Friday, September 05, 2008

Visual Storytelling - Kieslowski’s “Blue”

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.



Laura Deerfield said...

Blue is perhaps the best example of visual storytelling ever filmed...and the only movie I've seen that really captured what my own experience of grief was like after losing my husband.

One of the reasons Kieslowski developed such facility with telling things in an indirect visual manner rather than spelling them out was that he was working in a communist country, and many of the things he wanted to convey were dangerous. Our limitations are sometimes our greatest gifts.

Mystery Man said...

Hey Laura,

Brilliant points. Veru true. Limitations can be the key to creative brilliance. One could write a book on that. In any case, I knew you'd be the first to comment. I knew you'd love Kieslowski without even asking, and I thought of you frequently as I wrote this. Kieslowski is the first filmmaker that comes to my mind when hearing the phrase "visual poetry." I'm going through all of his films right now (in my Netflix queue) and will write more articles if inspired.


millar prescott said...

Yes. Excellent commentary and analysis of a brilliant film. Mystery Man, do you think the breaking of the window in the hospital had any significance? Rather than simply showing Julie accessing the medicine cabinet, Kieslowski starts the scene with her breaking the window in the ward which sets off the alarm.

Christina said...

Great post!! Kieslowski is by far my favorite director of all time. The poster for Red hangs framed in my office - as I type this, I can see it in my periphery.

He was a master. I never sat down and analyzed the films scene by scene, I just know they affect me more than others when I watch them.

I even recall where I was the day he died. :-( Las Vegas, listening to NPR on the way home from work when I got the news. (Same way I got the news about Jerry Garcia.)

What can I say? You said it all! Don't get me started on the Decalogue.

Near by said...

great post MM!

Anonymous said...

Great post, indeed. When I first saw Blue some years ago, I noticed the beautiful photography and intense atmosphere, but after watching it again many times the story really opened up to me and the emotional impact grew stronger.

It was enlightening for me to realize that it was a part of a trilogy of Freedom, Equality and Fraternity, and that Blue is about freedom. But it's not about freedom in the positive sense that we usually associate with freedom. Julie loses her husband and child and is know totally free, disconnected from the world - that's freedom for you.

It's an existentialist story about how humans cannot really cope with absolute freedom. Everyone needs something to hold on to, and that's why at the end of the movie we hear the words from the Book of Corinthians sung. Beautiful movie.

Joshua James said...

I am one of the six people you mentioned (though we cannot forget the Double Life of Veronique, as well).

Anonymous said...

It's years now since I've seen the trilogy, but I remember Blue being the most difficult of the films because - as you point out - the protagonist is very difficult to connect with, she is so emotionally closed off for much of the film. For me that was always the significance of blue, which is a cold colour, and the emotions are like very deep currents flowing almost beyond perception far below the surface. I like very much nestori's explanation, though, despite knowing that this part of the trilogy was about freedom I'd never quite made the connection like that. Look forward to hearing your views on White and Red.

But you must watch Dekalog (in its entirety!). Many people will be familiar with A Short Film about Killing and A Short Film about Loving which are extracts from the series of ten roughly one-hour films each dealing with one of the ten commandments. The very first is one of the best, about the consequences of one man's hubris (Thou shalt have no other God...). The tragedy is inevitable but no less affecting for it (one for your tension collection, perhaps). Plus A Short Film about Killing should be compulsory viewing in states with the death penalty.

Christian H. said...

That was very interesting. It does show that American film is totally different than European.

I'm really into images, whether they're full frame noticeable or in the corner of the eye.

I do believe that dialog can enhance images so I don't pare to too much of a minimum. But then I guess if I tried to write a script that used mainly images, it would work. I did a little sample I think here.

Also, I believe that banality is the key to tension. The memory image is the key.

Her breaking the hanging beads shows frustration and sadness. The knuckles along the wall seem to imply a lack of concern for herself.

Anyway, nice little vid. Admittedly, this is my first exposure to Keislowski. He loves the abstract as I do.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love Kieslowski's trilogy. Sometimes I watch Blue without sound. Even without sound or access to words, the movie still affects me the same way emotionally, if not more because I'm totally enchanted and entralled by the imagery. Juliette Binoche can convey so much with just her eyes and body language, it's amazing. And for her to bring to life Kieslowski's words made it heaven for me.

Great post, as usual. I learn way too much here. :) Looking forward to your next analysis.

Sabina E. said...

Film IS a huge part of culture, even if filmmakers are only in it to make money. when "A Clockwork Orange" came out in the 70s, it had a huge impact on British youths and copycat crimes rose. plus, there are cult films, which eventually make its way into American culture (Star Wars nerds, anybody?).

anyway I've heard of Blue but have never managed to get a hold of it. but I should check it out sometimes soon, mmm?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the shot of the sugar cube in the coffee was better than either K or MM thought.

Because the shot has motion, over five seconds the coffee is absorbed and we watch the sugar cube change color, I saw it as more profound than just about the character. It seemed to me it was the way music is absorbed into a culture and permeates it, becoming one with it and thereby changing it.

And it is this power of music that eventually brings the character to a moment of change.

Anonymous said...

I thought I knew a good majority of visual story telling, but this piece just blew me away.

Need to check the film out now.

Thanks MM, saving one screenwriter at a time.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit... watching a film such as this - an amazing work of art... well, it leaves me feeling a bit empty. Yes. Empty. No, not for what it is... but for the sheer improbability of how it came to be. What do I mean by this? Okay, fair enough... let's suppose one of us could write such a masterpiece... such an ode to visual storytelling... certainly not out of the realm of possibility, right? Now how do you suppose such a masterpiece would be received by our beloved Hollywood… where skimming and skipping is an art form... skimming and skipping over all of your grand visual storytelling... all of those precious action lines? You can just see their dismay, can't you? Their puzzlement. Where's the dialogue? You mean it's eighty percent visual? Oh no, moviegoers--you know they'll never be able to digest that? (a chuckle) Far too obtuse. (a binder drops onto the desk with a thud) Read it for yourself...age, sex,’s all there…that's your demographic. Your reply might be something along the lines of… Is not action the very essence of screenwriting? After all, the format rewards action and penalizes dialogue by allowing more of the former and less of the latter in the same page space. (a blank stare) Why a movie by its very name denotes action. (an exec taps the demographic binder…as if YOU DON‘T GET IT). You go on... A moving picture? A movie? And on and on… and on the battle rages...

It’s almost enough to make me want to become a director… then at least - if I were able to write such a masterpiece - I would have a shot at seeing it grace the silver screen... in all of its moving glory.

Tanuki said...

With the mice, the important thing is that it's a nest of mice - it's a family of mice. And she gets the cat to come in and destroy the family, because a family is the one thing she can't stand to see. But by borrowing the cat she has to open herself up to obligations in the outside world, and slowly her armour begins to come apart. Great analysis Mystery Man - though I think Red is the best of Kieslowski's work...

crossword said...

Yeah... great analysis MM. Thanks for that!

I remember seeing all three films when they came out. And actually I bought the box set just last month.

The amazing thing about this Kieslowski movie (the trilogy actually) is that you can experience it and know there's these layers of some unidentifiable quality to them. And the more you watch them over time, the more you appreciate what is going on.

Great choice for an article, MM.

Anonymous said...

I've started posting on Kieslowski and would value comments, criticism, and suggestions.

drft....wud said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
drft....wud said...


Kislowsky thus defeats The French Govt's ambition and The church's preaching.
In his dazzling individuality.
Champions individual freedom.
The SELF/BLUE which don't recognises state,time or form.....

check out my reasons


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