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Unplugging the Empathy Machine: The Inescapability of Music in Three Colours Blue (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993)

Three Colours Blue

I absolutely adore this film, the way it wordlessly allows intimate access to its main characters emotional state, and makes the audience feel. I wrote a little about it for a Film of the Month entry previously, but this is a much more intensive look into the film, and its use of music. I don’t talk about the quality of the music itself, but rather its narrative purpose and the ways it is used filmically. So I just want to state up front that composer for the film Zbigniew Preisner’s music is gorgeous throughout, and complements the film beautifully.

(contains spoilers for Three Colours Blue)

Three Colours Blue: Grief and Music

Roger Ebert described cinema as “the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” (Ebert 2005), the best means in the arts to feel and live in the experience of another human being, even if only for a brief time. Music is a huge part of the experiential nature of cinema, amplifying tone, feeling and character. Three Colours Blue (henceforth referred to as Blue) embodies and expresses grief through film form. It makes its audience feel, and seems itself to feel right along with us. Music is what most drives this expression and feeling. Music is the broken but still beating heart of the film.

Each film in the Three Colours trilogy corresponds to the colours of the French flag, and each is thematically linked to the ideals of the French motto “Liberty, equality, fraternity.”, albeit loosely. Blue is tied to liberty, and tells the story of Julie (Juliette Binoche), a wealthy young woman who, at the film’s beginning, is involved in a car crash which causes the death of her composer husband and young daughter. The rest of the film follows her attempt to deal with this grief by physically and emotionally detaching herself from the ties that bind her to other people, exploring in an extreme sense the theme of emotional liberty that Kieślowski intended for the film. On Blue’s enigmatic title, Kieślowski said:

“The moment something is named, the possibility of free interpretation is cut off. The moment you leave something unnamed, and leave the place of the name open, that place can be filled by anyone in the cinema, everyone who has bought a ticket.”

Coates 1999, p. 173

Similarly, a piece of music does not need an explanatory title for it to illicit an emotional response, or be interpreted. This absence of elucidated meaning is evident in Blue’s depiction of Julie’s emotional state. Through its use of music, as well as camera, editing and, of course, colour, Blue wordlessly creates a sense of Julie’s anguish and allows the audience to share in her experience. The audience is given an opportunity to share in Julie’s experience and extract their own meaning from the film, almost from its very beginning.

A Sudden Loss

The opening scene depicts the car crash that kickstarts the film’s narrative, with an emphasis on close-ups of the car in motion and on Julie’s daughter Anna. Many shots are bathed in blue, as cinematographer Sławomir Idziak wrapped “the entire camera in blue gel and opening the back gate at key moments so that the film stock would be directly exposed to a nebulous blue light” (Woodward 2017, p. 63).

The scene of the accident

It’s clear the colour is to be a powerful source of meaning in this film, but at this point in the film that particular meaning has not yet been made clear. Julie is both absent and present in this opening scene, mirroring her emotional and physical withdrawal from friends and family in the rest of the film. While physically present in the car with her husband and daughter, she is not discernibly seen in any shots, which instead show Julie’s daughter Anna and establish a connection between Anna and the colour blue, which will recur throughout the film. At this time the focus of the film has not yet been established, instead showing an un-named and un-speaking group of people in a car before a tragic accident. Even the crash itself is not shown, the impact instead happening off-frame and then the wreckage viewed from a distance as a hitchhiker runs towards it to provide help.

The screen fades to black, in preparation for revealing its central focus. “In the blank screen, Blue testifies to an absence, a space which will fissure the film as representation. The film will remain split between intense subjectivity and the denial of vision.” (Wilson 1998, p. 351). So far, music is similarly absent from the film.

Following the crash and fade to black, there is a cut to a close up of a wispy looking thread or feather on a bed, with the background out of focus. A figure appears in this unfocused background, and hand reaches towards the camera, and there is a cut to an extreme close-up of an eye, with a doctor reflected on the iris. The doctor delivers the news of the death of Julie’s husband, and the camera cuts to a close-up revealing Julie’s entire face. She asks about her daughter, and the doctor confirms her death as well. Julie shuts her eyes tight and pushes her face towards the pillow, the camera remaining tightly focused on her face. Immediately following this there is a cut to a glass window being shattered. This creates an association of violence and devastation, the audience is sharing in Julie’s earth-shattering and world-changing grief: “From this point, the film is about the interior of Julie—her mind, her experience, her self—as she comes to terms with her traumatic injury” (Robinson 2007, p. 510). We cannot come to know her grief through words, but it will become clear and be exorcised through music.

