Kind Of 'Blue'
In the first of a new series suggesting films made since 1968 that might plausibly be included in an All Time Top Ten, Nick James praises the first of Kieslowski's trilogy
In September Sight and Sound celebrates its 70th birthday, which will coincide with the publication of our ten-yearly world critics' poll of the ten best films of all time. One of the characteristics of this poll, which has been running since 1952, is its concrete outlook on what constitutes the best in cinema. Orson Welles' 'Citizen Kane' did not feature on our first list, though the film was made a decade beforehand (World War II retarded its worldwide exposure), but it has won each of the four polls from 1962 to 1992. The other top-ten fixtures have been Eisenstein's 'Battleship Potemkin', Renoir's 'The Rules of the Game' and Antonioni's 'L'avventura', though this last film didn't make the 1992 list. In 1952 the critics voted De Sica's 'Bicycle Thieves' the winner when it was just four years old; in 1962 they gave 'L'avventura' second spot just two years after it came into the world. By 1982, however, there was nothing newer than Fellini's '81/2', made in 1963, and by 1992 the most recent film was Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey', made in 1968.
Of course, critics contributing to at least the first two polls could conceivably have seen all relevant cinema (from a western point of view, that is) and consequently have felt more confident in their exclusions. As the 20th century wore on, however, such an assurance became increasingly untenable, not least because there was so much more new cinema to process. One of the reasons why there is a wide generation gap between the established auteurist critics of the 60s and 70s, whose views and reverences these polls have best reflected, and younger voices more attuned to cinema as spectacle, is simply that it is impossible now to have seen all relevant cinema, particularly much of the early cinema their predecessors grew up admiring.
The result is that in recent decades established critics have avoided the new - whether as an aspect of playing it safe or as a genuine statement about the decline of cinema. In view of this ossifying tendency, we have decided in a small way to celebrate cinema made since 1968. In doing so we are putting to one side all the usual arguments around canon-forming, subjectivity, who chooses and why. In the run-up to our publication of the new poll, a series of five articles will champion five films made since 1968 as plausible candidates for inclusion in an all-time top ten. This is not an attempt to influence the decisions of the critics polled, nor are the writers involved committing themselves to including these films in their lists. It's simply our aim to highlight the strength of cinema from around the world made in the last 25 years.
Having described above the generational shift that has characterised our top-ten critics' polls and implied that a different kind of cinema will be celebrated in this mini-series of possible contenders for inclusion from the last 25 years, it might seem odd that our first candidate should be Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours Blue (Trois Couleurs bleu, 1993). After all, in a very immediate way, Blue is the very model of a latterday European arthouse work of craft and prestige, and that it is a constituent part of a larger work, the 'Three Colours' trilogy, only adds to that assessment. (The trilogy may well turn up in several top tens, although the individual films are less likely to do so.) The trilogy bands together three films, Blue, White and Red - the colours of the French flag - under the loose headings Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and can be seen in some ways as Kieslowski the Pole coming to terms with becoming, so to speak, a French film-maker under the auspices of French producer Marin Karmitz. Blue's relationship to the concept of liberty is deeply ironic here, since Kieslowski, as we shall see, regards absolute freedom and love as opposites.
Schooled in the virtues of neorealist visual storytelling, sumptuously photographed in 35mm colour and impeccably pared down to its vital essences, Blue devotes the vast bulk of its screen time to gazing at Juliette Binoche, an actress of great talent and beauty, as she goes about doing remarkably everyday things. But the film is far from an enraptured hymn to graceful looks and elegant posturing. It's savage irony and remarkable austerity that hold sway.
The story begins with a car crash in which Julie de Courcy (Binoche), though only injured herself, loses her famous composer husband and her child Anna. Failing at suicide, she decides to erase the traces of her marriage and withdraw from the world. Though she has everyone's sympathy, Julie does her best to push everyone away. "You've changed," says a music journalist. "You were never so abrasive or unpleasant. What happened?" "Don't you know?" responds Julie. "We had a car crash. My daughter was killed. So was my husband."
