Dir: Krzysztof Kieslowski (1993)
with Juliette Binoche
It 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.