It is a mark of the virtuosity with which director Krzysztof Kieslowski has made "Blue" that it is possible to envision its intensely emotional story of a woman's search for meaning after tragedy unhinges her life becoming, with slight tinkering, the plot for a standard-issue Bette Davis "women's picture" of the 1940s.
Yet there is nothing ordinary or banal about the way Kieslowski, a Polish director now working in France, has gone about his business here. Though he starts with conventional story elements, he conveys them with a striking combination of focused acting, unexpected images, music strong enough to be a physical presence, and a sensitivity to light, color (blue, not surprisingly, is a visual leitmotif) and textures.
This kind of complete filmmaking gives "Blue" (at the Nuart in West Los Angeles, rated R for "some sexuality") a sense of emotion that is both pared down and intensified. Daring in its willingness to risk looking maudlin by dealing with extremes, "Blue" doesn't hesitate to explore spiritual and psychological states that are beyond many films.
"Blue's" official name is "Three Colors: Blue" and is envisioned by Kieslowski (whose previous 10-part "The Decalogue" indicated a proclivity for multiple stories) as the first of three films named after the colors of the French flag and investigating the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Liberty is in the dock here, but it is not the conventional notions of freedom that Kieslowski and co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz are concerned with, but the more philosophical notion of freedom from people, possessions and even ambition, things that to many people define--not limit--life.
To Julie (Juliette Binoche), "Blue's" protagonist, these are not theoretical concerns. In the film's opening moments, she loses both her husband, a celebrated composer, and her young daughter in a terrible automobile accident in which she herself is seriously injured.
When she is well enough to reclaim her life, Julie decides to drastically cut it back, obsessively wiping out all traces of her past self, from her belongings to human attachments, that she now regards as traps. These include the affection of Olivier (Benoit Regent), her husband's associate, and the score of the Concerto for the Unification of Europe, a major commission her husband was working on when he died. Put in simplest terms, Julie wants to disappear.
Two things stop her, one being the peskiness of life itself, which stubbornly refuses to go away and leave her alone. A series of small moments and unexpected events, insignificant in themselves, ever so delicately combine in "Blue's" careful script to raise the possibility of Julie's reconnecting to the world even as she doesn't want to.
A more powerful force is the music that is in her head, the music for that European concerto (on which Julie apparently collaborated with her husband) that will not leave her alone. Penetrating and transfiguring, it is the kind of work we have come to expect from Zbigniew Preisner, who frequently collaborates with Kieslowski.
And this music isn't heard in any ordinary background way. Rather Kieslowski uses it as emotional punctuation, bringing it up in strong, short bursts, accompanied by flashes of light, when it forces itself into Julie's mind. Should she run her finger over the score, we hear what that finger has touched, and should she attempt to destroy the written record, we hear that happening, too.
This unconventional use of music is paralleled by the subjective, expressionistic camera work of Slawomir Idziak, who, along with Binoche and the film itself, took a prize at the Venice Film Festival. Filled with unexpected close-ups and darting, swooping movements that leave you unsure where the camera will go next, what it will chose to see, Idziak's mysterious cinematography adds to "Blue's" sense of excitement and discovery.
Though after her work in "Damage" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" Juliette Binoche can hardly be classed as a discovery, it is always startling to re-experience the glass-shattering honesty and intensity of her performance. The idea of simply walking through a scene is alien to her, and in that sense she is perfect for this artfully made film, dense with feeling, in which no shot is ordinary and no moment taken for granted.
Juliette Binoche: Julie
Benoit Regent: Olivier
Florence Pernel: Sandrine
Charlotte Very: Lucille
Released by Miramax Films. Director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Producer Marin Karmitz. Screenplay Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Krzysztof Kieslowski. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. Editor Jacques Witta. Sound Jean-Claude Laureux. Music Zbigniew Preisner. Set design Claude Lenoir. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (some sexuality).