Three Colours: Blue

Dir: Krzysztof Kieslowski (1993)
with Juliette Binoche

three_colors_blueIt begins with a woman taking back control of her life and ends with a song for the unification of Europe. Could there be a more fitting film to mourn our country’s departure from the European Union?

The Song for the Unification of Europe which ends the film, poignantly, is sung in Greek. Greece, the cradle of democracy. Also, the country that gave us Grexit, that begat Brexit. The disastrous handling by the European Union of the Greek debt crisis over the past few years nearly brought about the collapse of the shared currency, and created a wobble within the Eurozone, the reverberations from which saw the UK vote to leave the EU only this morning.

I remember seeing posters for the film – Juliette Binoche, that tall typeface – in cinemas in Tel Aviv when I travelled to Israel in 1994. I didn’t see the film itself till over a year later, late one evening on Channel 4. Then, in the summer of 1996 and living in Edinburgh, I went with my flatmate Eduardo to the Cameo cinema to see the full Three Colours trilogy, of which Blue is the first, that was being shown there over one day. We sat in that cinema close to 7 hours, with only short breaks in between to get a quick cig and a breath of fresh air. It was one of the best cinema-going experiences of my life. The beauty of the filmmaking, the tone, the interlinking narratives, the themes of love and loss and hope and desire and redemption and everything magical that Kieslowski puts into his films leached out into the fabric of my life. I felt as if I was living in Kieslowski’s world.

I had just spent the previous year in Poland, the year before that in Turkey and would be heading off in the autumn to spend a year in Spain. I would have a beautiful and intense Before Sunrise kind of romance with an Italian girl called Monica later that summer. I was surrounded by Germans, Austrians, Catalonians, Spaniards, French, Poles, Russians, in my day job as an English language teacher. Edinburgh was Europe. The summer was suffused by a cinematographic light, everything seemed interconnected, open. Everything seemed possible.

Three Polish artists – director Kieslowski, writer Piesiewicz and composer Priesner – along with a team of Polish and French collaborators, cinematographers, editors etc., conspired to create Three Colours in 1992 when the European project was still emergent – still a Community; not yet a Union. Poland wouldn’t become part of that united Europe for over a decade – they were still discovering democracy, their artists were starting to explore the freedoms available to them after the collapse of Communism three years before. Elsewhere, Soviet Russia and the whole eastern bloc was disintegrating, making the Cold War a thing of the past; Clinton and the Democrats were in the White House bringing fresh hope after years of right-wing Republicanism; and apart from a series of niggling tremors from Israel, Iran, far far away, the fallout from the Gulf War, peace seemed finally within our grasp.

To many of us, the European Union represented that peace. Working together across borders and languages. Finding shared languages, shared beliefs, shared dreams. Common ground as well as a common market. The European Union was about nations working together to transcended nationalisms, to build something that was bigger than us all. It seemed to usher in a new era of international openness, the dissolution of borders, the expansion of freedoms.

Fairly early in the European project, the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was adopted as a European international anthem, with its celebration of the ideals of freedom, peace, and solidarity. As unification grew ever more likely, the words of the French motto – “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” – seemed to resonate across the continent, so it seems entirely apt that Kielsowski should choose these as the themes for his cinematic trilogy. And for him to choose as a unifiying plot device the creation of a piece of music that unites a continent – and for his composer Zbigniew Priesner to rise to the challenge and succeed – is truly majestic, one of the greatest achievements of this film.

The film’s take on liberty is a curious one. Isolation is liberation, it seems to say. One cannot find liberty in love; one cannot love without losing one’s liberty. Interestingly, like Brexit, Three Colours: Blue is built on a paradox: that finding one’s freedom and taking control of one’s life means isolating oneself, severing all connections to the past, to those nearest you. Happily, however, Julie comes to realise that in order to love again, she must unite with the world, the people around her. She embraces love and extends her care to those around her, making her world and theirs, better.

For Kieslowski, for Priesner, and for his screenwriter Piesiewicz, hope resides in art, specifically in music. Music penetrates the main character Julie’s inner life at every opportunity. It steals up on her in her quietest moments, invades her dreams, crops up unexpectedly on the telly, and every time when she thinks she has buried her memories. In the melodies he improvises outside the cafe on Rue Mouffetard, the music of the flautist offers Julie a way of connecting her past musical associations with future ones.

I want to believe in art.

I want to believe that music will bring us together in joy. I want to believe that the glorious harmonies and polyphony of voices that resound in the chorus of the song that ends this film represent in some way the best of our species, the highest aspirations our culture – our shared musical and political culture – is capable of. I want to believe that the ideals of a united Europe are somehow not lost in the cacophony of hatred and isolationist nationalism that seems to be rearing its ugly, violent head across the continent once more and frighteningly ever closer to home.

I want to believe that. But as I watched this film back again, I watched through tears. There were tears, certainly, for the plight of the character of Julie who lost her daughter. The unimaginable horror of that, of having to live with that pain forever. Then following her story, her learning to trust love again, finding purpose in living again, making a piece of music to unite people across a continent in song. It is beautiful, and it is moving. This is what Europe can be for the millions across the world, fucked by our oil wars, whose dead children wash up on beaches across the Mediterranean – a place to find purpose in living again. Imagine what they might be capable of if we let them, imagine the beauties and wonders they might create out of the hell of this world.

I cried for my generation who have been betrayed by the politicians we trusted to look after our dreams. I cried for the death of that dream.

