By Stephanie Zacharek
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The first installment of Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors Trilogy" is called Blue, and the Polish filmmaker says it represents the French ideal of liberty. But before we get to any kind of liberty, we get a powerful dose of imprisonment--the self-imposed, emotional imprisonment of a young woman who has seen her husband and young daughter die in a car crash. Beset by grief, rage and survivor's guilt, Julie Vignon purposefully cuts her roots, isolates herself and recasts herself as a displaced person. She has such a devastating case of the blues that the world around her quite literally turns blue--the indoor swimming pool in which she obsessively immerses herself, the blue jeans she always wears, the tinkling crystals of the blue chandelier in the otherwise unadorned Paris flat she occupies in exile. Even the gray-blue city dawn speaks of her gloom.
Visually, Blue is one of the most ravishing films you will ever see. But it's more than some elaborate light show. Combining Eastern European fatalism and French sensuality, the maker of the much-heralded The Double Life of Veronique gives us a deeply mysterious piece of work in which the nagging persistence of life itself eventually dissolves Julie's blue cocoon. Kieslowski is a relentlessly pessimistic artist (his bleak examination of the Ten Commandments, The Decalogue, attests to that), but currents of sly humor and hope bubble just below the surface of Blue. It gives off an odd cheeriness that its own author may not even have intended.
The centerpiece here is the lovely French star Juliette Binoche, who won the Best Actress award at last year's Venice Film Festival for this extraordinary performance (the film itself won Best Picture). In Binoche's hands, the process of Julie's liberation--first from the fetters of her past life, then from the shackles of grief--becomes a compelling drama indeed, fraught with perils, accidents and unexpected turns of fate. There are long periods through which Julie remains largely silent. But Binoche's face and body language are so expressive that we scarcely notice she is not talking, and Kieslowski's relentlessly roaming camera captures every nuance.
Aside from its visual mastery (Slawomir Idziak is the cinematographer), Blue also uses music in a startling way. The shell-shocked Julie may flee her ancient, stone-walled country house, a man who has long loved her (Benoit Regent's Olivier) and the details of her past, but she cannot quite escape the haunting presence of music. Her husband (Hugues Quester), a renowned composer, was at the time of his death working on a concerto celebrating the unification of Europe. And although his widow has destroyed what she thinks to be the only copy of the score, its themes keep running through her head, as do constant reminders that life goes on. In a dark closet of her apartment, a mother rat gives birth to babies. In the flat below, a beleaguered young prostitute named Lucille (Charlotte Very) seeks her help. Despite Julie's flight underground, Olivier finds her. She even discovers that her husband's own betrayal of her connotes life: His secret mistress is pregnant.
But it is the husband's unfinished concerto (actually written by longtime Kieslowski collaborator Zbigniew Preisner) that really revives her. She gets a snatch of it from a young flutist working the sidewalk for spare change. In Lucille's seedy strip club, Julie hears another section when she catches part of a documentary about her husband on a nearby TV set. It's unlikely that Kieslowski and co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz are dredging up the old saw about music as the "universal language," or sentimentalizing its ancient powers to move us. It seems more likely they are commenting on the inability of human beings to shut themselves off from their dreams--or their nightmares--forever. There's a moment early on when a nosy reporter asks Julie whether there is truth to the rumor that she is the actual composer of her husband's work. She doesn't reply, and we never know the answer, but if she's not the author, she's the vessel and the inspiration. Through her enigmatic renewal at film's end, the concerto will be completed.
As noted earlier, this gorgeous and mysterious film is the first of three separate stories--all based on the colors of the French flag. White, Kieslowski says, will embody equality, Red, fraternity. If either measures up to the haunted splendor of Blue, we have some treats in store.
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