The Second Criterion: ‘Three Colors: Blue’


When France commissioned director Krzystof Kieslowski to make a film trilogy about the three virtues represented by the colors of the French flag: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, they probably wanted him to celebrate these virtues. Instead, Kieslowski decided to look at how these virtues are societally imbalanced. Aristotle reminds us that we can have an excess or deficit of a virtue. His example is that if we are too brave we are brash and if we are not brave enough we are cowards.

In Three Colors: Blue, Kieslowski, along with screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, deal with the excess of liberty. In the opening sequence, Julie (Juliette Binoche) and her husband and daughter are in a horrible accident. Julie is the only one to survive, and in the wake of their deaths she begins cutting off all connections of her life with them and decides to begin a new one. All she takes with her is a blue lamp of beads from her daughter’s room.

Julie is free in the purest sense of the world. She has no obligations, no responsibilities, no need for a job thanks to the estate left by her husband. As Julie says in one of the most chilling lines committed to cinema: “Now I have only one thing left to do: nothing. I don’t want any belongings, any memories. No friends, no love. Those are all traps.”

Here, Kieslowski shows how liberty, when taken to an extreme and privileged too much, can lead to shutting oneself out from the world. As Julie experiences life, she often loses herself in what’s immediately in front of her — a cup of coffee, a bit of string, items that are close and impersonal. In contrast, she’s indifferent to people who try to connect with her. When she refuses to sign a petition to kick out a stripper that lives in their apartment, the woman assumes it was out of Julie’s kindness, not her indifference.

One image of Julie’s freedom is the bungee jumper that her mom is watching on TV. Like the bungee jumper, Julie is free, but she is also falling. Unlike the bungee jumper she has no lifeline, nothing to connect her, nothing that will bring her back. By cutting off all connections, she has doomed herself. She must grip onto something or her liberation will only end in her falling.

As the film develops, Julie connects to people new and old. She becomes friends with her stripper, she discovers and helps her husband’s former lover. She also connects with Olivier (Benoît Régent), her former lover that she spurns early in the film. He hunts her down and finally she decides to reconnect with him.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the thematic weight of the music. Zbigniew Preisner’s bombastic, powerful score seems out of touch with the film’s softer, personal story, but it represents Julie’s ultimate inability to become truly free. The score of her husband’s music haunts her even in her new live, it overwhelms her. Even as she tries to suppress the memories that bring pain, she cannot be completely free from her past.

Kieslowski and Piesiewicz see this as a good thing. Julie’s inability to become purely free is what saves her, the music of her husband brings her back. She must give up the freedom of a life without responsibilities, connections or “traps,” but to be truly free, to be a complete individual, is a folly. Love for others and an obligation to community are virtues that should never suffer to the detriment of pursuing freedom.

  • Steven Flores

    This film is my favorite of the trilogy as it just devastated me when I first saw it. It’s truly a masterwork as Juliette Binoche’s performance in that film I think is still the best thing she’s done. Did you know she decided to do this film instead of “Jurassic Park”?

    • James Blake Ewing

      I did know that! I believe Kieslowski said he wouldn’t do the film without her. This is also my favorite of the trilogy and the favorite Kieslowski film.

  • Christopher Runyon

    I adore this film and the entire trilogy (This one’s my second favorite behind RED). That scene with the rats just crushes me everytime. And the ending. Oh god, the ending. It out-Donnie Darko’d Donnie Darko before Donnie Darko was even a thing.

    • James Blake Ewing

      I’ve always liked this one more than Red, but both are magnificent films. And I never really thought about Donnie Darko in conjunction with this film before, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the ending of this film was an inspiration for the ending of that film.

  • Steve Kimes

    Amazing review, James. A top 100 film for me, and I learned something through your writing. Makes me want to watch it again, but it’s Red’s turn first.

    • James Blake Ewing

      I’ve definitely rewatched Blue the most, and I feel like it’s probably the most watched of the three, so I won’t hold it against anyone for revisiting another part of the trilogy first. They’re all wonderful.