Three Colours: Blue (Trois Couleurs Bleu) (1993)
|Category||Drama||Main Menu Audio|
|Year Of Production||1993|
|RSDL / Flipper||No/No||Cast & Crew|
|Region Coding||1,2,3,4,5,6||Directed By||Krzysztov Kieslowski|
|Pan & Scan/Full Frame||None||French Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)|
|Widescreen Aspect Ratio||1.78:1|
|Video Format||576i (PAL)|
|Original Aspect Ratio||1.85:1||Miscellaneous|
|Annoying Product Placement||No|
|Action In or After Credits||No|
The principal themes of liberty, equality and fraternity are certainly not the only themes explored in this important trilogy, as Kieslowski and Piesiewicz carefully layer and structure their stories so that many themes are addressed as the relationships of the protagonists unfold. Other key themes explored in this trilogy include the role of technology in modern life (how we rely on it and how it can let us down), altruism (whether it is present in modern life) and the fine line between fate/destiny/chance and how this affects (decides?) the paths that we take in life.
Don't be put off by the French titles of these films; the exploration of the themes is by no means limited to just a French context. Indeed, the second film in the trilogy is set predominantly in Warsaw and the third film in Geneva, and furthermore these films are in fact much more universal in their appeal, providing an extremely interesting, almost voyeuristic-like observation on contemporary relationships generally.
So what led to this project?
To put Three Colours in its correct context, the first thing to note is that this technique of using multiple films to explore fundamental humanist ideals and relationships in a modern context was certainly not a new idea for Kieslowski and Piesiewicz. In 1988 the pair had already successfully tackled The Decalogue (Dekalog) project, a series of ten one-hour films made for Polish television, dealing with the theme of The Ten Commandments and if/how these fundamental Christian moral codes relate to people in a modern context. It is interesting to note that the ten scripts were originally written by Kieslowski and Piesiewicz with the intention that they be filmed by ten different Polish film directors, but on completion Kieslowski (thankfully) decided that the finished works were just too personal to hand over to other directors and so took on the mammoth project himself. The resultant series of films won much critical acclaim, and deservedly so.
Decalogue was set in a Warsaw apartment block and explored the interactions between the people who live there, as a sort of microcosm of modern (Polish) society. In this way, despite the fact that chronologically these two magnum opuses were punctuated by another film in between (the stirring The Double Life of Veronique (1991)), Decalogue (1988) was very much the successful "prequel" concept that led to the further development of this technique and exploration of themes on a much larger, broader, western scale, in Three Colours. There are some notable similarities between the two sister projects; like Decalogue, the Three Colours concept also:
On its release in 1988, Deacologue won Kieslowski and Piesiewicz widespread critical acclaim, but initially just in Europe. It's appeal to wider western audiences has only built slowly over the years, as the films received greater and greater exposure, being featured and appreciated by audiences at numerous film festivals around the world. Demand has now (finally) seen a release of this important work on DVD in Region 2 (Artificial Eye/Mk2 Editions) this year.
If you've seen the films already, then you will appreciate what a perfect introductory context Decalogue makes for the Three Colours trilogy and therefore how such a complex project such as this could come about. But don't worry if you haven't seen or even heard of Decalogue yet. I'm sure that if you enjoy and appreciate what the Three Colours trilogy has to offer, then you will definitely want to hunt down its prequel series.
The short version of this review?: Blue is an incredibly powerful movie and one that is difficult to describe without resorting to superlatives; it is a visual tour de force that, for me, quite simply exemplifies the art of contemporary film-making. Of the three films in the trilogy, Blue is the most visually compelling, employing some spectacular cinematography to make it, arguably, the most impacting and memorable of all three films. Unfortunately, however, it is presented here on a cheap and nasty DVD, involving a minimalist transfer effort from a poor quality source. It is an opportunistic Region 4 DVD release of a film that deserves and demands much much more. The very long-winded version of the review?: please read on.....
