There is a kind of movie in which the characters are not thinking about anything. They are simply the instruments of the plot. And another kind of movie in which we lean forward in our seats, trying to penetrate the mystery of characters who are obviously thinking a great deal. "Blue" is the second kind of film: The story of a woman whose husband dies, and who deals with that fact in unpredictable ways.

The woman, named Julie, is played by Juliette Binoche, whom you may remember from "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" or "Damage." In both of those films she projected a strong sexuality; this time, she seems to be beyond sex, as if it no longer has any reality for her. She lives in France and is married to a famous composer, who is killed in an auto crash early in the film. Now she must pick up the pieces of her life.

She doesn't do that in the ways we think she might. She is sad and shaken, but this is not a film about a grieving widow, and, indeed, by the way she behaves we can guess things about her marriage. One of her first acts, after the initial shock wears off, is to call a man who was a colleague of both her and her husband, and seduce him. "You have always wanted me," she says. "Here I am."

This sequence is not played for shock, nor does it even seem especially disrespectful to the dead husband: She seems to be testing, to see if she can still feel. She cannot. She walks out on the man and moves to the center of Paris, to what she hopes is an anonymous apartment on an anonymous street. She doesn't want to see anybody she knows. She wants to walk through the streets free of her history, her memories, her identities. She wants to begin again, perhaps - or to be free of the need to begin.

Binoche has a face that is well-suited to this kind of role. Because she can convince you that she is thinking and feeling, she doesn't need to "do" things in an obvious way. In the opening moments of "Damage," she saw the Jeremy Irons character for the first time, and they were both struck by a powerful physical passion. She projected this passion, not by overacting or acting at all, but (as nearly as I can tell) by looking at the camera and projecting the feeling without obvious external signs.

Here, too, her feelings are a mystery that her face will help us to solve. The film has been directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, born in Poland, now working in France, and, in the opinion of some, the best active European filmmaker (he made "The Double Life of Veronique" two years ago). He trusts the human face, and watching his film, I remembered a conversation I had with Ingmar Bergman many years ago, in which he said there were many moments in films that could only be dealt with by a closeup of a face - the right face - and that too many directors tried instead to use dialogue or action.

Think of how we read the thoughts of those closest to us, in moments when words will not do. We look at their faces, and although they do not make any effort to mirror emotions there, we can read them all the same, in the smallest signs. A movie that invites us to do the same thing can be very absorbing.

Eventually there is a surprise. Julie meets a woman she did not know existed - her husband's mistress. The two women must deal with this discovery together. Watching this film, it was impossible not to think about "Intersection," the Hollywood weeper starring Richard Gere, Sharon Stone and Lolita Davidovich in an uncannily similar story of two women dealing with their love of the same man. That film was an insult to the intelligence. This one, similar in superficial ways, is a challenge to the imagination. It's as if European films have a more adult, inward, knowing way of dealing with the emotions, and Hollywood hasn't grown up enough.
By Roger Ebert


A young woman faces a personal crisis when her composer husband and young daughter are killed in a car crash. On one hand, the tragedy means the loss of everything that she has been so far in life, but on another, it represents the possibility of change and even liberation. The first of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's acclaimed, French-produced "Three Colours" trilogy (named after the colours of the French flag, meaning, respectively "Liberty", "Equality", and "Fraternity") is intricately styled and given depth by a simple but effective musical score by Zbignew Preisner, but is ultimately self-involved and uninspiring unless you have a predisposition to this kind of introspective and low-key drama.

Juliette Binoche is given a choice role as the human centre of this cerebral cinematic meditation on the colour blue and its various emotional and political resonances. She registers a great deal of repressed feeling, though this does tend to manifest itself in relatively few facial expressions, resulting in a sustained and effective but one-note performance. In truth, everything within the film, including Binoche and Preisner's score, is merely another tool in the hands of a talented cineaste. Kieslowski explores ideas with images unlike any other contemporary director, and after his acclaimed 'Dekalog' series, it was probably inevitable that the French would adopt him as one of their own. But like the earlier and also French co-produced The Double Life of Veronique, there is something distant and studied about his work here, as if he has become more interested in ideas than what they might mean to an audience having been separated from the social and political environment in which his art flourished.

There are political undertones to the film, with constant references to the unification of Europe serving as a sub plot and a thematic elaboration on ideas of independence and liberty (national versus European identity), but it lacks a the kind of social commitment seen in the likes of A Short Film About Killing. It ultimately turns on an unconvincing personal reversal and climaxes with a somewhat pretentious dramatis personnaire which does not really make it any more emotionally involving. This is really more a film in which people and nations are merely objects within an aesthetic landscape which is, as the title implies, largely blue-toned. Kieslowski and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (along with art designer Claude Lenoir) have terrific fun presenting the world as a series of blue objects and hues, from swimming pools and chandeliers to items of clothing and lighting schemes, all photographed through blue filters.

This is all very interesting, but it does not necessarily mean that the film is a greater work of art than other dramas dealing with grief, depression, and loss. Its small interest comes from the ambiguity represented by Binoche's posthumous battle with her husband (who, it turns out, was a front for her own composing talents and having an affair with a legal secretary) and the possibility of a significant revelation about herself offered by this forced liberty from career and marriage. It does not follow this through however, and seems indeed to lose interest in resolution in favour of mere reversal.

Three Colours: Blue is of most interest to fans of the director or star, and to students of European art-house cinema in general. It is recommended with caution as an interesting but not necessarily ground-breaking work of cinema from a film maker whose reputation is liable to outlast his films in terms of a contribution to the medium.

by Harvey O'Brien M.A. © 1999

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