Occasionally one comes across something written about a film that appears to be totally at odds with everything one remembers of that film. Such was my reaction upon reading an article on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue (1993) written by Emma Wilson (1). The points of Wilson’s argument can be followed one by one. However, first of all, I shall retrace the basic elements of the film’s narrative.
At the beginning of the film Julie and her husband, a famous composer, along with their daughter, Anna, are involved in a car crash (2). Julie is the only one to survive. The film traces her mourning following the deaths of her husband and daughter and her subsequent attempts to rebuild her life. Perhaps the main interpretative problem that the film throws forth concerns the nature of Julie’s rehabilitation: where does Julie get to by the end of the film? According to Wilson, Julie definitely experiences a form of rebirth, for she is now inhabiting a world which, in the wake of the deaths of two people who were presumably very close to her, has changed radically and, no doubt, that changed world necessitated a massive realignment of Julie’s personality. This change in Julie’s personality is equivalent to a kind of rebirth.
I do not have the space here to investigate the theoretical nature of Wilson’s arguments and her utilisation of the work of Judith Butler, Julia Kristeva and others. I will, on the other hand, concentrate on Wilson’s interpretations of the events that occur in the film.
* * *
Wilson admits that the car crash is undoubtedly a traumatic moment in Julie’s life. But she also argues that this incident is permanently blocked from Julie’s memory. Wilson argues that this is evident in the film because we literally do not see the crash occur – it occurs out of frame (we only hear the crash) – and, furthermore, because we do not see the aftermath of the crash. So Wilson assumes that because we, as viewers of the film, do not actually see these events occur, then these events must also be blocked from Julie’s perceptive faculties as well.
We must ask, however, whether this is necessarily true. Just because we do not see the events unfold before us, does this mean that the entire event is erased from Julie’s mind? Certainly within the context of the situation one would expect the scene to have been erased or obscured from Julie’s consciousness, but there is no definite evidence from the film that would assert that this is indeed the case. Perhaps one might grant that this claim is true and furthermore that it is an important point with regard to viewing or interpreting the film. However, this would be a difficult point to sustain: there are certainly no traces of amnesia or even of confusion on Julie’s part, i.e., there is no anxiety over the issue of “what happened?” or “I don’t believe it”. Surely this begs the question that if this is not something specifically engaged with by the film then should one be making such a point of it in an analysis of the film? And furthermore, there is evidence that points towards the contrary argument, i.e., that Julie contains a full and detailed recollection of the crash itself. When she is speaking to Antoine – he was the first person to arrive on the crash scene – Julie recalls the joke her husband was telling when the crash occurred. One could easily argue that Julie’s recollection of the events surrounding the crash are indeed very clear and cogent ¾ perhaps even to an unnerving degree. Indeed, Julie even appears to be quite pleased to have the opportunity to re-live these moments over again in her conversation with Antoine. She is certainly a long way away from wanting to forget or block out the incidents. To claim that the events are entirely blocked, as Wilson does, is an insupportable claim.
* * *
Immediately following the crash the film progresses to Julie’s recuperation in a hospital. We are introduced to her in this state by way of an extreme close-up of the pupil of her eye. In her pupil is reflected the image of the doctor who is examining her. In other words, the action at this moment is seen “through Julie’s eye(s)” in a rather emphatic manner. At this moment, too, Julie is just returning to consciousness following an indeterminate period of lost consciousness following the crash. So, from this little moment Wilson draws the implications: “the film places the membrane of Julie’s consciousness between the viewer and the events of the film’s narration” (p. 352).
This interpretation is problematic in a number of ways. First of all, Wilson has confused the general and the particular; the image of Julie’s eye is a very particular image, an image which, as I have said, draws attention to itself as a piece of cinematic ingenuity, and an image that is certainly central to this moment in the film; i.e., the moment of Julie’s regaining consciousness, of her once again forming links with the external world. However, to draw out a universal law from this one particular moment, to establish a general law that would cover the entire film is a fundamentally flawed mode of analysis.
