Criterion Files #588: Searching for the Political Liberty of Kieslowski’s ‘Blue’ in 2012

By  · Published on January 19th, 2012

One major misconception about Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy is that the films were originally and uniquely conceived as French films, reflecting the color of the nation’s flag through the color scheme of each film and embodying themes which based upon the motto of the French Republic: liberty (Blue), equality (White), and fraternity (Red). But Kieslowski was insistent upon the fact that the stories would have remained the same no matter the national context. The framing of these films through thematics and aesthetics tied to the French flag, the director states, arose as a matter of the trilogy’s source of funding. Thus, the thread which defines the trilogy was a creative accommodation to the circumstances of the film’s production. Kieslowski’s vision for these films, then, was firm, but not rigid – the particular details of this trilogy were not predestined or set in stone.

This fact frees the viewer from seeing the themes explored in the Three Colors trilogy as predominately or uniformly based within a national and cultural context. Yes, there are aspects of the brilliant Blue (1993) that are indisputably French, or at least Western European (it’s hard to imagine Americans mourning a contemporary classical composer as a national treasure), but the rather arbitrary circumstances in which the film’s production reflective in the trilogy’s connective framework allows for these themes to permeate well beyond the borders of France itself.

“Liberty” is an interesting theme, and inspires certain questions while viewing Blue that may not otherwise occur to the viewer. While Blue is hardly an overtly political film, viewing a film ostensibly about liberty in the American political climate of 2012 is food for thought indeed. The most recent incarnation of pseudo-libertarianism in mainstream conservative politics has situated the ideal of liberty as a given: it’s meaning is assumed to be transparent even though the desire for it is often articulated in lofty and abstract terms, and liberty is inferred to be a value that is both desirable and possible. As a result, many important questions about liberty are never asked. Liberty for whom, and are some people shackled at the expense of the liberation of others? What is more important: freedom to do something, or the ability to be free from something? What does a life of liberty even look like? Is liberty possible given the fact that we interact with and thus have a responsibility to others whether we want to or not?

Blue answers this final question with a resounding and definitive No. Juliette Binoche’s widow, Julie, desperately seeks human isolation after her composer husband and young daughter die in a car crash. Much of the middle section of the film is devoted to Julie’s futile attempts to establish some sort of solitary order away from the life she had formerly invested in. What’s remarkable about this film a chronicles one of the greatest personal human tragedies imaginable is that it depicts the horrors of not being allowed to be lonely. Human isolation becomes a foreign and unattainable ideal. Julie cannot sleep without the phone ringing. She cannot clean her house without the invasion of small creatures into her theoretically “private” space.

When a neighbor visits Julie to sign a petition to kick out another neighbor whom others in the building suspect to be a “loose woman,” Julie simply responds with, “It’s none of my business.” Here she implements the ideal she wishes others would enact upon her own life. She wants to be left to her own business – whether that’s mourning, denial, etc. she’s never really allowed to fully find out – but finds the notion of “solitude” in a world where other humans exist to be a few miles short of a possible reality. Julie, by circumstance, has become a libertarian of the interpersonal, but in adopting this ideal she only realizes time and again how impossible it is to live a life without the influence of others. (Liberty, then, is a strange, contradictory “virtue” for a government entity to adopt and for a nationally co-identified collective to value – not because governments cannot liberate, but because liberty as freedom from the influence of others seems that it can only be articulated on the individual, not the broad, scale. However, this contradiction only further points to the elusiveness of liberty itself as an ideal.)

But Julie’s failed search for liberty goes far deeper. One of Kieslowski’s most masterful directorial touches in this film is the persistent presence of the music of Julie’s late husband, which comes to stand for his memory and her grief. It becomes evident that Julie’s desire to escape will become difficult when, early on in the film, she throws some of her husband’s sheet music into a garbage dumpster and watches it crumble within the vehicle’s destructive mechanics. The music soars and then suddenly quiets and eventually stops as the sheets become torn and lost amongst the rubble. However, notation is not “the music itself,” but a representation of it. The music persists through Julie’s memory, and comes back whether she wills it or not. The camera fades to black as the film is overwhelmed by the late husband’s music – not to signal a scene alteration, but to show the blinding potential of emotional memory during grief.

Thus, even if Julie were to miraculously find the solitude she seeks, even if she were to finally be alone, memory and the fact of a life lived renders true isolation impossible. She may have the freedom to go where she pleases, but she does not have the freedom to forget. Julie may have the ability to leave her own life behind, but it is impossible for her to live a life outside of context. Because we are human, we can never really be free to be alone.

Julie only finds liberty when she gives up looking for it. Other people will continue to exist around her, but she has the freedom to embrace, or continue to fight with futility against, the lives of others. Once she accepts her role as a human in a complex web of interdependant connection with humanity, the film moves between glimpses of the lives with whom she’s shared her own. If there can be no solitude, then Blue is not really a movie about one woman’s journey.

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