger-than-life persona that I was and am uncomfortable with. My existential doubts multiplied by the day, to the point where I rarely attended lectures. I nearly witnessed a completed suicide. I also nearly witnessed a full drug overdose.
I lost sight of who I was; before university, I was quiet, naive, amorous, inquisitive, and blissfully lost in the selfish fug of teenage life. I was not happy, in the all-consuming sense, nor was I a particularly moral person, but I was content, and I had a clear sense of who I was and what I liked. During and after university, a rage began to consume me and muddied my purpose. In my worst moments, I would direct this rage inwards in a blizzard of pitiful self-loathing.
I was also embarrassingly prone to flights of fancy; one week I was going to give my life over to charity, another I was going to devote my life to the pursuit of knowledge. Sexual experimentation was never just that; I was so concerned with whether I was gay, or not, or bisexual, or not, or something else, or not, that I made precious little headway in actually navigating my sexuality. These things had always been present, but at university they intensified and became issues, instead of quirks. I made frequent and misguided attempts to redefine myself, weekly, monthly, annually.
I framed these moments as instances of reaching towards betterment, but really they were symptomatic of a profound discontent. So desperate was I to change that I pinned myself to all manner of personality traits that, simply, weren’t me. The first time this dawned on me was when my close friend made a passing, but deeply perceptive, comment about how often I tried to define myself as something I wasn’t; it took at least a year to recognise that it was something I should work on; over a year later, I am still working on it.
Thus, my worry that Three Colours Blue might not work for me was a profoundly existential one, one tied in with my identity. If the film didn’t work, then it wouldn’t have been because the film had changed, but instead because I had strayed so far from myself that a film I have held as central to my tastes would cease to have worth; and thus, I would lose a part of myself.
And the thought of this scared me.
Yet, going away as I am, it felt right to rewatch the film, to ground myself and remind myself of my roots before my next adventure. And I am glad I did. The film continues to work for me, like all great cinema does, and it actually goes beyond my remembrances, and is profound in ways I could never have seen as a fifteen year old. Within the first fifteen shots, leading up to the car crash that shapes the film, I was weeping; this weeping continued through to the point where Juliette Binoche’s protagonist, the widow Julie, brusquely rebuffs a journalist, inquiring about her husband’s music (we learn he was an eminent composer). Then when the film moved into its middle section, a quiet psychological study of Julie’s grief (or lack thereof) I didn’t stir. I drank in this film.
Some thoughts. Firstly, I was struck by how cohesive and absolute Kieslowski’s construction of cinematic space is; not a single element of any frame is wasted, even down to the use of extras. I noticed, for the first time, in the famous shot of Julie pouring coffee on her icecream, the unusual placement of an extra at the bar, Kieslowski giving him an unusual amount of space as if to say ‘this man has a life too’. In a later scene, where the young witness to the accident tries to return Julie’s crucifix, I noticed the use of protesters with placards as extras, returning from a march of some kind. Both of these highlight Julie’s absolute isolation from the world, in a way I had never picked up on.
More broadly, I was stunned at how fearlessly Kieslowski constructs the entire film around the mental state of a character who is wilfully enigmatic. The colours of the film represent Julie’s mood, with Kieslowski at times bathing Binoche entirely in blue light; the film even sets the soundtrack to her head, as she imagines the music that her husband hadn’t completed before he died. From the cinematography to the sound editing, this is an entire work dedicated to a fictional headspace. It takes risks that other films wouldn’t dare to, and overcomes those risks with a virtuosity that I recognised as being uncommon at the age of fifteen, and now see as deeply cherishable qualities.
One of the biggest risks (in this case one that unequivocally paid off) is making a film around music. Priesner’s Song For The Unification of Europe is one of the most beautiful compositions I have ever heard, a haunting elegy to love and unity, and there is a sense in which the film hangs around it; it is teased consistently, in a number of shots which take us directly into Julie’s headspace, and there is even one scene near the end of the film where the song is deconstructed, literally, in front of the viewer.