Wilson does persist with this point, however, and I think it only fair that her discovery be followed with due consideration. She points out that Julie is constantly the subject of the camera; the camera constantly looks at her. This point is surely true – there is only one scene where Julie is not present, though, it must be said, this is a very important little scene: when Olivier clears out Patrice’s (Julie’s husband) desk (I shall return to this incident below). So we, as the audience, certainly “travel” through the film by Julie’s side, and there are clear moments when we are asked to “enter” Julie’s consciousness (the flashes of blue, black and white, for example). However, this is a long way away from saying that we view the film through “the membrane of Julie’s consciousness” as though the film is mediated by or filtered through Julie’s thoughts and experiences. If the film did encourage a number of shots from Julie’s point of view (there are few) or if Julie narrated her thoughts à la Philip Marlowe in ways that drew us into a step-by-step experience of her experiences (the film does not) then Wilson’s point might be granted. However, quite to the contrary of what Wilson claims, the viewers of the film are not encouraged to delve deeply into Julie’s motivations or reflections (the “membranes” of her consciousness). Rather, there is a great deal of mystery to Julie’s thoughts and actions and in many ways we are encouraged to distance ourselves from her (in a Brechtian way, perhaps).
* * *
Wilson points out that not only is Julie the constant subject of the camera’s view, but that her face “remains largely inexpressive, a screen between the viewer and Julie’s feelings” (p. 352). It is here that Wilson gives us an insight into the very nature of the distanciation of Julie’s character. However, although Julie’s character is distanced this does not mean (contra Brecht) that she does not portray emotion or feelings. Far from bearing a face of “impassivity” (p. 352), Julie is filled with passion (too much, even). Indeed, Wilson offers absolutely no evidence from the film to support her claim, whereas there are several moments that would directly refute her claim:
When Julie is in the hospital watching the television footage of her husband’s funeral, there is a close-up of her lip which is quivering in an uncontrollable way with the utter devastation and sense of loss that overwhelms her at this moment. Here is direct evidence of Julie’s facial features giving rise to “passions”.
Julie, when swimming in the pool at one point, is interrupted in her lap swimming by Lucille who comments that it looks as though Julie has been crying.
Julie smiles when talking to her accountant early in the film. It appears during this meeting that she is squandering a large amount of her fortune in granting allowances to her gardener and housemaid. Naturally, the accountant is taken aback by such generosity. Julie, on the other hand, smiles with great satisfaction, for she is genuinely pleased to have been able to act with such generosity. These are not the marks of someone who is inexpressive.
She laughs when with Antoine. In fact, Julie recalles a joke that her husband was telling at the moment of the crash: A woman can’t stop coughing so she goes to a doctor. He gives her a pill and she takes it, then asks what the pill is for. The doctor says, “It’s the most powerful laxative there is”. “A laxative for a cough?” the woman retorts. “Yes”, says the doctor. “Now try coughing!” To this, Julie laughs heartily, and with fond memories: “It made us laugh”, she admits. Once again, such reactions are hardly impassive.
The claim that Julie is impassive cannot therefore be supported. These moments could, however, be subjected to analysis, i.e., one could claim that Julie is “playing a role”, pretending to be filled with passion, and there are probably narrative events that support such an argument, e.g., Julie is very dispassionate when dealing with Olivier, Sandrine, with the real estate agent, even with Lucille. However, the subtleties and complexities of the film’s strategies in this regard are effectively ignored by Wilson in favour of blanketing strategies that betray a policy of defeat: “We cannot put Julie’s experiences into images or language because we literally do not see what happened” (p. 352).
Even here one could pick further holes in Wilson’s claim that “we do not see what happened”. We are offered many unambiguous images of the past and its effects or aftermath, i.e., the effects of the crash itself: photographs (of the dead), television footage (of the husband’s funeral), even the flashes of blue and black that occur throughout the film can be interpreted as “images” or “representations” of the past. Vision and the power of representation are not blocked, as Wilson would have us believe, and Kieslowski calls upon a full range of devices and modes of imagery in order to portray these visions and feelings cinematically. It is certainly a complex use of images, but it is certainly not a denial of the very possibility of representation. Quite the contrary. Wilson may be correct to claim that “the film places [the spectator’s] powers of ordering and organisation under attack” (p. 353), for it certainly does take the viewer quite some time to find their way into the film, to work out what is going on. However, as we shall see, Wilson claims that this process of disorientation continues unabated throughout the film and that it is integral to the film’s ending.
For example, Wilson claims that “Julie’s mind is arguably a place of absence” (p. 353). What Wilson is claiming here is that we, as spectators, do not have access to Julie’s internal thought processes and emotions (these are points to which I have already alluded ). Instead of being granted access to these “internal” occurrences – for these spaces are “absent” – we are instead shown the eruptions and consternations of Julie’s immediate environment, i.e., instead of “internal” occurrences we are shown “external” ones. Wilson calls upon the example of the shattering glass from when Julie is in hospital early in the film. What occurs here is that, rather than being given a direct image of Julie’s mind shattering, of the destruction of Julie’s “internal” processes, we are instead delivered an indirect, “external” image of the shattering of one of the windows in the hospital.