Internal and External Music

An attempt at closeness when forced to be absent

As Julie views the funeral of her famous composer husband and daughter from her hospital bed, music makes its first appearance. The funeral march that accompanies the service soon becomes apparent as “a theme of the film, one that, like an extended motif, represents Julie’s suffering through memories of her dead husband.” (Paulus & McMaster 1999, p. 67-68). This music is introduced diegetically, but becomes meta-diegetic as the film goes on, appearing at times of great emotion for Julie, the theme playing in her mind and heard only by her and the audience.

Throughout Blue there is a distinct lack of non-diegetic music, music appears only diegetically or meta-diegetically, which gives the impression of music being a character itself, “a physical body that is not just a fiction and a fantasy, but represents reality, is a real part of Julie’s life, a genuine reality, however ugly or beautiful that reality might be.” (Paulus & McMaster, p. 71). This relative scarcity of music means the audience is particularly attuned to its affect and importance whenever it does appear.

The film begins with almost 9 minutes without music, so its first appearance through the funeral march theme highlights its significance, which will become more and more evident as the film continues, with music initially serving to give the audience a feeling for Julie’s inner emotional state. The March becomes inextricably linked to Julie’s grief as it plays while she watches the funeral on a portable TV under the covers of her hospital bed, a series of close-ups and extreme close-ups of her face and mouth forcing the audience to take-in and experience even the most minute of facial muscle movements, palpably demonstrating her grief and despair. As Julie reaches out to touch the TV screen displaying the coffins of her departed family, that feeling of being able to touch but still being separated is mirrored by the audience and its relationship to Julie through the cinema screen.  The static on the TV screen by the funeral’s end signifies the end of Julie’s previous life, and the uncertainty of her future.

Experience and Appearance

In the realm of human experiences, Daniel Frampton notes that “appearances are real, they belong to being.” (2006, p. 40). Using a cube as an example to define intention and appearances, Frampton notes that only two or three sides of a cube can be seen at any given time, but the other sides can appear and be intended (and therefore experienced) in our minds, even though absent. (2006, p.40). For Blue, the audience can substitute this cube for Julie, the viewable sides of her being her physical form, words and actions, with the unseen and hidden side being her grief and internal emotions. Julie’s internal life and the depth of her grief is fully realised through her relationship to music, and Blue’s use of music in concert with image. We cannot phyiscally see it, but it is nonetheless fully experienced.

The sheet music, destroyed by the garbage truck

At this stage of the film, Julie has found she is unable to kill herself, but does not wish to live the same life as before. She resolves to sever all emotional and physical ties to her former life and sets about getting rid of all those things that attach her to it: her former home and possessions, former friends and loved ones. Significantly, she retrieves the sheet music for her deceased husbands unfinished Concert for the Unification of Europe and destroys it, the theme playing in Julie’s head as she throws it into the back of a garbage truck and as the sheet music is pulped, the music similarly becomes mangled and destroyed on the soundtrack itself. The destruction of art is a particularly powerful image, and Julie’s actions demonstrate the strength of her intention to disconnect, as well as emphasising the power and depth of her grief to the audience, as “Although music is not a living being, especially not a loved living being, the destruction of the score is experienced as the death of a loved person.” (Paulus & McMaster 1999, p. 80).

Blue and Blue

Through music, colour, and the closeness of the camera “We are given the sense that we follow always one step behind [Julie], attentive to her every perception, but mindful also of our distance from her consciousness.” (Wilson 1998, p. 352). As the film continues, music and the colour blue intrude on Julie with greater frequency and impact, and help elucidate her emotional state for the audience’s experience, as the “perception of distance is subtly collapsed as we see too that while never knowing Julie’s trauma, or her state of mind, we are nevertheless subject to her shattered perceptions and to the intrusion of her mental disturbance.” (Wilson 1998, p. 352). Music will continually find its way into Julie’s life and remind her of her past, such as when an outside street performer plays the theme from the unfinished concerto while Julie is sitting in a café. Music is a constant intruder. One night, sitting on the stairs outside her apartment, Julie closes her eyes. Flecks of blue light begin to appear on screen, and part of the Song for the Unification of Europe begins to play. Julie’s eyes snap open, and the music and lights stop immediately. She closes her eyes again, and the music and lights return. The music, a reminder of her old life, is inescapable. Through combination of sound and image, the audience knows that the music is playing inside Julie’s head, not simply as part of the film’s soundtrack. It is not exactly diegetic, but meta-diegetic, coming from within Julie herself.

