Life is as much defined by loss as it is by growth and experience. We lose relationships, our youth, our hair, and, if we get old enough, our memories which are the very nature of our existence begin to fade. Learning to deal with these losses is a defining element of the life experience, and the most successful lives are charted by facing these troubles and persevering. But there are the losses that we can move past: losing a girlfriend, the death of an elderly parent, getting fired from a job; and then there are the losses that create black holes at the center of our very being. The emptiness consumes our entirety and we are broken possibly for the rest of our lives. No film has explored that type of loss with such raw precision as 1993’s Blue from Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski as part of his French “Three Colors” trilogy.
There are few fears more intense than the death of a child. Even for the childless, the safety and well-being of children is paramount, and when children die of cancer or in school shootings or at the hands of a serial predator, it sparks our deepest existential fears. If children, particularly those too young to yet be corrupted by the world, can suffer the pains and cruelties of this world, then the idea of a benign and caring creator seems laughably unlikely. And if you lose both your child and your husband at once, what reason could you have for continuing in a world intent on taking those things which matter above all else? By the end of Blue, it’s impossible to avoid that question ever again.
After her husband and daughter die in a car accident which she survived, Julie’s (Juliette Binoche) life is ripped from its axis. Julie is not simply depressed or heartbroken over the loss of her child and the love of her life; she is wandering the world in a fugue state fleeing the only emotion she’s capable of feeling: crushing despair. She can burn the remains of her composer husband’s last works to spite the universe for taking him from her; she can sleep with his best friend; she can sell every last worldly possession she owns; but she can not escape her own despair.
Fearing the ultimate cost that any emotional bond involves, Julie abandons her palatial home in the French countryside to live a life of seclusion in a Parisian apartment complex that she specifically requests has no children. But it doesn’t take long for Julie to realize that you can’t escape emotional commitment forever and a burgeoning friendship with a sex worker in her building as well as the first embers of romance despite her explicit desire to never feel love again threaten to destroy the world devoid of attachment Julie hopes to craft for herself.
Blue is a piece of impressionistic art at heart and unfurls through intimate snapshots of the wreckage of Julie’s life. Kieslowski’s confidence in his subject matter (and the breath-taking performance of his lead) allow multiple extended close shots of the simultaneous death and pain written into Julie’s face. It allows hallucinatory moments of classical music as Julie’s wishes to abandon her old life crash around the daily reminders of what her life once was and what it could still be. It allows Kieslowski to portray life and (to paraphrase Roger Ebert) life itself and know that Kieslowski won’t lose his audience in the process.
The stunning cinematography from Slawomir Idziak manages to rival if not outright surpass the heart-rending storytelling of the film. Although the “Blue” in the film’s title (and the red and the white in the titles of the other two entries in the trilogy) refer to the French flag with blue equating to liberty, Idziak also runs wild with each hue of blue in the color spectrum of the film. Several shots bathe Binoche in so much blue that she becomes as skeletal as the remains of her soul, and expert use of blue-green shades adds a ghostly quality to a moment early in the film where Julie is barely even a ghost of her self trying to find an anchor in the world. The shots vary from perverse intimacy and directness to suggestive distance and there is never a second where Blue isn’t a visceral delight to behold.
Juliette Binoche’s performance is one for the ages. Though there are brief glimpses into the lives of others throughout Blue, the majority of the film is carried with the camera focused squarely on her. And Juliette Binoche makes Julie’s pain so real that it acquires physical weight and becomes almost too horrific to continue watching. In moments where Julie smashes her finger under the lid of a piano or grates her knuckles to ragged flesh against a hedge wall, Binoche’s performance caused me to hyper-ventilate with anxiety at its intensity. The performance is intense without being hyperbolic and the balancing act required is nearly impossible but Binoche managed it with frightening ease.
At just over 90 minutes, Blue is a textbook example of characterization as much through suggestion as through active storytelling and like Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith, it shows that whole worlds can be evoked in the spaces between what’s actually said in a story. The narrative of Blue jumps from point to point, leaving the story beats on which most film-makers would have put the most focus on the cutting room floor, and it lets the smallest character moments speak volumes: Julie’s inability to kill a mouse with children (and then her willingness to have a cat do her dirty work), a visit to the club where her sex-worker friend works, an encounter with a street musician playing her late husband’s unpublished song, and other moments. The precision of Blue‘s details are breathtaking.
Despite the bleakness of much of Blue, its tragedy is the tragedy of life, and by the film’s end, the redemptive elements of life are able to peek again through the surface without easy catharsis or cheap emotional resolution. Though the film ends on as positive a note as a film of this nature possibly could, the haunting final shot of Juliette Binoche reminds us that even the worst loss can eventually cease to be our all but that loss will remain with us forever. And is there any more universal truth to life than that?
Final Score: A