The Interstices of Memory (Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours Blue)

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours Blue is an unorthodox rendition of the old idea, the French Revolutionary ideal, of liberty, or freedom: as freedom “from” memory, grief, people and society – as opposed to freedom “within” memory, grief, people and society – and, as the films unfolds, it becomes apparent how difficult the former version of freedom is to achieve when the typical understanding is of the later, and so people, particularly, as active subjects, seeking reconciliation with their own memories, and remedies for their own grief (often through re-establishing social contracts), are unable to relinquish their hold on Julie, played by Juliette Binoche, who is grieving the death of her philandering, genius composer husband and her young daughter, in a car accident she survived. We see her return to their family home, a capacious country villa, reminiscent of a concert hall, installed with a grand piano, tended by a maid and a gardener. Julie’s instinct is to erase all memory of her previous life – excavating the house of possessions, objects, things – all placeholders for memory; it is a form of suicide within life: the attempted completion of the physical act she conceives and begins while interned at the hospital immediately following the crash (emptying the contents of a pill bottle into her mouth) but is, of her own volition, unable to swallow. This inability to complete something acts as a metaphor for the film, and for Europe as a whole.

The hospital is witness to another remarkable early scene. Here the audience are first introduced to Olivier – at this stage, a presumed friend of the family – who brings Julie a portable, primitive television device on which to watch the funeral of her husband. It is at this point we are made aware of her husband’s public renown: he was due to complete a symphony for the unification of Europe; and was venerated by the French public. Julie watches inattentively; the screen blurs and flickers; the commiserative, obituary speech echoes. This scene resonates with a latter one in which Julie visits her Alzheimer-suffering mother in a nursing home. She too is watching television and seems to live in a state of dreamy amnesia, unable to consistently recognise her daughter and captivated by the screen, pronouncing: I’m fine. I have everything here. The TV… I can see the whole world. It is this complete immersion in the world, to the point of living oblivion that seems to motivate Julie at this stage. She wants to live in solitude; cognisant but entirely present, dissociated from her past.

Julie’s tranced and intermittent, often enforced, engagement with the immediate circumstances of her world is indicated through an uncharacteristic scene where she watches a hunched, elderly woman struggle to recycle a glass bottle. The screen around Julie seems to shimmer: and it seems she can only perceive the world as if a distant mirage or chimera. Rarely does her facade crack. The iridescent blue light that surrounds Julie, accompanied by her husband’s music – her past encroaching upon her, tight and airless – threatens to engulf her but she struggles against it, slipping away. When approaching Marie, her maid, for the first time in the film, she asks, Why are you crying?to which Marie responds, Because you’re not. She decides to live where there are no children; her frustration and sense of loss is evident when a party of children run, jubilantly shrieking, and jump into the pool as she is about to exit. When the young man who first approached the car after the accident returns her crucifix necklace he offers to answer any questions that she may have; Julie responds with an abrupt, agitated, No, before apologising.

Moreover, as already mentioned, Julie excavated her marriage house of objects, memories – but she goes further, retrieving, only to dispose of, her husband’s incomplete music scores for the Unification composition. The music of this piece is a recurring motif and in this scene of destruction – a response perhaps to the inability to create life and thus an alternate mode of transcendence. That is, if unification is creation, then Julie’s disposal of the score is destruction, and here the music intermeshes with the abrasive sound of the garbage wagon’s teeth closing and perforating the sheets of the score. Furthermore, Julie’s gestures and disposition throughout these scenes are imperturbable; her face belies no aggression, no sadness or distress. There is no sense of victimhood. She seems to comprehend the arbitrary nature of our entry and exit; her escape from the accident was as fortunate as her husband and her daughter’s deaths were unfortunate. The world to her is now an elsewhere; and her act of destruction is transcendent in as much she is above life now: she no longer wants to participate in the trials of living – she has enough reserved economically to subsist; and she appears to have no need of interaction. Instead, minor, everyday engagements – like the saturation of a sugarcube with coffee, or her hand’s entanglement in a blue glass chandelier, the one memento she preserved from her former life – and presumably her daughter’s – are magnified and take on extra, introspective-significance for Julie. The recurrent scene of her swimming, alone, in a blue-lit pool, each time at a differing pace, depending on her emotions, verifies her isolation – and symbolises her desire to be submerged (on one occasion she submerges herself for as long as her breath holds; her return to the surface denies her this merger with the pacific calm of the water) and is reminiscent of a line from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities

