Thursday, July 09, 2009

New Script Mag (& Bleu)

Hey guys,

I’m in the new July/August issue of Script magazine with an article called “How to Show Don’t Tell,” a favorite subject of mine. It’s hard to condense the topic down to 3,000 words, but I covered trusting the face, actions defining characters, locations, Jennifer van Sijll’s Cinematic Storytelling, and so much more. I also offered some insights about a film called Bleu and thought I might repost an old article on the film so you can see the complete analysis.

For more articles on “How to Show Don’t Tell,” feel free to visit my section on
the Art of Visual Storytelling.

I also really love this video.



Hey guys!

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?

Very carefully.


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.



Dan said...

Holy shit I just watched this movie. This is JUST what I needed to help me understand this movie.

You're too good, MM. Too good.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the best movies!

Christian H. said...

Bleu Redux! How French.

This is of course a major theme of the "problem" with modern cinema.

There's nothing wrong with saving the cat or trying to create an arc (growth), but without the single tear streaming down a face or as you put it, a guy curled up in the fetal position with a bottle, the true art of cinema goes unexplored.

I suffer horrendously trying to use props and looks and even clothing change to say things but people don't even notice - at least in the script.

Kieslowski, along with Hitchcock, seemed to know the importance of music. It's hard to really set a sad tone without it - and there's no music in a script.

That may be why directors get the kudos. They actually apply the visuals and can coordinate sound rather than requiring the reader to stretch their imagination.

I remember last year I think on UNKs site we were talking about writing scenes without dialog. It was a fun and enlightening experience.

It forces you to use body language and facial expressions. The actors are there use them.

That's why I decided after years to not quit until it happens. I long for emotive expression through the use of images.

Onward and upward.

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Avixai said...

Makes me feel good to know you're out there, MM.

I hope I stumbled upon a cinematic piece you have written.
And I hope I really experienced it.

Glad you're around,


ScreenScriber said...

Great movie, great post, great conclusions! Thank you!

And let me address another issue:

Kieslowski was one of the greatest directors of the XX Century and truly a great writer too...

But let's not forget to give at least half the merit to his co-writer, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who co-wrote every film Kieslowski directed.

One of the bad things of European cinema is the way the writer is always forgotten or ignored, in favor of the director-as-author theory.

But it's commonly forgotten that this is also true of other great directors, like Truffaut, whose greatest writing was always collaborative: Les Quatrecents Coups, Tirez sur le Pianiste (& Marcel Moussy), Jules et Jim (& Jean Grouault), Fahrenheit 451 (& Jean Louis Richard)...

Let's give due value to ourselves! :)

bob said...

MM- You know I'm all about the visuals--great article! Very inspiring

Steven Hart said...

Great post. I've been a fan of Kieslowski's work since the missus and I saw two episodes of The Decalogue at the Toronto festival. henever I talk up the man's work, I cite the sugar cube shot as a true Kieslowski moment.

GameArs said...

"thanks to Hollywood spoon feeding me most of my life with dumbed-down shit."

Stuff like this is why you're the man.

Mystery Man said...

Dan – Thanks, man!

Anon – Isn’t it? I haven’t seen all of his films yet. My fav critic, James Berardinelli lists “Decalogue” as, I think, his second all-time favorite filml.

Christian – re: “I long for emotive expression through the use of images.” Me, too, man! Hope you’re well.

Avixai – That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard in a while. I really appreciate that.

SS – Great comments about Krzysztof Piesiewicz. You’re quite right. Thank you! European cinema isn’t unique in that regard.

Bob – Thanks, man!

Steven – The Decalogue is phenomenal. I may have to dive into analysis of those sometime soon. Too many good films, good topics, good books, good (and bad) scripts to review, and never enough time.

Carl – You’re just as good, my friend. I’ve read your work.


Aksel said...

Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité - Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. Liberté, liberty, freedom. If you think about it, absolute freedom/liberty is lack of everything, responsibility and emotions. Love.

After her tragic accident Julie tries to take her own life, but agrees with life as long as she can be absolutely free, free from emotions, free from the past. She tries. She cuts the last strings that tie her to the past. She moves away from everything, physically and mentally. But does she succeed?

Bleu is blue, and coincidentally "blue" in English means tristesse, to be sad, to be blue. In Bleu, the colour represents Julie's sadness. The colour, the music and water. Her overwhelming sadness. In a swimming pool you cannot distinguish tears.

Some years ago I made an analysis of the four situations when Julie cannot escape her sadness, when the picture goes black (and time stops. See Deleuze's "Cinéma 2: L’Image-temps"). Actually there are 5 situations, beginning with the failed suicide scene, each takes app. 10 seconds, but the first one doesn't turn black. It's interesting and beautiful.

The trilogy is about love and humanity - charity: are we capable of doing anything selfless, seems to be the question Kieslowski asks.
In each of the three movies we see a very short scene of an old person (twice a woman, once a man) who is in need of some basic help. Each tries to put a bottle in a bottle container, but can't reach. In the two first movies the protagonists are worse off and not capable of helping, but in the last movie, Rouge, Valentine selflessly and naturally helps the old person, thereby showing that we are capable of humanity. Later in that movie more than 1400 people die in a sinking accident, but our three protagonists are saved. Did Valentine save them?

Mystery Man said...

Aksel - That was lovely. Thank you.


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