I’m the only screenwriting blogger who is CRAZY enough to follow-up a popular article about The Dark Knight with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Bleu, the first in his Three Colors Trilogy. Only 6 people will give a shit, I’m sure, but if you’re one of the six, baby, this article’s for you.
Even if you’re not familiar with Bleu (or Blue), you’ll love the stirring tribute to the film in the vid above. Much of what I’m about to write can be seen in the video. Here’s the thing. Kieslowski truly was a genius. And one of the great annoyances about screenwriting gurus today is how they say endlessly to “show, don’t tell,” but they never tell you HOW. Hence my series on the Art of Visual Storytelling. Hence my article on Cinematic Storytelling and my praise of Jennifer van Sijll’s brilliant book of the same title. And hence the need to talk about Kieslowski, because he was THE MASTER of “show, don’t tell!”
Revisiting Bleu again last weekend, I was so blown away by the visuals that when I watched the film yet again with Anne Insdorf’s commentary, I had to pull out my phone and start taking notes. When I first saw the film, I thought, “wow, that was kind of weird.” But now I think that the film wasn’t weird at all but that the problem was me because I had for so many years a weak visual vocabulary, thanks to Hollywood spoon feeding me most of my life with dumbed-down shit.
There’s a great article about Kieslowski in Salon. They wrote, “In 1995, the Los Angeles Times asked Krzysztof Kieslowski how movies should participate in culture, and this was his reply: ‘Film is often just business -- I understand that and it's not something I concern myself with. But if film aspires to be part of culture, it should do the things great literature, music and art do: elevate the spirit, help us understand ourselves and the world around us and give people the feeling they are not alone…’” I love it! They went on to write, “The richly textured trilogy capped Kieslowski's extraordinary career, taking on the deepest and most complex moral subjects with grace and panache, but always at ground level. Ostensibly it was derived from the French Revolution themes of liberty, equality and fraternity, and their corresponding colors in the French flag. But the films are deeply personal and in many ways Polish; they restore those lofty concepts, without diminishing them, to humble human proportions.”
Blue is the story of a woman, Julie (Juliette Binoche), whose husband and daughter die in a car accident. Her reaction is to escape - to run away from her past, from her friends, from her life, and from her pain. Did you see the moment in the video where she scraped her knuckles along a rock wall? She really was scraping her hand across that wall. In any case, in one scene, Julie sees one of her servants in the kitchen and asks her why she’s crying. “Because you’re not,” is the reply. Then she sells everything. “I don't want any belongings, any memories,” she says. “No friends, no love. Those are all traps.” She moves away and lives in a quiet apartment. Interesting that you sympathize with her situation but you can’t connect with her because she’s made herself so emotionally closed off to everyone around her. She’s a character in a sympathetic situation but she’s not a sympathetic character. So you find yourself rooting for her to change, to face her pain and reconnect with the world again, because you know that her story is really about the rehabilitation of a human spirit after a painful tragedy.
Simple story, right?
With Kieslowski, every aspect of the film was used to support the telling of the story. I recall the commentator saying repeatedly that Kieslowski would pare down the dialogue, pare down the dialogue, and pare down the dialogue, until only the most essential words are spoken and everything else is communicated through visuals. This brings to mind what Ebert said of the film: “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… 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.”
He trusts the human face to convey feelings and information!
And how does one write that?
Consider how Kieslowski uses music to help tell the story. He doesn’t just have the brilliant composer, Zbigniew Preisner, design a soundtrack to play alongside the story to force the audience to feel a certain way during a scene. Instead, Kieslowski makes Julie’s former husband a famous composer who was working on his final assignment, the theme to the reunification of Europe, which can be heard in the vid above. This music is what brings Julie back to life. She first denies the music exists, rejects what bits he had composed because it was a source of pain in her life. Later, she works with a man to finish the music, which paralleled her own reunification with the people in her life. There are times when she hears the music and it haunts her. She can’t deny it or escape it. She has to face it, just as she has to face her own pain. Julie went from passive escapist to active contributor.
You might notice in the picture above, which is taken from the film that most of the music sheet is blurry. This isn’t without meaning. Many shots in the film were from her point of view and her left eye was damaged in the car accident. You may recall in the video the shot of the feather swaying with Julie’s breath and the blurry hand behind it reaching out to her. That’s what she saw. Did you see the closeup of the doctor’s reflection in Julie’s eye? That was no special effects. That was a real reflection using a very special camera. We could see the doctor better in the reflection in Julie’s eye than Julie could see him. Later, in the end, we’ll see a reflection of Julie’s naked back in the eye of her lover. He finally SEES her in a moment of emotional honestly.
There were a number of moments where you’d also see extreme closeups of specific objects, like the shadows over Julie’s coffee cup on a table in a coffee shop. Wonderful! It’s very European in the sense that they create visual poetry out of everyday banalities. On the one hand, it’s beautiful to see and on the other hand, it makes audiences appreciate everyday experiences that much more. It enriches their lives. Kieslowski does that, but here, it’s a crucial element of the story. You may have noticed beginning at 2:56 in the video a shot of a sugar cube above a cup of coffee soaking in the coffee before it gets plopped into the cup. I believe it’s followed by another moment where we’re shown Julie's reflection on an upside-down spoon dangling in the neck of a water bottle. Beautiful, right? It’s also crucial to the story.
The spoon and sugar cube represented her own self-obsorption. It was her focusing on something obscure to shut out the world, to escape from it. She’s trying to put a lid on her world and her immediate environment. She’s shutting out all the things she doesn’t accept. And in that scene in the coffee shop, she’s rejected the man who loved her, and she’s trying to ignore the music the flute player outside is playing because it’s similar to her husband’s last piece of music, which she denies and avoids. But then she finally drops the cube into the coffee and goes out to address the issue of music with the musician.
At times, like right in the middle of a conversation, the film would suddenly go black and all we’d hear is music. Then we’d return to Julie’s face. You might think, “What the hell was that all about?” It was Julie’s blackouts, her being lost in her own memories.
Throughout the film, you’d see blue lights reflected on her face, particularly the glass crystals she carried with her, which she ripped from the blue chandelier that hung in her daughter’s bedroom. That was the only thing from her past she could not let go. The light on her face signified the ghosts of her past, the presence of memory.
Twice you’d see what might first seem to be inexplicable shots of bungee jumpers. But if you think about it, it’s not without meaning. It shows how far we can fall and come back up again.
The opening shot, pictured above, and the closeup of a car’s tire just sucks you into the tragedy that is to about to befall the protagonist.
The motif with windows - when Julie visits her mother, we see them talk through a window filled with other reflections that illustrated visually the dislocation of their relationship. Glass that separates us also connects us as when the nurse looks in on Julie when she tried and failed to commit suicide. Yet, glass invites us in but keeps us out as when Julie visits her mother a second time and decides not to go in.
The mice represented her first dealings with the pains in her life. Her getting the cat was one of the first transitions in her character arc.
Interesting that when Julie visits Lucille, who works in a sex shop, and has a conversation with her, Kieslowski chooses to not use the old school shot / reverse-shot technique. Instead, he chooses to have his camera pan back and forth to reveal the flesh on display in the background between them because the flesh has come between them in their relationship. However, when they both lean forward, Kieslowski illustrates that they both have moved past what’s come between them. Later, when Julie talks to her husband’s mistress, it’s a shot / reverse-shot because the characters are not as close.
The pool was a place of escape, yet incomplete mourning.
Other reading: the Krzysztof Kieslowski blog-a-thon and Roger Ebert’s How To Read a Movie.