We shall cast off all self-seeking; we shall collect neither goods, nor knowledge, nor lovers, nor friends, nor principles, nor even ourselves! Our spirit will open up, dissolving boundaries toward man and beast, spreading open in such a way that we can no longer remain “us” but will maintain our identities only by merging with all the world!

She views all life as accumulation and investment but these activities as a “trap”; the subjects and objects you cherish are transitory. And yet she is drawn back, again and again, by accidents and intentions. For instance, Julie accidentally befriends Lucille, a “loose woman,” due, ironically, to her refusal to involve herself in the draconian administration of her apartment building that seeks to remove Lucille for her lifestyle. Lucille is oblivious to her conduct and presumes Julie’s friendship as a “good person”; likewise, when Julie resolves to meet her dead husband’s mistress – pregnant with his child – she displays no animosity and, rather, determines to ensure the well-being of the child, entrusting her former property to the mother. The mistress tells Julie, definitively, that her husband was right; Julie is a “good person.” Julie’s person seems, to other people, to embody the qualities Kieslowski celebrates – liberty, equality, friendship – even if Julie may not interpret or know herself in these forms.

The incidents that are more penetrating as to the actuality of Julie’s being, and her self-concept, are those where the screen blacks out when the camera is engaged in a close-up of Julie’s face (the predominant shot of the film) – as if she is momentarily unconscious. The preceding image returns, unperturbed, but it is apparent that these moments are when the actual trauma of her memory recurs and she must make a decision between whether to continue to struggle to forget or to accede to the past and recalibrate her person in renewed affective constellations. The legacy of incidence in memory is reinforced by a scene where she finds a mouse and her tender pink, sky-reaching new born beneath a cardboard box. Julie visits her mother at the nursing home to ask if she had had a childhood phobia of mice. Her confused mother responds No, your sister, Julie, did. The act of killing the mice is most crucial of the scenes that unfold in the form described above, with the black screen. Generalized, it seems that this unclear recall of her own childhood ramifies the sense in which our past remains repressed, unconscious within us, liable to be resurrected incidentally; and, moreover, the way in which the dissolution of our memories, and with it, our past, is dehumanising to self and indifferent to others who are invested in similar, differently accented memories, to which you are centrifugal.

It is almost suggestive of an ethics of memory, a hazy and difficult to affirm or annul notion, but one which is examined by Kieslowski by disallowing Julie the traditional passage of both public and private grieving. The film lacks the expected ostentation of grief, especially that which we have imbibed as natural in the wake of the death of a child. (For example, Julie is not in attendance at the funeral but in hospital still.) Instead, the child, Anna, is memorialised in the blue chandelier piece, but otherwise it is as if she didn’t exist – and in a sense she didn’t. Her actual presence is never registered in the film (we only see the chassis of the car prior to the crash) and her image is absent. Is the question, how can we grieve what was never really there? Or is grieving as a whole problematised through this absent figure – is grief itself an absenting emotion, one which draws us away from the importance of living, and the living? Is loss better served as a provocation to continuance and creativity?

Kieslowski also reflects on the transition of memory in the past century away from the personal, psychologised investigations that characterised its early philosophical relevance to the privileging of cultural memory (a shift marked in part by the black heart of Europe’s century, the Holocaust): at the level of appearances it is France – and perhaps Europe as a whole – who mourn – through the televised funeral – the death of Julie’s husband more than she. In this way, The Three Colours Blue is bifurcated by the dual function of memory; developing the problematic of its reverse, forgetting. In modern societies, at a cultural level, the alacrity of forgetting is remarkable and public ceremony is one way of retaining the illusion of a common consciousness, inherited and re-deployed.