The Three Colours trilogy is not your standard plot-driven film-fare, but instead goes much deeper. It is a seriously entertaining study of life, love and luck in modern society. It is a series of films with multiple levels of meaning and it keeps growing on you the more you watch it and the more you analyse it. The themes in these films are deliberately and meticulously constructed, slowly and subtly building upon symbolism and imagery, conveyed to the audience using a characteristic visual flair for camera angles, lighting and perspectives. The films are, in summary, skillfully crafted works of art, able to be enjoyed simply at an overall level but also containing, for those so inclined to delve deeper, enough material to analyse that it could form the basis of an entire thesis! (Indeed, many serious academic studies have been published on Kieslowski's works.)
Very sadly, Three Colours was to prove to be Kieslowski's last completed project as director. After having completed these three films almost simultaneously, a very tired Kieslowski shocked the film-world by announcing his retirement as a film director at the press conference for Red in Cannes in 1994. He died not long afterwards in 1996, after having admitted himself into a Warsaw hospital for heart surgery that was not successful.
Kieslowski and Piesiewicz did not stop work entirely after Red, however. In 1995, the pair had already started embarking on their next mammoth writing project; this time to write the scripts for a trilogy of films dealing with the concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. They didn't believe in taking on easy projects, this pair, did they? The script for Heaven was only partially completed when Kieslowski passed away, but was finished off by Piesiewicz and has now been made into a film released this year by director Tom Tykwer and starring Cate Blanchett. (My review of this film will follow - click here.) It is unknown at this point whether Piesiewicz will go on to complete the scripts for "Hell" and "Purgatory" - probably not.
Blue: so what is it about specifically?
Blue deals with the theme of liberty, or freedom, but in a trademark style of the writers it deals with the theme in a rather ironic fashion. The story revolves around Julie (the beautiful and talented Juliette Binoche), who very early in the movie becomes the sole survivor of a car crash in which her husband Patrice (a famous music composer) and young daughter Anna are both killed. Julie has much trouble dealing with her grief, most particularly for Anna, whilst she is surrounded by the public and those around her openly grieving for their popular composer. We learn that Patrice's life was struck short just before he could complete his much-awaited concerto, the "Song for the Unification of Europe", intended to be played as a once-only concerto simultaneously by twelve separate orchestras around Europe, as a symbol of its unification.
Julie decides to block out the anguish of her loss by attempting to "free" herself of all her associations with the past life. She does this by selling-up the entire family estate and ridding herself all its possessions, except for a single symbolic item, being a simple blue mobile taken from Anna's blue room. She also disposes of all of Patrice's music scores in an attempt to kill his musical legacy and then moves to Paris to settle into a quiet, simple and lonely existence.
The movie follows Julie's struggle to define herself in terms of her newfound "liberty"; her freedom from past relationships and from the trappings of a past life. But alas, this proves impossible for Julie to achieve. We learn that Olivier (Benoit Regent), the close friend and confidante of Patrice, has been in love with Julie for many years and this forms a link with her past life that cannot be broken. After having happily succumb to Julie's sudden and very unexpected sexual advance soon after Patrice's death - this being not emotional or sexual for Julie, but purely and simply just a "purging" of the old life before she leaves - Olivier is then not simply content to let her disappear. Other strong linkages to Julie's past life are slowly revealed as the film progresses, including the music itself, which becomes a prominent and very tangible link, drawing her back inexorably out of her self-imposed emotional exile. This leads to my previous comment that Kieslowski deals with the concept of liberty in a very ironic fashion in this film; questioning the value of liberty and conveying that complete freedom as such may be impossible to attain.
Use of the colour blue and other symbolism:
Subconsciously, colours evoke certain emotions. The colour blue has a pacifying influence. Its strongest common-day associations are the sky, the sea and water. Blue is said to be cold and has a relaxing/calming influence. None of this is lost on the director. Without writing an essay on the subject (because I'd love to!), consider just how many objects and references are blue in this movie. Some examples are: the family car that crashes and sets the initial path to "freedom", Anna's blue candy wrapper out of the car window flying up into the sky (symbolic of the young girl's soul about to be set free), images on the TV screens watched by Julie on two occasions, the palpable blue flashes of the music, Anna's blue mobile, the swimming pool (used by Julie to wash away her past memories), clothes worn by Julie throughout the film (she is dressed in "black and blue", which is highly appropriate for her state), and the list goes on. If you make a conscious note to look out for it whilst watching this movie, you will appreciate the innumerable blue items and references, either overtly symbolic or as more subtle links between the characters and to the principal theme.
