Julie, the character played by Juliette Binoche in Blue, the first film in the Three Colors trilogy, is not an easy woman to like. It’s true we feel for her—she loses both her husband and young daughter to a single car accident in the film’s first few minutes—but how she responds to her tragedy isn’t what we’ve been conditioned to expect from our movies. We expect tears, or even a version of grief bordering on mania.
But instead, Julie swallows her pain. She becomes as unfeeling as the stone wall bordering her family’s country home. She doesn’t seem sad as much as angry. Furthermore, she resolves, in the wake of her tragedy, to be free—free of everything. She puts her lavish home up for sale and takes an apartment in the city. When asked what she does for a living, she responds, “I don’t do anything.” She wants no one and nothing, except for anonymity. Why she responds this way is, in one way, a mystery, but in another way it makes perfect sense. It’s often when we have no one to blame for our troubles, no one to lash out against, and nothing to avenge that we feel at our most helpless and angry. Such is what prompts Julie’s desire for freedom.
I should add here that my claim that Blue is about a woman’s search for freedom isn’t an interpretive stretch on my part; it’s what the film’s director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, intended. Blue is the first part of a trilogy that’s followed by White and Red. Combined, each represents a color of the French flag and tackles a different aspect of the French national motto—“liberty, equality, fraternity.”
Previously, when Kieslowski was still making movies in his homeland of Poland, he created another series of story based around a concept: The Decalogue. Each one-hour story from this 10-part series related, however distantly, to one of the Ten Commandments. The trick in the case of both The Decalogue and Three Colors is to look beyond the basic themes at hand to what Kieslowski might really be getting at.
The question, then, isn’t whether Three Colors: Blue is about freedom and individuality. Rather, it’s about how we think about freedom and individuality.
Here in America, and around the world for that matter, almost nothing is as sacred as freedom and individuality, whether in political speech or daily practice. Kieslowski would have us rethink both of these, not so much in a political sense (which would be too obvious) but in a more mystical sense. He wants to challenge that attitude that says: “I can make it by myself. I don’t need work, I don’t need people and, most importantly, I don’t need love.”
As hard as she tries, though, Julie can’t seem to escape any of these. As the movie progresses, she becomes more and more entangled in the lives of other people, with each encounter pushing her to choose between kindness and isolation. Even when her choice is inaction, as when a neighbor in her apartment building tries to enlist her help in kicking out an unwanted tenant, there can be a gap between what she intended (isolation) and what was perceived (kindness).
Or, in another case, a young man who witnessed Julie’s tragedy tracks her down in order to return a necklace he found among the wreckage. On the end of the necklace—which belonged to her daughter—is a crucifix. Julie tells him to keep it. But if the necklace is an object of pain for her, her rejection of it transforms it into an object of grace for the young man—it becomes a free gift given at the cost of another’s life.
Julie’s biggest trial, though, comes from a man named Olivier (Benoît Régent), who was a colleague of her late husband’s. He has long loved her and now wants her love in return, as well as her help finishing the symphony her composer husband left unfinished. But as much as Julie wants nothing to do with either, and as hard as she tries to turn her back on both, bits and pieces of this unfinished music break into her life unbidden, shattering her sense of independence and calling her to return to her own unfinished life.
What do these mysterious musical interludes mean exactly? They’re opaque enough that they could mean a number of things. Perhaps they only signify her grief. Or maybe these sudden interruptions of music and blue light are symbolic of her bottled-up pain, which threatens to finally overwhelm her. Or it’s possible, too, that there’s a spiritual component, for while the music seems to come from inside Julie, it also seems to be breaking into her life from the outside, like the voice of God.
But these are just impressions I get from Kieslowski’s film, not what he necessarily had in mind himself.
We must not forget about that necklace. Nor should it be ignored that the lyrics for the unfinished symphony come from 1 Corinthians 13:1, which reads, “If I speak in the tongues of men and or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”*
With this in mind, it’s possible to see Three Colors: Blue as more than a story about a woman’s pain and her search for freedom—it’s a story about how God pursues us and encourages us, through His love, to love others in return. The final implication, then, is that true freedom comes not from setting ourselves adrift, selfishly guarding our own individualism, but from compassion and from giving freely of ourselves to others.
*The critic Jeffrey Overstreet identifies this passage in his excellent book, Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth, and Evil in the Movies.
Andrew Welch is a film critic for RELEVANT magazine and the Art House Dallas blog. You can follow him on Twitter, and you can read more of his film writing at his blog, Adventures in Cinema.