Argumentatively, Wilson’s essay really is clutching at straws here:
First, Wilson has previously stated that Julie’s trauma could not be represented (that it was blocked, that it could not be rendered “cinematically”). And yet Wilson is now claiming that this shattering of the glass is a representation of the traumatic state of Julie’s mind – albeit an “external” rendering of an “internal” state. But why is its “externality” exceptional? Indeed, it is external, but this is merely an inventive and stylistic way of imaging Julie’s shattered state. Therefore, according to the logic of her own argument there are inconsistencies in Wilson’s position that suggest a large degree of confusion on her part.
Secondly, why would these representative strategies indicate that Julie’s mind is “a place of absence”? (And, realistically, what could such a claim mean?) In fact, Wilson’s point is immediately refuted moments later in the film, when Julie, after having taken a handful of pills in an attempt to commit suicide, is confronted by a nurse. This is a remarkable scene where Julie’s problems go from being entirely alien to the spectator to being entirely credible. This is a major turning point in the film where the spectator begins to care for Julie’s plight. Here, Julie’s anguish is foregrounded as an anguish of desperation, of conflict and trauma down to the depths of her very desire to live. The window can be replaced; Julie’s husband and daughter cannot. We are shown quite clearly here that, far from being empty, Julie’s mind is full of dreams, visions, actions, passions, motivations and nightmares.
* * *
Continuing along the lines of an “absence” in Julie’s mind and referring specifically to the periods of blackness that punctuate the film, Wilson asserts that “Blue illustrates the denial of memory in an absence of image” (p. 354). She claims that these descents into blackout transport Julie back to a period or time “before language”, a regression to a period that is prior to an active cognisance of the world, language and meaning.
Where, however, is there any evidence that this is an accurate interpretation of such moments? In fact, this explanation appears to be a somewhat long-winded way of describing something that, on the surface, might be quite simple. We are certainly given no clues that these flashes of black indicate that Julie is “denying her memories” or that she is trying to repel her memories and obliterate the past by regressing to a time before memory was active in her as a subject. My immediate reaction to these scenes was that they were the equivalent of closing one’s eyes, of a kind of withdrawal into the self, an attempt to shut out all of the excitations of the external world so as to fold the self inwards and explore one’s interior thoughts, processes and memories. Such an explanation seems entirely plausible to me, especially insofar as these moments contrast with the brilliant-white flashes of sunlight that occur briefly in the film.
In her book on Kieslowski, Annette Insdorff offers a convincing explanation of these moments in the film by juxtaposing the blackouts with the blue water of the swimming pool:
the placid blue surface initially suggests escape, but it is precisely in the water that [Julie] twice gasps and stops, suddenly overcome by fragments of the unfinished concerto. With the accompanying blackouts, the pool symbolises the incomplete mourning as the space where Julie opts for physical exertion rather than emotional confrontation (3).
This interpretation is utterly at odds with the suggestions given by Wilson. Rather than being moments of a “denial of memory”, Insdorff reads the eruptions of blackness as the “return” of memory. Indeed, Insdorff reads Julie’s activity of swimming – and not the moments of blackness – as being indicative of a denial of memory, as an attempt to escape the psychological scars induced by memories of the past by immersing herself in a physical activity. Julie’s attempts to swim into the blue of the pool (for blue = freedom) is an attempt to break free from the past. Her swimming, rather than the moments of blackness that Wilson suggests, could therefore be interpreted as attempts at a “denial of memory”. However, Julie finds, as indicated directly by the eruptions of blackness (which coincide with rushes of music from the unfinished concerto), that she cannot deny her memory, that even in her own deliberate attempts to deny her memory, she discovers that her memories still come back to her, that she cannot free herself from them. This argument directly refutes Wilson’s claims. Rather than being moments of the “denial of memory”, the moments of blackness suggest the very opposite (4).
* * *
Wilson turns her attention to the overtly filmic aspects of Three Colours: Blue. She claims that the film is beautiful to look at, that the images have been meticulously put together so as to look attractive, and that this surface attraction presents something of a mirage: “Blue is a film which self-consciously draws attention to itself as visual construct” (p. 355). Wilson agrees with Pedro Almodovar’s claim that in Blue there is too much image, that the images are too beautiful to be taken seriously. The argument is that viewers of the film will get so wrapped up in the images that they will miss the point of the film, they will miss the deeper messages and structures that lie behind the appearances.