Blue treats Julie as someone trying desperately to brush off hurtful connections. She soon finds, however, that no matter how many cobweb strands she removes, near-invisible remnants trail around with her. Hers is an unusual kind of extreme grief expressed in a need to clear the entire past out of her mind, as if to continue any part of what was would corrupt what it had meant to her. This stringent, otherworldly idealism is constantly tested by arbitrarily cruel, kind and ironic interruptions in the form of apparently chance meetings with journalists, her husband's colleagues, new neighbours, a would-be lover, a street musician, a pregnant mouse and the witness to the car crash. But her emphatic behaviour also presents the viewer with the unexpected - for instance, her sudden summoning of her husband's partner Olivier to have sex with her when she realises he's in love with her, done seemingly in the hope that once he's fucked her, he'll realise how ordinary she is and let her go.
But to race so quickly after the psychology of Julie and those around her is to get ahead of ourselves, because the way Blue treats its first 15 minutes is part of what makes it so unique to cinema and to its own time. A comparison between the fullness of the script and what ended up in the final edit is illustrative of Kieslowski's absolutist approach to his craft. In the finished film, a great deal of exposition and description gets condensed almost wordlessly into telling images.
What we see in the opening minutes of Blue is an extraordinary orchestration of sound and image: a car wheel running on a fast road whose surface keeps changing, altering the dull rumble of the tyres; a close-up of a piece of blue-and-silver concertinaed foil flapping noisily, being held out of the car window by a child's hand. We then see a blurry image of the child's face, lit green, through the car's back window, which itself reflects lines beaded with lights that recede into the infinite of perspective; then we see her point of view of the blurry lights. The car stops and the child dashes to a grassy verge to take a pee while the driver stretches his legs; the camera returns to the idling car, a close-up showing us fluid leaking from a pipe underneath. "Hurry, Anna. Get back in," says an unseen Julie. She does and the car drives off.
Then we see a young man's hand in close-up. He's playing with a game where you aim to get a wooden ball with a hole in it on to the end of a stick that's attached by string. He's sitting by the side of the road in the vain hope of getting a lift. Fog has gathered. The boy keeps trying to no avail. Then he hears the car and half-heartedly gestures his thumb at it. Returning to the game, he instantly succeeds, smiles and at that moment hears a collision. We see the car wrapped around a tree, up on its back end, the engine wreathed in smoke; the door falls open and a beach ball rolls out. The boy runs towards the car, at first taking his skateboard, and then dropping it. So far there has been no music. The fog has already blown away.
Once we know that Julie is the survivor and it's her story we're following, we can already see two 'if only' opportunities for saving the child: if only she hadn't called her back from her pee so urgently; if only they'd stopped for the half-hearted hitcher. What this montage opening does is pile up images of the family's last moments together in a fragmentary manner that anticipates the brooding on them Julie might want to indulge in instead of having a future. Kieslowski and his writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz have a difficult trick to pull off whereby it's the things that Julie is renouncing - and we can't help thinking here about the Catholic tradition of renouncing worldly things in order to be closer to the spiritual - that help us to fill in who she has been. There's an irony in getting to know a character just at the point when she wants no one to know any more: it's like raiding someone's garbage can.
From the accident, Blue cuts to a close-up of a mattress feather quivering with the breath of someone in a deep sleep, then a man's hand is placed next to it. We see the out-of-focus head of a man in a white coat; then his reflection appears distorted in a huge eyeball with a glint of gold in it as he tells her that her husband is dead. We see Julie's whole face for the first time when she learns her daughter is dead, and she crumples into the pillow. Cut to a window being shattered by Julie. She hides behind a toilet door until the nurse comes, then slips back into the nurses' office to steal some pills - but she can't swallow them, can't kill herself. Later Julie watches the funeral of her loved ones on television, with some brass funeral music, but it's not until the journalist finds her resting on the hospital balcony that we get our first burst of soundtrack music. When the journalist says "Hello", Julie suddenly hears a very loud passage of music and it's as if she's blacked out for a moment, and the screen floods with blue. It's a device that returns many times, although never more effectively than here. The audience, used always to hearing music in film, has got this far with almost none, only to be hit suddenly with the force of a full orchestra. It relates to the question the journalist shouts after Julie as she walks off and which is our key to the rest of the film: "Did you write your husband's music?" Immediately we're wondering if that sudden orchestral passage was from Julie's memory or if it was some kind of new composition.