Apart from colour as a vehicle to stress the principal them of liberty, Kieslowski also draws heavily on certain other themes and moralisms throughout this trilogy, including altruism, how fate/destiny or chance affect our lives, the foreshadowing of events to come, the reliance of us all on technology and how it can fail us and, particularly in Blue, the symbolism of glass and water.
Consider for example how often glass is deliberately used in this movie. So many of the scenes are either stylistically shot through glass or else the characters are observed through glass. This is a Kieslowski trademark. We know that glass is literally something transparent but present, but note that it can also form an invisible barrier between two people or between a person and the outside world; this is what Kieslowski wishes to convey as we "observe" the protagonists. Some of the many examples and different uses of glass throughout the film include: viewing Anna through the rear window of the car (observer), Julie viewing Patrice's funeral through a tiny TV screen (she is removed from reality), the glass between Julie and the nurse (a barrier), Julie's mother viewed through windows and mesmerised by TV (symbolising the lack of communication, as both between Julie and her mother and the mother cut off from reality), as well as using glass for purely photographic/stylistic purposes, such as in Julie's apartment, the reflected light from the glass mobile, viewing people and events through glass windows (implying the audience is a voyeur of the events), etc, etc.
Also note that the use and imagery of water is very deliberate in this movie. Water has connotations of purity, health and cleansing - the washing away of bad things. Notice how the sudden and unexpected rendezvous between Julie and Olivier is a symbol of the final washing away of the old life for Julie before she leaves, taking place against a backdrop of torrential rain and Olivier turning up already soaked. Consider Julie's use of the swimming pool. The placid blue water of the swimming pool initially suggests escape for Julie. She swims when she wants to free herself of thoughts of the past life or to cleanse her emotions of guilt. But far from being an escape, twice we see her gasping and stopping in the pool, as she is overcome by fragments of the unfinished concerto or otherwise drawn back to the past. She swims more intensely at some times than at others and the intensity of the colour of the water reflects this accordingly, changing from being a more intense darker blue when Julie is by herself and at her most emotional, to being very insipid when she is not alone or is disturbed.
The references to technology throughout the trilogy is also very interesting, specifically how much we rely on it in and how it can let us down. Consider in Blue the symbolism of the car at the very beginning, with the dramatic opening scene established by audio only over a black screen, then a slow reveal shot exposing visually that this sound belongs to the tyre of the fast-moving car. The opening shot establishes a sense of danger, heightened by the close-up of the undercarriage of the car and the leaking brake fluid soon after. Both these references establish for the viewer immediate doubt and concern, preparing for the failure of this technology and the huge impact this will have on these three lives. Consider also the small TV set through which Julie watches her family's funeral and how, even at an important time like this, the modern technology fails her, with the television reception fading in and out on the small portable unit. The failure of technology is in fact a recurring theme for Kieslowski, originally explored in Decalogue 1 and with other references in both White and Red.
The more you analyse this movie the more layers of meaning there are.
You may be reading this thinking that all of the above is starting to sound pretty arty and pretentious, and I admit, in the hands of someone less capable this film could easily have degenerated into a boring, self-indulgent exercise. All of the clever use of colour and symbolism would have meant nothing if not for a director able to mould it into an interesting, well-paced and enjoyable story. Undisputedly, Kieslowski is a director of this ability. But cinematographer Slawomir Idziak also deserves special credit as a principal collaborator on this film. Kieslowski was always been known for giving his cinematographer extensive freedom to achieve the desired look of a film. Kieslowski and Idziak had already worked together before on several films and documentaries in the past. Renowned for his great use of camera filters, Idziak shot the stylistically harsh Decalogue 5 (1989) and then won further acclaim with the sumptuously-filmed The Double Life of Veronique (1991). He brings a similarly sumptuous look and feel to Blue.