And yet, could Kieslowski ever be accused of playfulness for its own sake? In Blue Kieslowski is attempting to render complex and difficult emotional states and situations from within the confines of the cinematic language he has at his disposal. Indeed, I would certainly contend that he stretches that language as far as possible so as to open the ground of new cinematic vistas (the sugar cube receding in the coffee, the mysterious flautist). These do not seem to me to be playthings, or distractions, trivialities or seductions. On the contrary, they represent a striving towards new discoveries (of the cinema, of humanity), as strategies of destabilisation that are unnerving to the same degree as they are beautiful. There are details in Blue that seem to convey a proximity to hell, despair, dread and damnation. What Kieslowski is trying to do is to find a cinematic language that can express Julie’s dilemmas (in much the same way that Shakespeare, for example, stretched the written and spoken word to express the dilemmas and passions of his characters). This is certainly not a difficult notion to comprehend – that a filmmaker would strive for new creations – but it does not disqualify those new creations, techniques, visions, representations, etc., from profundity. Three Colours: Blue begs to differ with anyone who might suggest that images are things that only take place on the surface, that images are all appearance without depth, that they are eternally secondary, without primacy. Does not Wilson’s position strike one as mundanely metaphysical (film = appearance; thought = essence)? Furthermore, is she not likewise suspicious of cinema as such, wary of the possible deviations of its images, the seductions of its surface, as though cinema “in-itself” could never give rise to anything of worth, unless, of course, backed up by, or corrected by “Theory”?
However, Wilson’s claim, that “Blue is a film which self-consciously draws attention to itself as visual construct”, does give rise to the most interesting point of her argument. She argues that Blue celebrates a degree of “surface emptiness”, that it celebrates the glory of images in all their two-dimensionality. Against this supposed superficiality, how are we to take the despair and mourning of Blue seriously? To a certain extent, Wilson does investigate this dilemma. “The effect of [Three Colours: Blue]”, she declares, “lies . in the tension or dialogue between its visual style . and its ostensible subject matter” (p. 356-7). The film’s visual style is postmodern (according to Wilson) whereas its ostensible subject matter is modern, i.e., its central conflict belongs to the great age of individual mental breakdown. Wilson reiterates: “Blue could be seen as a regressive work, a latent modernist film, despite its self-conscious surface” (p. 356). The film, then, deals with a prototypically modern drama at a postmodern moment. The important point for Wilson comes down to the question of how this postmodern form deals with its modern subject matter, the matter of Julie’s trauma.
We have now, more or less, returned to the point at which I began: how does Julie cope with the process of mourning? Wilson is adamant in pursuing her claim that Blue is concerned with “getting away from one’s memories”: “Blue“, she declares, “is concerned . with cutting ties with the past” (p. 357). Julie, as it is plain for all to see, must remodel her life now that she must exist without her husband and daughter. “What the film refuses, however”, according to Wilson, “is any reintegration of the past and memory in the present” (p. 357). Ultimately, the postmodern way to deal with trauma is to ignore it, get away from it, pretend that it never existed – the kind of reaction a modernist might call “repression” or “denial”. But this kind of modernist finger-pointing is unnecessary for Wilson, for, on the basis of her reading, the whole point of Blue is that “Julie is emptying out her past and . reconstructing a new relation to the future” (p. 358).
Viewers of the film must ask, however, whether this is really the case. Does Julie really manage to obliterate her own memory and invent herself as an entirely new subject who has no ties to the past, no skeletons in the closet? Insdorff discusses this possibility:
Although [Julie] tries to live without history or desire, memories surface: bits of music overcome her, accompanied by blackouts .. Julie begins returning to an engaged life, first by resuming work on Patrice’s music with Olivier, and then by offering her old house to Patrice’s mistress .. Looking only at what is ahead, Julie is nevertheless brought back to what is behind her. The splashes of blue, combined with music, express a return of the repressed – that which Julie must sooner or later confront – whether it is grief or the need for another human being” (5).
Insdorff’s position is backed up by solid evidence from the film, i.e., that Julie makes some kind of reconciliation with the past: she does return to her past of composing; she does reconcile herself with disturbing facts from the past (Patrice’s affair); she does attempt to once again form intimate links with others (with Olivier).
