by Brad Nelson
In the opening of her book Blue Nights, Joan Didion admires the characteristics of early summer twilights. “The actual light is blue,” she writes, “and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors.” Didion is describing the blue twilight visible in New York summers, but they can be experienced throughout the world and gently embrace many European latitudes. The French call it l'heure bleue: the blue hour. It has seductive and romantic qualities; faces become creased with mature shadows, buildings in the distance are reduced to silhouettes, and otherwise distinct objects are drawn into a sublime gradient.
In Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blue, this twilight is the atmosphere of a car accident; the first shot of the film is a car wheel revolving through a soft and neutral blue. The movie’s focus shifts abruptly to a glossy blue lollipop wrapper held from the car’s window by the hand of a small child. Another shot: Oil drips from a valve beneath the car. A boy plays ball and cup by the side of the road, in a lighter, foggier blue. Out of frame, the car collides with a tree. Someone screams. Smoke blooms from the car’s interior. A small intact beach ball rolls away unhurried from the lightly vortexed metal. The boy runs toward the accident, and the sky appears considerably lowered onto each of the figures in the foreground. The intense blue blurs the landscape.
Blue is applied to these scenes by the film’s cinematographer, Sławomir Idziak, who describes himself as having “two constants: handheld camera and filters.” He worked on Kieślowski’s previous film, The Double Life of Veronique, pulling shots through a golden yellow filter which caused the scenery of Kraków to look as if developed from a dream of the city. Buildings in the background shimmer incompletely. The actors move slowly and deliberately, and often appear to be suspended in amber.
The filters in Blue are reverently blue, but their effect is less dreamlike and more a way to distribute meaning onto objects and spaces: a chandelier, a pool, the lollipop wrapper. We see the blue of the opening shot later in the film not as twilight, but as a color expressed by the cathode rays of a television screen, on which an old man bungee jumps toward a body of water. Idziak’s expressive use of filters causes unrelated scenes to relate atmospherically, forming connections between people and things that have the ambiguity and resonance of memory.
After the accident, Julie, played by Juliette Binoche with a deeply expressive restraint, wakes up in a hospital to find her husband and daughter have both died. When she returns from the hospital, she sells their home and moves into an apartment in Paris in an attempt to sever all connection to her past life. “I want no possessions,” she later informs her mother, “no memories, no friends, no lovers. They’re all traps.”
Blue is the first of three movies Kieślowski filmed between 1992 and 1994, each named for the colors of the French flag, their themes derived from the revolutionary motto, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Blue is intended to explore liberty, but at this point in his career Kieślowski, a Polish filmmaker, found himself uninterested in the political dimensions of the word and wanted instead to convey the strange and ambiguous shape of “freedom” in terrestrial life. Julie’s profound dissociation is an attempt to liberate herself: from pain, from grief, from responsibility.
But the past is never past. While still in the hospital, Julie is awoken by the sound of strings blooming violently from the quiet. The musical phrases originate from her husband’s symphony for the reunification of Europe, the incomplete composition of which haunts Julie. Most of the soundtrack is characterized by silence, so these sudden vortexes of sound are experienced by the audience as memories of their previous intrusions in the film. Blue light invades the room, overwhelming Julie’s face. (Idziak achieved this effect by overexposing “blue negative from the inside.” “It was very hard to control,” he says.)
Other blues: The beads of the chandelier that hangs in Julie’s daughter’s room, which later reflect across Julie’s face in a blurred constellation. The pulsing blue of the pool Julie swims in daily, which resembles International Klein Blue, a form of ultramarine the French artist Yves Klein developed; it’s so deep it appears almost radioactive. Klein, incidentally, considered the kind of monochrome painting that produced International Klein Blue as “an open window into freedom.”
Julie, in her struggle for freedom, relocates herself to Rue Mouffetard in Paris. Kieslowski describes the district as “a bit too touristy and postcardlike,” but these features are precisely what give it the anonymity and indifference Julie requires. In her freedom, she drinks coffee. One shot of a sugarcube absorbing coffee for eight seconds seems to embody the slowness and deliberation of her new life. She also swims. Occasionally she remembers. The horns and strings swarm back in, gathering in the soundtrack like invasive plants. She clutches her head underwater and curls up embryonically. In a later scene, as she emerges from the pool, someone asks if she’s crying. The strings return and the shot fades out entirely, only to fade back in on the same instant, like a blackout. It resembles the radical disconnection of trauma. “The idea is to convey an extremely subjective point of view,” Kieslowski said. “That is, that time really does pass, but for Julie, at a certain moment, it stands still.”
Binoche drew elements of her performance from actress Anny Duperey’s memoir Le voile noir, which describes Duperey’s parents dying from asphyxiation when she was eight. When discussing the role in her commentary on the film, Binoche quotes the book from memory: “Suffering inside is hard enough without having to show it on the ouside.” Her performance is one of gauzy intensity, her every movement cautious and removed but also full of invisible tension. When she lets the actual grieving Julie to the surface it’s rhythmically shattering, seeing someone so deliberately composed rapidly degenerate into a kind of nameless and shapeless pain, as when when she drags her fingers along a rock wall until they rupture and bleed, or when she bites and consumes a lollipop that resembles the one her daughter ate before her death.
Julie’s pursuit of freedom fails, of course, because she is unable to avoid connecting to others. She becomes inadvertent, almost unconscious friends with a stripper living in her building, who once had the same chandelier as Julie’s daughter. She discovers, through photographs broadcasted on a TV program memorializing her husband, that she had been cheated on, and deliberately searches for her husband’s mistress. (She gazes through the window of a courthouse at the mistress; she’s presiding over a divorce trial from which the events of Kieslowski’s next film develop.) These connections mass like the strings in the reunification symphony: into irreducible, aggressive harmonies. We’re defined by others; every relationship is a trap that seals you further into yourself.
Connection and communication are central as well to Kieślowski’s follow-ups, White and Red. All three films in the trilogy are interconnected, though the connections are often oblique and irrelevant to the narrative. As much as they’re deliberately written, they’re intended as coincidences. Kieślowski had previously conveyed his fascination with coincidence in The Double Life of Veronique, where Irène Jacob plays two characters in different countries who are regardless direct mirrors of each other, and who feel a connection toward each other that is both supernatural and incidental.
Coincidence works a fractured path through Blue. Julie hears the precise notes of her husband’s symphony played by a homeless flautist in the alley outside her apartment. “How do you know that music?” she asks him, bewildered. “I make up lots of stuff,” the musician says. “I like to play.” “This is an obsession of mine,” Kieślowski said while discussing the scene, “that people in different places and for different reasons think the same thing.” Eventually the narrative aligns with this fixation; Julie and her husband’s former collaborator Olivier attempt to complete the symphony. As they work the focus of the camera slowly blurs until they’re almost indistinguishable from each other, just drifting shadows.
While composing the poem “Skunk Hour,” Robert Lowell found himself haunted by a “blue china doorknob.” “I never used the doorknob,” he wrote, “or knew what it meant, yet somehow it started the current of images.” In the book Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski, Annette Insdorf describes Blue as “closer to poetry than prose.” The individual scenes connect to each other like stanzas, fragments implying a shape instead of completing one. The shots are not necessarily kinetic or even cinematic but instead have the compositional integrity and grace of still photography. There’s the opening scene, which is more collage than narrative, a woven nest of images: The car, the candy wrapper, oil draining from the car, the accident. The individual images in Blue attach to each other like memories, moving, consuming, and reiterating themselves in endless patterns, like the waves of Julie’s pool.
Brad Nelson is a writer living in Queens. His work has appeared in Spin, The Atlantic and the Village Voice.