If you are into the art of film-making at all then you will definitely appreciate the visual flair employed in this movie, including the mastery of such visual techniques as multiple reflections, macro close-ups, unorthodox camera angles and controlled lighting, all of which makes this film so stylish. To cite a few examples, have a look at: the scene of the doctor informing Julie that her husband and child have died, all shot as an extreme close-up reflection in Julie's eye; or the distorted reflection of Julie on the back of a spoon in the cafe; or the close-up of the sugar-cube slowly absorbing the coffee and then turning to skin-colour (symbolising Julie's obsession with her immediate surroundings, to the exclusion of everything else around her); or the macro close-up of the music sheets, deliberately diffused around the edges (as seen through Julie's damaged eye), panning across the notes as the concerto takes life; or the reflections from numerous objects such as the blue mobile, the sun and the pool water all playing across Julie's face; or the triple reflection of the image of Julie's mother, in the TV screen in the window of the nursing home. The conceptualisation of these scenes and the effortless use of the photographic techniques to achieve them denote two master craftsmen here at their peak.
Links with the other movies:
A typical trademark of this director is that he rewards multiple viewings and analysis of his works by inserting links, some overt but some more subtle, for the viewer to pick up later. There is a subtle but direct link to White in this film. Although the characters in White are completely unrelated to those in Blue, there is a cross-over and touching of two stories in one particular scene, so that the audience can briefly glimpse the story of White taking place in the background of Blue, and then vice versa. Highlight the following paragraphs if you want to know what and where it is.
(SPOILER ALERT: highlight with mouse to read) When Julie is searching for Sandrine (Patrice's lover) at the Paris courts, the divorce hearing between Dominique and Karol is also taking place at the same time. Karol can be glimpsed, very briefly, in the background behind Julie whilst she is searching in the court foyer (at 71:53). A minute later, when Julie tries to follow Sandrine into the courtroom, but is denied entry by the court guard, Karol is in the midst of his speech to the judge during his divorce proceeding (see 72:23). Unfortunately, the Region 4 disc does not give us the subtitles for Karol's speech here, presumably as it was taking place in the background, however what Karol is saying here is "What about equality?... Is it that I do not speak French that the court won't hear my case?...". This scene is also played out in the reverse perspective in White; ie. as Karol is delivering his speech, it is Julie who can be glimpsed momentarily in the background, trying to enter the court and then being denied entry (see White review for timecoding).
There is of course the other obvious linkage to Red, where the climax of the trilogy involves the fateful event that links the major protagonists from all three movies.
Where this DVD release is let down drastically is the quality of the source material used. To say that both the video and audio transfer on all three discs is disappointing would be a major understatement.
The source used for these discs is analogue video; undoubtedly the betamax SP sub-master used for broadcasting these films on Australian TV back in 1996. How can I be so sure of the source? Easy, as I noted firstly that the subtitles on this disc are burned-in to the transfer using what I noted was a very familiar yellow font, and this was confirmed when I noted at the very end of the credits the subtle copyright acknowledgement "Subtitles copyright SBS Television 1996". Being able to pinpoint and date the source material with such confidence helps to explain a number of factors, including why the transfer is so grainy (refer next paragraphs) and why the audio mix is so woeful (refer next section). Clearly the visual and audio requirements for broadcasting on TV back in 1996 were not nearly as demanding as today's digital TV broadcasting requirements, and further not a patch on what DVD consumers deserve and expect for today's home theatre environment. You need probably not read the video and audio sections any further to appreciate that this explains the story of this DVD, ie. poor quality source material makes for poor quality DVD release. All the video and audio problems I am about to make below stem directly from this issue.
Firstly to the aspect ratio and thankfully, one of the only good things that can be said of this transfer, it is been presented in the source ratio of 1.85:1. A big thank you to SBS for having broadcast in widescreen for so many years. However as you may already expect from the nature of the source material, this transfer is not 16x9 enhanced.
Coming from such a rather dated analogue video source, the quality of this video transfer is not surprisingly poor and may be succinctly summed up by four words: "grain, grain and grain!" This makes for very disappointing DVD viewing.
The luminance of the transfer is also extremely disappointing. The transfer is neither clear nor sharp. All scenes lack resolution and definition, in both foreground and background. Low level noise/random noise are apparent throughout this feature; just pick a scene, any scene. As a case in point, have a look at just how noisy the black wall is behind Julie at the swimming pool at 75:52, but really any other scene you care to mention suffers the same fate. The level of noise is much more prominent and distracting in the night-time/darker scenes.