Often, following intrusions like these are scenes of Julie in an overwhelmingly blue swimming pool, acting “as a barometer for Julie’s emotional condition” (Evans 2005, p. 80), and also doubling as a womb substitute (Olivier 2002, p. 122-123) and site of possible rebirth (Robinson 2007, p. 518). There are four of these scenes in all, and the second is perhaps the most emotionally and experientially powerful of them all, coming straight after Julie’s meeting with the hitch hiker who was first at the scene of her and her family’s car crash.

Julie, the hitchhiker, and the necklace.

In this meeting, the hitch hiker attempts to return a gold necklace he found at the scene, and the sight and touch of it appears to trigger a powerful memory of the incident. There is no visual rendering of the memory, only the music of the Funeral March and a fade to black to indicate an abrupt moment of introspection, before fading back in some time later to continue the same scene. A fade is typically used in film to denote the passage of time or change of place (Bordwell et al 2017, p.251-252), but in this case Kieślowski goes against established film form and the visual language of cinema to instead use the fade to powerfully signify a retreat into the internal space of the character’s mind, with the re-appearing musical motif of the funeral march emphasising a link to Julie’s departed family, and the sustained period of blackness signifying deep introspection. The blackness lasts for about 10 seconds, and its unconventional use and placement make this time seem even longer, so by the time the film fades back in to continue the scene it is unclear how much time has actually been spent in introspection by Julie, only that it was a powerful emotional moment.

This meeting is immediately followed by the second swimming pool scene, where a suddenly remembered burst of music, a portion of the unfinished concerto, erupts into her head as she is exiting the pool, stopping her cold and causing her to slowly slip back into the pool and take refuge, curling up under the surface of the water seemingly attempting “more to drown her memory than drown herself.” (Wilson 1998, p. 354). As Julie retreats underwater, the music similarly becomes drowned out on the soundtrack, underlining its meta-diegetic nature, heard and felt only by Julie in her mind (and of course, by the audience).

Touch and Tactility

Blue is an incredibly tactile film, privileging touch, closeness, experience and intimacy over distance and mere observation. Tactility is “a mode of perception and expression wherein all parts of the body commit themselves to, or are drawn into, a relationship with the world that is at once a mutual and intimate relation of contact.” (Barker 2009, p. 3).

The closeness of the camera to and its particular focus on Julie promotes the audience’s intimacy towards her and enhances their experiencing of her emotions, while the abundance of extreme close-ups of hands and fingers emphasises touch and physicality, tying the physical and emotional worlds together. The scene in which Julie leaves her old home is particularly potent in this regard: Having just left her old home and previous life behind, Julie walks down a country path with the camera sharply focused on her severe, contemplative face. This look dissolves into one of emotional pain as she takes her hand and scrapes it along a harsh stone wall, the camera cutting to follow her hand as it roughly goes over the wall’s abrasive surface, Julie’s emotional pain being transferred into the physical. That physical discomfort is felt by the audience, further emphasising Julie’s pain.

The touch of music

Touch and music are also linked throughout Blue, with written music lying inert on paper bursting to life as Julie traces her finger across it. Camera, soundtrack and touch combine to create the impression that the music is playing in Julie’s head, allowing further access into her inner world. Touch does not always give life to music though, as seen when the jaws of the garbage truck obliterated the sheets of music Julie threw there. As the jaws tear through the paper, the music distorts and fades before disappearing from the soundtrack entirely.

