Three Colours: Blue (Trois couleurs: Bleu)

France (1993) Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski

Julie (Juliette Binoche) is the lone survivor of a car accident which took her husband, the famous composer Patrice de Courcy and their five year-old daughter. After a failed suicide attempt whilst recovering in hospital, Julie decides to shut herself away from the world, leaving her large country home and taking a small flat in Paris with no clothes of possessions other than a blue bead chandelier belonging to her daughter. Despite her best efforts to live a reclusive life people from both her past and new acquaintances draw her back into a social world.

The first film in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s celebrated Three Colours trilogy – each a representation of the French national motto of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” and the colours of French flag – is a sombre, heavily artistic and symbolic affair which cemented Juliette Binoche’s acting reputation on an international basis. Taking “Liberty” as its theme it explores Julie’s attempt to liberate herself from all memories and physical reminders associated with her life with her late husband and daughter while the colour blue is suitably prevalent throughout.

Julie’s world essentially ends following the accident and her attempts to wallow in her grief at hospital are thwarted by the staff doing their job and helping her heal. After being unable to swallow a bottle of pills Julie decides that withdrawing into herself is a better option and upon her release moves out of the luxurious family home and starts anew in a grubby Parisian flat.

Discovering there was an unfinished composition of her husband’s celebrating European unity, Julie destroys the original score but her friend and fellow composer Olivier (Benoît Régent), has been tasked with completing the piece, which he suspects Julie actually wrote. Julie then befriends an erotic dancer at her apartment block Lucille (Charlotte Very) who is having an affair with the landlord prompting his wife to raise a petition to have her evicted which Julie refuses to sign.

Kieslowski relies a lot on symbolism and layers of subtle allusion to tell what is a bleak but emotionally potent tale, from the clever applications of blue filters in the cinematography to the recurring musical interruptions – snatches of Patrice’s unfinished symphony (usually accompanied by annoying black outs) cropping up during key moments during the film as though it is haunting Julie like a defiant spectre from her past.

In a unique twist on Julie’s search for complete detachment from her past, she seeks an unusual salvation in her visits to her mother (Emmanuelle Riva), an Alzheimer’s sufferer who mistakes Julie for her sister. But it the discovery that her husband was having an affair and the mistress Sandrine (Florence Pernel) is pregnant forces Julie to re-evaluate her recent decisions.

A few scenes show Julie trying to remember how to feel after shutting everyone and everything out of her life; when out walking she lets her hand scrape against the wall to the feel but nothing registers. She finds a mouse in her flat surrounded by babies so she borrows a neighbour’s cat to rid them for her with no contrition whatsoever, apparently musophobia being a lifelong issue for her.

Kieslowski appears to be showing us that no mater how far we try to run from ourselves or leave something in the past, it will inevitably return to haunt us. This film isn’t about Julie refusing to let go, it is about her refusing to let the memories stay with her in order to move on. Denial is a big part of grief and Julie is a woman struggling with her grief.

This is a very arty film which might put some people off; the opening fifteen minutes or so seem to lack proper direction with fleeting images being relied upon to set up the plot before things kick into gear. The imagery is often fancifully creative – in hospital a conversation between a near comatose Julie and Olivier is shot entirely as an extreme close-up of Julie’s eyes showing Olivier’s reflection.

In Juliette Binoche, Kieslowski found the perfect conduit for his exploration into grief, as she commits herself to conveying every aspect of Julie’s complex emotional journey, delivering a career defining performance and setting the bar high for the leads of the two sequels in this series. The other cast members offer solid support but the film belongs to Binoche.

Three Colours: Blue will be seen as either visual poetry or bleak drama but it is undeniably a powerfully resonant exploration in the handling of grief and a stirring start to this lauded trilogy of films.