Chrominance is also poor. The colours are drab and washed out and are not nearly as vibrant as they should be - and need to be. In addition, the excessive level of grain inherent in this transfer means that large expanses of colour scream for unnecessary attention, being so noisy. This severely hampers the viewing of this feature and is especially annoying knowing that the director's use of the predominant colour of the films (in this case blue) is intended to play such a vital role in the movie, sometimes an obvious one but at other times it is meant to have a more subconscious impact on the viewer.
MPEG artefacts are present in the form of Gibb effect around the credits. Many images also appear to suffer from pixelisation, however this principally just a function of the high level of grain in the master, and so is a source issue rather than an MPEG artefact on transfer.
Film to video artefacts are also a major headache. Apart from the low level noise and chroma noise as already mentioned, colour bleeding and posterisation is a feature (see the close up of Julie's face at 41:35). All of these artefacts are a direct result of the analogue video master.Note in respect of chroma noise that the colour blue is particularly susceptible to this artefact. As an example, check out just how murky the pool water is at 43:46. But it's not just the blues; have a look also at the unevenness in the colour of the door at 45:35.
Thankfully, I can at least report that aliasing isn't a big issue, or if it does occur, is only minor and refrains from fully breaking out - for examples the window/door panels at 12:32 or the car at 17:42.
Ironically, film artefacts don't appear to be major problem with this transfer. There is the odd film fleck and minor scratch here and there, but certainly no more than might be expected. It's annoying to think that, somewhere under all that grain there is a well-preserved film print from which the original master must have been sourced, several generations back.
The subtitling from SBS appears accurate, as far as my limited French reveals, and is well timed. Note that there is no choice of subtitle tracks, as the English subtitle stream is burned into the image.
This disc is single-layered, so there is no layer change to comment on.
Before going on to assess the transfer in more detail, a comment about the musical scores in Three Colours. The music for all three films is composed by Zbigniew Preisner. The score for all three films is very apt and, quite simply, superb. The scores evidence the very close working relationship that existed between Kieslowski and Preisner at the time. The pair had first worked together on one of Kieslowski's early feature films called No End in 1984 and they went on to work together on every film since then. Unlike the approach taken for many Hollywood films, whereby the musical themes are something pondered by the composer after watching a rush of the film, and then developed and layered over the top more completely as part of post production, Kieslowski always viewed the music as an integral part of the development of his stories, right from inception. He would always discuss in detail with his composer each film's characters and moods and inter-relationships, and so Preisner would always be involved as a collaborator in the process right from very early script drafts. This allowed him to compose and experiment and refine his musical themes simultaneously as the script was being revised, experimented and refined. It therefore gave him a depth of understanding of the film's characters and pacing that many other film composers do not benefit from. Listening to his scores, you can hear how seamlessly and effortlessly they integrate into and compliment the visual narrative. In Three Colours, Preisner uses a different musical genre to create a unique musical motif for each film; one that that draws out the prevailing mood for each. This is intuitive and intelligent composing indeed. The score for Blue is a concerto and was in fact composed and completed in final form even before principal photography began.
For Blue, more so even than for the other two films in the trilogy, the music has to be a strong feature, as it is assumes a palpable role in the story. The principal emotions of loneliness and love so prevalent in Blue are highlighted by the idea of the characters themselves developing the solemn and grand "Concerto for the Unification of Europe", as the film unfolds. The scenes involving Julie and Olivier reading the music of the concerto as the audience tracks and hears the themes being played out, and then experimenting and paring down the orchestra to draw out the concerto's main theme are extremely moving and well conceived. Another highlight for me is the way that the main Concerto theme is played off-tempo or around the theme by several characters, before coming together in the end; for example the flute player on the street outside the cafe (incidentally a cameo role by the real flutist in Preisner's orchestra) or Olivier's attempts to hammer out the piano parts of the concerto at what is obviously the wrong tempo. Finally, the powerful vocal chorus over the main theme is also extremely effective, adding to the emotion and grandness of the concerto. (The idea of marrying the music with the very apt and moving words from the "Epistle to the Corinthians" was Preisner's idea.)
Now having espoused the virtues of the film's music score to you, as stated above, this poor "2-channel" mix with its unacceptable level of audio hiss clearly detracts from being in any position to gain a real appreciation of Preisner's haunting compositions. Oh well, on to score the audio transfer formally....
Dialogue quality is at least OK. Thankfully, the dialogue is relatively clear over the background hiss and there are no real problems with discerning any of the lines (of course we have the subtitles). Audio sync is fine.