Music and Re-engagement

Eventually Julie is no longer able to deny the impulses that draw music, and by extension humanity, into her. Music and her relationship with it changes. Rather than destroying and denying her musical impulses and inclinations, Julie reconnects with Olivier (Benoît Régent), a composer colleague of her deceased husband and former lover, and the two set about completing the unfinished Concert for a Unified Europe. As the two complete the composition the camera becomes unfocused, and the emphasis is entirely on the music they are creating, “the external is completely overawed by the internal, material gives way to idea, reality is lost so that it is possible for the whole of the being to be immersed into the sound and the imagination” (Paulus & McMaster 1999, p. 81), and the audience is indeed immersed, fully experiencing the therapeutic process of artistic creation. The loving and social nature of humanity, and Julie’s own good nature, shatter her attempts at detachment from it, and “the film ends with a complex montage linking together all of the main characters and ending with Julie now openly crying, finally mourning – that is, recognizing – her loss.” (Woodward 2017, p. 68).

While Blue is felt, sensed and experienced by the audience, the meaning derived from this experience can differ. In Blue, this is keenly characterised through the sugar cube scene, where Julie sits in a café, and there is a close-up of her hand holding a sugar cube just above a cup of coffee. The white sugar cube absorbs the dark brown coffee over a period of 5 seconds until turning completely brown itself, and Julie drops it into the coffee where it disappears with a splash. For Kieślowski, this shot was meant to “show that nothing around [Julie] is of interest to her – neither other people, nor their affairs, nor even this man who loves her and went through a lot to find her. She doesn’t care. Only the sugar cube matters, and she intentionally focuses on it to shut out all the rest.” (Kieślowski 1994). For scholar Bert Olivier however, it is “a powerful visual metaphor for Julie’s inability […] to withdraw or free herself from her surroundings once and for all: even things (the coffee, the sugar cube) conspire to merge with her, to draw her into their embrace.” (2002, p. 123).

I’m more inclined to agree with Olivier’s interpretation, as we see the impossibility of shutting out “all the rest” throughout Blue. Memory, other people, music, something always intrudes. It is fitting that a film where art and humanity are inescapable, always drawn to a person, should attract rich and unintended meaning from its viewers. Just as Julie cannot unplug herself from emotion and society, tethered by memory and music, we cannot plug ourselves from the great empathy machine of cinema.


Barker, J. M. (2009). Introduction. In The tactile eye: Touch and the cinematic experience (pp. 1-22) . Univ of California Press.

Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (2017). Film art: An introduction. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.

Coates, Paul. 1999. ‘“The Inner Life Is the Only Thing that Interests Me”, Interview with Krzysztof Kieślowski.’ In Lucid Dreams: The Films of Krzysztof Kieślowski. Trowbridge: Flicks Books, rep. in Renata Bernard and Steven Woodward, eds. 2016. Krzysztof Kieślowski: Interviews, 164–178. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi

Ebert, R. (2005, June 24). Ebert’s Walk of Fame Remarks. rogerebert.com https://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/eberts-walk-of-fame-remarks (retrieved 05/02/2021)

Evans, G. (2005). Synaesthesia in Kieślowski’s Trois couleurs: Bleu. Studies in French Cinema, 5(2).

Frampton, D. (2006). Filmosophy. Columbia University Press.

Lewis, B. (2008). Jean Mitry. In The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film (pp. 397-407). Routledge.

Kieślowski, K. (1994). Cinema lesson with director Krzysztof Kieślowski. Criterion Collection Special Features.

Kieślowski, K. (Director). (1994). Three Colours: Blue [Film]. Canal+

Olivier, B. (2002). Kieślowski’s” Three Colours’ Blue’,’White’and’Red'”: the colours of life.

Paulus, I., & McMaster, G. (1999). Music in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Film” Three Colors: Blue”. A Rhapsody in Shades of Blue: The Reflections of a Musician. International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, 65-91.

Robinson, H. T. (2007). The Ego, the Eye, and the Camera Lens—A Psychoanalytic Reading of Traumatic Loss and Mourning in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours Blue (1993). PSYCHOANALYTIC INQUIRY A Topical Journal for Mental Health Professionals, 27(4), 510-524.

Wilson, E. (1998). Three Colours: Blue: Kieślowski, colour and the postmodern subject. Screen, 39(4), 349-362.

Woodward, S. (2017). Blue, on second thought. New Review of Film and Television Studies, 15(1), 58-69.

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