Our introduction to Julie is thus mediated through images that respond to her state of mind. Bizarre perspectives, Dutch tilts and abrupt changes of scale abound. And by planting all this material on screen uncontextualised by voiceover or much dialogue, Blue presumes, rightly, that the viewer has the sensitivity and intelligence to infer everything. This trust in the audience is one of the things that makes Blue such a 90s film, because it recognises the sophistication in image-reading that most of us, as denizens of the late 20th century, possess. As the recovered Julie hurries about, clearing out her mansion and trashing her late husband's manuscripts, trying to find a quiet new life in a suburban Paris apartment, the film surrounds her with new attachments, with a world that crowds in on her unbidden, until she discovers the secret that makes her precious recall of her family as flawed as any other memory - that her husband had a mistress who is now pregnant with his child.
Until that point Julie has been a kind of anti-femme fatale, a woman who is obliterating all traces of her lover after the fact in revenge for his having left her and for allowing their child to die. For her to find that it wasn't the first time he'd 'left' her gives her permission to forgive him and herself. Blue concentrates much of it effort on depicting a woman determined to be an enigma - an intelligent woman who, for most of the film, has little interest in living men - and portrays her with a uniquely visually and aurally dependent aesthetic born of documentary but fulfilled in almost abstract compositions. The film is put together with ruthless felicity yet is as bleak and harrowing as a fateful film should be. Politically it captures many of the ironies of the freedom espoused by the 'me' generation, yet it never patronises either its characters or its audiences. On an allegorical level it could also be about Europe's futile attempt to wipe the memory of its fractious history - otherwise why the trilogy? Who knows?
Blue is very much an auteurist film in the old-fashioned sense in that it represents the work of six craftspeople at the top of their form, many of whom had worked together before. There's Kieslowski himself, screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz (who started working with Kieslowski on No End, 1984 - the film that Sliding Doors greatly resembles - and went on to Dekalog, 1988, and The Double Life of Véronique, 1991), composer Zbigniew Preisner (who worked on the same films), cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (who joined the regular team for Dekalog), sound recordist Jean-Claude Laureux (a favourite of Louis Malle) and lastly Juliette Binoche, whose performance, in a career of strict, intelligent underplaying, may be her most subtle ever.
What makes the film most interesting in the context of the All Time Top Ten debate is how it bridges the generational gap I mentioned. The film's obvious arthouse provenance stretches back at least to Bergman, but it has some similarities with more recent US cinema. When Julie returns, at the end, to Olivier and lovemaking, the soundtrack plays for the first time the full version of her husband's Concerto for the Unification of Europe. Its theme is the passage (I think) from St Paul which vaunts Love above Faith and Hope. As this full-on orchestral piece plays, camera movements link us to Julie's new community: we see the hitcher wearing the cross he found at the crash site which Julie gave to him when he tried to return it; then Julie's mother, suffering from Alzheimer's in her nursing home; then her neighbour, Lucille, the stripper, in a sex club; and finally her husband's mistress having her scan, and touching the baby's image on screen the way Julie had touched Anna's coffin on the tiny television in hospital. This reminds me of the similar linking scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999), something of a touchstone film for recent US indie cinema - only the music distinguishes the one as arthouse and the other as 'indie'.
You can add the eagerness with which Europe's 'hottest' director Tom Tykwer has taken up Kieslowski and Piesiewicz's unfilmed screenplay for Heaven to show that Kieslowski and his team remain a huge influence. Put it next to Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane and you might say Blue is too small a film and that its historical impact was slight. But if cinema as art is still alive, it will be in a large part due to film-makers like Kieslowski who know the whole history of their craft and yet revivified their means and methods constantly, however modest the scale.