The lack of impact with the musical score, as discussed above, is the major detraction of this transfer. Dynamic range is compressed and poor - annoying for a score that relies on a concerto - and the sound stage is flat and front-centre weighted.
Use of subwoofer is modest to poor. Whilst a largely dialogue-driven film, there are some scenes that could have benefited from a more pronounced use of LFE, for example the car crash early in the movie is particularly weak.
|Surround Channel Use|
This trilogy was released in DVD in Region 2 by Artificial Eye/MkII Editions in 2001 and this was, until recently, the clear and obvious preference over Region 4, both for source and transfer quality and for the very comprehensive extras package Region 2 received. However after much ado, the trilogy has now finally been released by Miramax in Region 1, and the decision as to which is now the better release is less clear-cut. Region 1 benefits from not only (mostly) all the same extras as Region 2, but some exciting new ones including additional interviews and a commentary track. However weighed against this is differences in the quality of the transfers, plus Region 1 being in NTSC. Let's start by looking at extras, first the Region 2 release and then highlighting the new Region 1 extras.
In comparison to Region 2, the Region 4 release misses out on:
Annette Insdorf had nothing at all to do with the making of the films, but was a personal language translator for and close friend of Kieslowski for many years and so had exclusive access to the recluse director for interviews over a prolonged period of time. Insdorf is a scholar, film critic and writer, being the author of the book "Double Lives and Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski", which is highly recommended. The audio commentary is authoritative, well-planned, enlightening and is virtually non-stop. It provides some great insight into the development of the story and K's layering of imagery. But no matter how informative the commentary, do bear in mind that it is by someone completely unrelated to the film.
OK, so Region 1 is the clear winner in terms of extras; it gets (virtually) all of the Region 2 goodies, plus much more. But what about transfer qualities? Well, I have to say that Region 2 is, in my opinion, still the preferred transfer of the film. It benefits form superior PAL video resolution, full 5.1 audio specs and, most importantly for me, more faithful colouring. There is no denying that new Region 1 print is more richly saturated and has been designed to accentuate the blue colour palette of the film. This has the clear effect of highlighting all the blue references and the result is startling. However the unintended consequence of the richness of the colours is that skin tones are not balanced and many colours are just too saturated in quite a few scenes. In comparison, the Region 2 colouring may be said to be more reserved, yes, but it remains in my opinion more faithful. Check out DVDCompare's great comparison page here, and note the screen captures. Finally, the subtitle stream on the Region 1 transfer is too big and too high up on the frame and is quite annoying in comparison to the well placed Region 2 subtitle stream (OK, call me picky).
This is a difficult choice and the decision will be one of personal preference, but I am going to call this a Region 2 winner. Despite the additional extras it misses out on, I feel the extras package on Region 2 still provides enough of an insight into the film that the missed extras and commentary only provide incrementally greater insight, and this is outweighed by superior video and audio transfers. If you are obsessed about this film enough like me to justify investing in it more than once, then my recommendation is Region 2 for the film transfer and Region 1 for the extras. Indeed, that's the order in which these two discs now appear at the top of my top 10 DVDs list.
Unfortunately for such an important work, the Region 4 release is a shocker. We cop a no effort, "copy and paste" job, not even mastered from film and with no attempt at extras - simply not good enough in comparison to other region releases. The quality of our video and audio transfer is poor, due to the source material used, and this detracts significantly from a real appreciation of the feature. Give the Region 4 release a wide berth.
For anyone who is serious about modern cinema, it is definitely worthwhile paying the extra to import the vastly superior Region 2 release of this DVD. Oh, and while you're at it, why not pick up The Decalogue at the same time - you won't be disappointed.
|DVD||Toshiba 2109, using Component output|
|Display||Toshiba 117cm widescreen RPTV. Calibrated with AVIA Guide To Home Theatre. This display device is 16x9 capable.|
|Audio Decoder||Yamaha RXV-1000. Calibrated with AVIA Guide To Home Theatre.|
|Amplification||Elektra Home Theatre surround power amp|
|Speakers||Orpheus Aurora III mains, Orpheus Centaurus 1.0 centre, Velodyne CT150 sub and B&W DM303 rears|