- Three Colors: Blue (1993) movie review: The first entry in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s mid-1990s trilogy, this darkly hued psychological drama remains one of the most widely admired releases of the late 20th century.
- As a grieving widow/mother dealing with loss, loneliness, and memories, Juliette Binoche delivers one of the most affecting performances of her career.
Three Colors: Blue movie review: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s psychological drama is a ‘flat-out masterpiece’
Krzysztof Kieslowski was one of the more interesting filmmakers of the last quarter century. The centerpiece of his claim to greatness is the film trilogy he directed and co-wrote with Krzysztof Piesiewicz in the early to mid-1990s: Three Colors: Blue (1993), Three Colors: White (1994), and Three Colors: Red (1994).
Representing the colors of the French flag, Blue, White, and Red also symbolize the virtues of liberty, equality, and fraternity, respectively.
Co-winner of the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion (with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts), Blue is the first film in the trilogy. Besides its association with the concept of liberty, the color also resonates for its associations with depression and coldness, two moods well depicted in Kieslowski’s effort.
The filmmaker made a wise choice to depoliticize his Three Colors films, for the freedom that Blue deals with is not political but personal – a hoped-for freedom from memories instead of the cheap sort that Hollywood would foist, like a woman running away from an abusive boyfriend. If only more artists could learn that political statements can be made slyly and subtly, and thus wield far more power than overt preaching.
Another wise move Kieslowski made was to cast Blue as a “picaresque” whose main character is delineated in small strokes, with scenes that don’t drive plot or character development, but that stand alone and apart as merely defining the protagonist’s state of mind.
And finally, Kieslowski wisely offers scenes not directly tied to the lead character’s dilemma, but which link Blue to the other films in the Three Colors trilogy. For instance, the shot of the old lady trying to deposit a bottle in a recycling bin, whose opening is too high for her to reach. This is pure symbolism, but it’s so slickly and subtly inserted that it’s easy to miss. In fact, Juliette Binoche’s character misses the whole thing play out near her because she is daydreaming in a park.
Freedom from memories
Three Colors: Blue starts with an automobile accident that kills composer Patrice de Courcy and his five-year-old daughter Anna. The only survivor is his wife, Julie (Juliette Binoche). Fortunately, the crash occurs off camera, not in the melodramatic style a Hollywood movie would drool over.
Julie recovers, eventually deciding to abandon her country estate and setting out for an anonymous life in Paris. She refuses to deal with her emotions in the obvious ways, but this doesn’t mean she lacks them. Part of her approach involves seducing her husband’s writing partner Olivier Benoît (Benoît Régent), so she can delude herself that she is cold and perhaps deserving of her loss.
As the film progresses, Julie strives to deal with her husband’s unfinished composition, “Song for the Unification of Europe” (actually written by Blue composer Zbigniew Preisner); her mentally ill mother (Hiroshima Mon Amour star Emmanuelle Riva), who is constantly shown in the reflections of glass that surround Julie; and her attempts at a new life.
Later on, two other key female characters emerge: The stripper Lucille (Charlotte Véry), who befriends Julie after she refuses to sign a petition to boot the stripper out; and Sandrine (Florence Pernel), her dead husband’s mistress who is pregnant with his child.
It is a mark of the filmmaker’s intelligence that Three Colors: Blue doesn’t opt for the cheap American manner of resolving conflicts. Both Julie and Sandrine act in mature ways. There is no catfighting, much less some sort of “erotic” attraction that develops between the two women. Instead, they simply deal with the situation as most people would.
Kieslowski’s film also offers many exquisite moments of visual poesy, not only in the expected use of the color blue but also in scenes of Julie swimming while hearing her husband’s music in her mind – at one time, she curls up into a fetal ball and floats.
In addition, the director uses blackouts not at the end of a scene, but as dramatic breaths in time between stressful moments whenever Julie needs to steel herself for life’s rough patches.
‘Dominating’ Juliette Binoche
In Three Colors: Blue, Juliette Binoche gives one of those dominating performances because it’s both total and reserved. There is no scenery-chewing here.
At one point, when Julie tries to deal with her rage, instead of screaming she starts crunching a lollipop – a devastating scene that conveys restrained but intense violence.
Also worth noting, apart from the main musical composition within the film, Zbigniew Preisner’s score is rarely too much, while Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography is incandescent. Idziak fully deserved winning the Best Cinematography Award at the Venice Film Festival, for color has rarely been used as effectively.
Some have absurdly attacked Blue for its “unrealistic color palette,” even though Kieslowski’s film makes no pretense in trying to conform to reality, whether in its use of color, narrative ellipses, blackouts, or any other techniques.
I started this review by stating that Krzysztof Kieslowski was one of the more interesting filmmakers of the last quarter century.
Three Colors: Blue will append to that claim the term “great,” for the film is a flat-out masterpiece. It is as mysterious as a work by Michelangelo Antonioni, as symbolic as a work by Ingmar Bergman, as humane as a work by Federico Fellini, and as precise as a work by Stanley Kubrick.
That’s good company to keep and Blue fully earns such companionship.
Three Colors: Blue / Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993)
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieslowski & Krzysztof Piesiewicz.
Cast: Juliette Binoche. Benoît Régent. Emmanuelle Riva. Florence Pernel. Charlotte Véry. Hélène Vincent.
Cameo: Julie Delpy.
“Three Colors: Blue: First-Class Binoche in Kieslowski Masterwork” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Three Colors: Blue: First-Class Binoche in Kieslowski Masterwork” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“Three Colors: Blue (1993) Movie Review” endnotes
Juliette Binoche Three Colors: Blue movie image: Miramax.
“Three Colors: Blue: First-Class Binoche in Kieslowski Masterwork” last updated in September 2021.