Meanwhile, at the personal level the inescapability of memory, or the inability to forget, emanates from the flute player’s song that mesmerises Julie while she inhabits a modest Parisian cafe. His song resembles that of her husband’s composition – a composition that, it is implied, Julie may have been the actual architect behind. As it is, she has dissociated herself from the completion of the composition – an activity undertaken by Olivier as an emblem of his love for Julie; as a way, at least, to draw her back to him by advertising his intent – as well as a photograph of Julie’s husband in the midst of an affair – on national television. Almost contra her will, Julie finds herself helping complete the composition (a duplicate of the original preserved) that they are both aware is becoming their own, not her husband’s. This acts, then, as Julie’s self-redemption. Not in the act of finishing the composition but of rendering it her own. In the same act we see her sexually reunited with Olivier, whose quiet, relentless pursuit has helped conjure her back to life. The withdrawn, besotted Olivier (I’ve seen you. Maybe that will do, for now) also problematises our imbibed understanding of the lover. He does not inundate Julie with pleas and paeans. Rather, as if to test the endurance of love as a form of memory (in the final scenes, Julie calls Olivier, and asks, Do you still love me?), he recedes into the subtext of the film, recurring as a device to catalyse the film’s conclusion – refusing, therefore, love as a triumphant overcoming force but marking it as a persistent, enduring, if undulating condition, often disguised or imperceptible, desired, yet fragile and fickle (Julie asks her husbands mistress, Did he love you? Yes, she responds.)

The reunification of Julie and Olivier reflects, at the personal level, the unification of Europe: Kieslowski’s trilogy deploying the three ideals of the French Revolution: liberty (blue), equality (white), and friendship (red). In the formative stages of the film, as Julie attempts to shed her past, Olivier is discarded because of his friendship with her husband and because of his love for her. She invites him to her family home after it has been emptied and they sleep together. The next morning, Olivier wakes to Julie’s placement of a coffee-cup by his head. Julie tells Olivier that she appreciates what he has done for her but assures him that he won’t miss her now that his ideal of her has been exposed to, as she says, her sweat and her cavities, the property of every woman. Extrapolated, could this symbolise the ideal of a now unified Europe, exposed to its own hypocrisy and fallibilities? The film, released in 1993 – communism recently shattered, the Soviet Union disbanded, and Germany united – coincides with and celebrates the Single Market, which enshrined the ‘four freedoms’ of: movement of goods, services, people and money. Reviewed now, the film appears unintentionally prescient, covertly invoking the possibility of something like the present debt-crisis; the persistent debate on immigration; and the hypocrisies evident in the evaluation and arbitration of new countries’ accession to the EU. Contra Kieslowski’s presumed intention, then – for he values and seeks to find unity between people and their common understanding of concepts like “love,” “fear,” and “suffering” – the film can be read as introducing ambiguity into the collective acceptance of the EU as a strong, conductive institution.

However, Three Colours Blue is not an explicitly political film. This theme is subterranean and it is human liberty and unity, indivisible, and transcendent (creatively and destructively) of political institutions and their mandates, that is celebrated here. The values and ideals if not the manifestations are noble, descendent of history, and integral to the human spirit as Kieslowski idealises it. The spirits and ghosts of liberty, equality, and friendship should be our engines. Even as the music for the unification of Europe is stalled by the composer’s untimely death, other people – capable and creative – persist and pursue the same ideals in tension with their personal accidents and emergencies. And liberty relies on other people, on intertwinement in other people’s lives; in their diverse, troubled, buried subjectivities; and Kieslowski amplifies this in his empyrean final declaration, in what was to be one of his last films, panning across the still faces of the characters who had impacted Julie and resuscitated her interest in living while the composition she helped re-render elegiacally loops, binding them together, making transparent her own intact independence despite the persistence of each of them.

 

Michael Huddleston

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