There is one point in the film that particularly draws attention to the impossibility of Julie’s escaping her past. Even more emphatically it is a past that she did not know existed. The only scene in the film where Julie is not present is when Olivier empties out Patrice’s desk. In amongst the papers that were in the desk were some pictures of Patrice with his mistress, Sandrine. Olivier had asked Julie whether she had wanted the papers from Patrice’s desk or whether, in fact, she wanted to clear out the desk for herself. Julie had declined on both counts so it was Olivier who cleared the desk. Late in the film, when talking with Olivier, Julie realises that if she had emptied out the desk then she either would have found the photographs herself or, alternatively, she might have just burned the whole lot without ever having looked at them, and thus might never have learnt of the affair. But the point of all this, a point that Julie herself realises, is that none of this did happen: all of the steps she had taken or might have taken to get rid of the past, i.e., to decline going through Patrice’s desk, to have disposed of the papers, etc., that, whatever happened, the past nonetheless came back to her; her attempts to cut her ties with the past were unsuccessful. And Julie concedes: “Maybe it’s better this way”.
* * *
The final sequence of the film can strike the viewer as being rather ambiguous. Wilson believes that the womb-like images of the sequence indicate a kind of rebirth, but a rebirth for Julie that does not “constitute a return to a prior stage” (p. 361). Others (Wilson points to an article by Vincent Amiel, for example) have interpreted this sequence rather differently (6). Insdorff, once again in contrast to Wilson’s view, interprets the sequence as one of “unification” – which seems to me to be quite in keeping with the theme of the concerto and the unification of Europe. Indeed, Insdorff points to the obvious fact of the words from the concerto that accompany the closing images of the film:
Though I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries,
If I have not love, I am nothing
These words assert that in one’s quest for freedom – “absolute freedom” – one may try to cut all the ties that bind the self to anything or anyone else so as to absorb all the knowledge that the universe can offer, to steadily progress towards the super-human. But if one has all of these things, and noone with whom to share them, then the bits and pieces of one’s existence amount to nothing. And is this not Julie’s story? Having attempted to cut herself free of all the things that bound her to others, the thoughts and actions and predicaments that made her subservient to others, she finally comes to realise that it is worthwhile pursuing the company of others (Olivier, Lucille, Antoine), and to share herself and her possessions and knowledge with others (Sandrine, Olivier) while at the same time remaining distinct from those others (from Olivier – who is determined to impose his own style on the Concerto; from Lucille – who has her own point of view on the world which, though different from Julie’s, is nonetheless understood as an acceptable and satisfying choice; and Sandrine – to whom Julie gives the house as a gesture of peace and forgiveness). And Insdorff agrees:
Since the sequence begins and ends with Julie, it seems as if all these people are now part of her. There is genuine closure as the film ends: she has completed the concerto and fulfilled the mourning .. Having tried to live in “liberty” – without memory, desire, work, or commitment – she is ironically returning to love (7).
Following the devastating loss of love with which the film began, the film in the end has Julie returning to love; not, however, the same love with which the film began, but rather the rebirth of a love entirely new.
Wilson’s essay is desperately keen to convey her theoretical vision of the world. It seems that her own theoretical vision has greatly obscured her interpretation of the events of Three Colours: Blue. Her book on Kieslowski, Memory and Survival: The French Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski is due for release very shortly. One can only hope that she has substantially re-written her analysis of Three Colours: Blue.
- Emma Wilson, “Three Colours: Blue: Kieslowski, colour and the postmodern subject”, Screen 39:4, Winter 1998. Henceforth cited in the text.
- In a truly remarkable oversight, Wilson claims that the daughter remains unnamed during the film (p. 351). She is named three times during the film: before the crash (when Julie calls her back to the car after she has urinated by the side of the road); when Julie comes out of her coma at the hospital and is informed of Anna’s death; and Anna’s name is inscribed on her coffin during the funeral sequence.
- Annette Insdorff, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski, New York: Miramax Books, 1999, p. 144
- Insdorff’s summarising is a little too hasty as well. The blackouts occur when Julie is confronted by other people who bring up aspects of her past: she blacks out when Antoine mentions the crash; she blacks out when Lucille suggests that she has been crying; and she blacks out when Olivier tells her of Patrice’s affair. All in all, the blackouts are indicative of a facing up to things that she would rather deny. They indicate an impossibility of denial.
- Insdorff, Double Lives, p. 143
- Vincent Amiel, “Plongées in passion”, Positif, no. 403 (1994), pp. 24-25
- Insdorff, Double Lives, p. 151.