Putting specific meaning on use of colour in movies or in any visual media for that matter is often an exercise in futility since it is easy to overanalyse use of colourcoding. However, that doesn’t mean that colour cannot be used with intent by artists and that is most definitely the case with this one.
This is very much the case with the French film ‘Bleu’ (1993) from the critically acclaime, Polish director Krzystof Kieslowski and the first in a trilogy of films ‘The Three Color’-trilogy, with the final two films being ‘Blanc’ (1994) and ‘Rouge’ (1994). Now ‘The Three Color’-trilogy isn’t really a trilogy in the way that for instance ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (2001-2003) or ‘Back to the Future’ (1985-1990) are considered trilogies since there is no overarching narrative to coble the three films together. Instead, the link is thematic as the three titles refer to the implied meaning of the French Flag’s three colours: blue for liberty, white for equality and red for brotherhood, with each film using these symbolic virtues as a thematic backdrop.
However, each movie does not interpret these virtues literally and chooses instead to skew them in an ironic light. ‘Blanc’ is about a Polish immigrant who does not feel at home in France, while ‘Rouge’ is about a woman who falls for an eclectic older hermit who spies on his neighbours.
‘Bleu’, the focus of this article, follows a grieving widow named Julie played by the impeccable Julitte Binoche. The movie centres around her after being the sole survivor of a car crash which kills both her husband, a famous composer, and their 5-year-old daughter. She chooses to deal with this fatal loss by basically committing social suicide; stripping herself of her belongings, destroying her husband’s work and locking herself in a spartan apartment with no other human contact than her mother.
In other words, Julie finds her liberty by stripping herself of any earthly possession, object of affection or memory that could possibly remind her of her past. However, this attempt to isolate herself and thereby lock up her grief is foiled by friends and strangers alike, constantly forcing her to engage and sympathise with the outside world.
It is a bleak subject matter and the film does not exactly sugarcoat Julie’s mental fragility; about 10 minutes into the film she tries to commit suicide although she is unable to go through with it. The frame of her with a bottle of pills in her mouth, still bruised from the accident as she looks blankly at a shocked nurse behind a glass window, is haunting.
Yet ‘Bleu’ never indulges in its protagonist’s misery. Since the whole arc of Julie’s character is that she wards of any emotional breakdown through isolation, there is no big sobbing breakdown and no screeching violins forcing the audience to get emotionally invested. Instead, the film frames her tragedy through its use of colour.
As I have pointed out the title colour, blue, refers to liberty but as a narrative device the colour symbolises grief and the use of it is not exactly limited to the film’s title. Every frame is engulfed in a hue of blue and dark blue. From objects of significance such as the only object of affection Julie allows herself to keep – a decorative lamp and the casefile containing her husband’s unfinished composition – to the mostly clouded skylines of the film which reinforces its gloomy light palette.
Blue is also associated with Julie herself as she is always wearing a large, dark coat and is characterised by Binoche’s short, dark brown hair. Her piercing dark eyes simply emphasise her beautiful, minimalist performance. Lastly, the colour is used as a way to show Julie’s isolation, whether that is in the many scenes of her swimming at night at a local swimming pool as she tries to block out the rest of the world, or the cold, unwelcome light of her unpainted apartment.
Yet despite this stylistic use of colour, the world in which ‘Bleu’ takes place never feels stylised or ‘fake.’ A lot of that seemingly has to do with Kizlowksi’s past as a social-realistic documentarian portraying the Polish people under Communist rule, and by extension, his ability to capture real human emotion and suffering through the media of film. This is further emphasised by the director of photography, Slawomir Idziak’s choice to frame most of the scenes in close-ups of faces allowing every twitch, facial feature and change in mimic to be absorbed by the viewer.
Furthermore, while the film has a definite unreal use of the colour blue, it never uses it as a poignant contrast. There aren’t any sudden switches in colour coding like it is perhaps most famously seen in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993) where a young girl’s brightly red dress clashes with the films otherwise black-and-white colour scheme.
Like so many French art house films, ‘Bleu’ could mistakenly be described as overly pretentious and solely targeted at snooty Cannes Festival-attendees, no one else. However, I would argue that the film should resonate deeply with anyone who has ever experienced loss. Its use of blue not only enriches themes of loss and grief, it also makes the film much more accessible to the average viewer as it puts these themes to the forefront through its use of colour without ever having to spell them out.