I cried for my own daughter, who will remember nothing of the best aspirations for the European project, who will know nothing of this bleak episode in our history. She will live through its consequences, though, and she and her generation will face challenges in her lifetime that will exist as a result of this moment.

I cried because where there was liberty, we chose restriction, closed borders, isolationism. We chose to highlight our differences with the world around us instead of the similarities. Where there was equality, we chose inequality, injustice, we chose to deny our history and geography. We chose fuck-you, me-first. Where there was fraternity, we turned our backs on our friends and neighbours and those who most need our help. We walked off alone into a cold, friendless darkness.

I cried because where there existed dreams and hope and love and unity, we chose hate. And I don’t know that art is good enough or powerful enough to stand up to all of that.

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The Double Life of Veronique

Dir: Krzysztof Kieslowski (1991)
with Irene Jacob

VeroniqueIt’s the music that moves me first. Always with Kieslowski’s films, it’s the music. Always composed by Zbigniew Preisner, and often in the guise of his alter ego, Van Den Budemeyer who indeed makes an appearance here – possibly the director’s way of acknowledging the importance of Preisner’s scores in his movies, that they are like characters in themselves.

The Double Life of Veronique, I think I’m right in saying, was the film that made Kieslowski’s name in the West, as it used to be called, when anything past Berlin was considered “East”. The film was released in 1991 to massive acclaim and a bunch of prizes at Cannes, just a couple of years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a year before the unification of Europe in Maastricht. There’s an east/west theme going on in the film, which I hadn’t previously considered, but which seems obvious now.

The Double Life… is the story of two Veronicas – well, one Veronique, French, and one Weronika, Polish – who are twins, of a sort. While they may look identical, they are unrelated – they have no family relationship that we know of, but there are many correspondences that unite the two. Both have been brought up by their fathers. Both are musicially talented. Both are generous and loving, and a bit lost. These connections seem to be mostly spiritual or psychic, some circumstantial, but there is also a crucial physical connection – of the heart, no less. Both Veronicas suffer from a heart condition, indeed the Polish Weronika dies of hers early in the film. French Veronique is given a kind of intuitive/ telekinetic insight through the experiences of her spiritual twin that allows her to avoid the same fate as her Polish double. She quits singing. Quits smoking. Chucks the needy lover. And, vitally, she gets her heart checked out at the hospital, meaning she gets to live.

The what-if double-life story is fantastic. It feels almost like one of the seven original stories you hear writers and dramaturgs talking about. It’s not the first time Kieslowski used the ‘double life’ theme – Blind Chance from 1982 engages similar themes, and elements of both films were given a slick make-over several years later in the hit rom-dram Sliding Doors.

As you’d expect, there’s a lot going on, much of it at a symbolic level. The Double Life of Veronique is rich in visual metaphors, reflections, repetitions, inversions, prisms, cracks in the glass. The camera sometimes occupies impossible subjective points of view – for example, by taking you over the heads of the audience when Weronka dies on stage, her soul obviously leaving the building; or looking up from the bottom of the grave as her bereaved family throw earth down on to her coffin. Sound design plays a huge part, too, and not just in Preisner’s beautiful and affecting score. A key sequence that leads Veronique to her suitor is a sonic detective story through the sound world around Gare St. Lazare. The moment when she discovers the photo of her Polish double, by contrast, is delivered in austere, pained silence.

It’s been years since I watched The Double Life of Veronique. I don’t quite know what I’m expecting when I watch the film back again. I don’t really remember watching it for a first time, don’t really remember when that might have been. Before I lived in Poland? 1993, maybe? I remember a VHS tape with the title pencilled along the face of the cassette, a recording from the good old days of Channel Four, when you could rely on quality films, usually late – but not graveyard shift late – like at 11pm, several times a week.

I love the reflexivity of the storytelling, the way that the marionette artist tells Veronique a version of her own story back to her. I love the games Kieslowski plays with sound and image, all the stuff I’ve listed above. And I love the very last beat of the film. Veronique’s father, pensive at his workbench, waiting for his daughter to come and ask him some difficult questions he’s been shirking the whole of her life. Was that actually her twin in Krakow?

There’s a lot to love, too, about Irene Jacob’s performance. Yes, I fancied her. I think, like every guy at the time, I always assumed I’d meet and fall in love with someone like Irene Jacob. It’s a natural performance, rather than a technical one – much as the musical director describes Weronika’s singing in the Polish scenes. She’s not had the shit trained out of her, let’s say that. She draws you in, makes you want to know too the mystery that she’s trying to solve within herself. It’s a tender and naive performance, which is exactly perfect for this role, which is about a uniquely affected young woman learning about herself. In portraying this, Jacob is note-perfect.

After watching, what am I left with? Disbelief that this film is 25 years old? Partly. That’s a lot of water under the bridge and it makes me pine for those late nights staying up watching weird films on Channel Four, hoping you’d find a good one. You felt that you were discovering something that was just for you, rather than something packaged and sold to you via some search engine algorithm, or because of what you already “liked”. But I don’t suppose it matters how you find stuff, in the end, as long as you’re looking and keep open mind.

Kieslowski was, probably still is, my favourite film maker. I love him for the way that he – and his excellent cast – can bring out difficult to access emotions. I love how he can layer meaning and metaphor, weave stories within stories, without ever being too clever or too obscure. I love the stories he tells.

Mostly, watching The Double Life of Veronique makes me want to live in that world again. It makes me want to revisit Dekalog and The Three Colours Trilogy. It makes me want to find my Veronica.