I was also surprised at what I had remembered, and what I hadn’t; my mind had erased the scene where Julie brings herself to suicide but cannot follow through, the fact that Julie’s husband’s mistress was pregnant, and the flowing montage of characters at the end. Yet I had remembered the fact that Julie’s friend, the adult worker Lucille, doesn’t wear underwear; I remembered the shot of Julie’s finger touching the screen showing footage of her husband and daughter’s funeral; I remembered the way the film would cut to black mid-scene, play an excerpt from the score, and then return to the scene after a few moments. This technique could have been disruptive and flashy, and yet because the film commits to fully to Julie’s emotions, it serves to immerse us further.
The film works on two levels; on the first level, it is a very literal examination of the mental gymnastics of grief that entirely tracks with my own experiences; Binoche’s face is so evocative of emotions buried and struggling to make it to the fore, alongside other emotions that she is feeling and trying not to, that you seem to understand everything that is happening to her even as she fails to understand it herself. One remarkable moment even sees Binoche come to a character’s door with her head turned away from the camera, and we can imagine with clarity her expressions simply by the way they bounce off the actor facing her.
The second level is a much more philosophical, and symbolic one, in which the entire construction of the film seems to reflect greater truths that we all encounter within our day-to-day lives. From the scene where Lucille reaches out to Julie in anguish at the strip club, to the mouse infestation in Julie’s apartment, to Julie’s insistence on going to the same cafe and sitting in the same place, Kieslowski consistently dramatises what other filmmakers would proselytise or preach. This allows Kieslowski to highlight the ideas of his film, of freedom, and of grief, whilst the film simultaneously works as gripping drama.
Julie’s life takes on a philosophical significance beyond the specifities of her scenario. Where Julie tries to extricate herself from what she is feeling, life consistently finds a way to make her feel it regardless. Kieslowski is obviously commenting on how it impossible to live without being alive, hard as we try, and yet so much time is given over to Julie’s attempts to do so that we can’t help but feel a sort of involuntary sorrow at how her attempts fail. As mentioned, the film is modelled on the French ideal of liberty, yet it ends with Julie embracing the ‘traps’ of friendship and love that she derided in the beginning of the film, relinquishing her freedom in favour of happiness.
As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese puts it, “our highest realization of self results from the gift—or loss—of self”. Whilst her comments are directly about Christian faith, they are true for any pursuit you give yourself over to. When Julie makes the commitment to love once more, to open up again, she is not sacrificing her liberty but giving herself as a gift to those willing to receive her. Kieslowski seems to indicate that liberty is the one true trap, or it can be when pursued dogmatically.
Perfection doesn’t exist, and yet; Three Colours Blue is a perfect film. It has a phenomenal, relentless command of every single element of filmmaking, from the mise-en-scene to the sound editing, from the cinematography to the blocking, from the acting to the screenplay, from the drama to the themes. I cannot conceive of a way in which this film could be improved, or a way in which it is at fault. Form and function, thematic and aesthetic, both collide with a precision that is incredibly, painstakingly rare in cinema.
I also see, now, how much the film has shaped my taste. Whereas before I thought this film stood apart from other films (and in a way it still does), it also acts as a blueprint for qualities I luxuriate in in films. There is a certain texture, a vibe, to nineties cinema, a grainy roughness hewn from an emotional fidelity that’s ultimately indefinable, yet almost tangible when it’s there. Previously I could name three films that articulate it the best (Catherine Breillat’s Romance, Arnaud Desplechin’s Ma Vie Sexuelle, and Cedric Kahn’s L’ennui), but I see now that it can be traced back to this film, with the scene of Julie in the strip club, reaching out to a friend for the first time, with the shot of Julie walking down the street while dustmen sweep in the background, with the recurring motif of the coffee shop as a bubble away from life.
Tone is the hardest thing to describe, and yet the most beautiful thing to experience.
A big movement in film studies at present is ‘reception studies’; that is, the study of the ways in which films have been received, their audiences, followings, and so on. I am very sympathetic to its aims, as it opens up spaces for discourse that deviates from common narratives, but it comes with an assumption that we bring ourselves to a film, and watch it via the lens of our own identity.
It has little to say about what happens when the reverse is the case; when a film has shaped our identity. The ability of a film to do so is the greatest gift of the medium, and I implore everyone to hold these films close to them, whatever they are.