We are, according to existentialism, hopelessly free. Jean-Paul Sartre argued that, in the absence of God and the sort of meaningful meta-narratives that give life an objective meaning and purpose, we are free to define our own natures: ‘To Do is To Be’ because ‘Existence Precedes Essence’. The problem is that freedom is a double-edged sword and while the death of God may well have done away with all limitations on our freedom, it has also served to render all of our choices meaningless. Indeed, if all paths are open to us and equally inviting then there is no correct path to take and so every decision we do make is tainted by the knowledge that all of our choices are effectively meaningless and arbitrary.
Freedom’s double edge so concerned Sartre that he wrote a short pamphlet entitled Existentialism is a Humanism (1946) addressing the charge that existentialism is a gloomy credo. The pamphlet ends with a barnstorming rant against Christianity:
This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realise himself as truly human (…) In this sense, existentialism is optimistic, it is a doctrine of action, and it is only by self-deception, by confusing their own despair with ours that Christians can describe us as without hope.
Barnstorming though it may be, this rant is hardly convincing as the vision of human nature that Sartre describes is one of perpetual vertigo and while ridding ourselves of the tyrannical sky-pixie is no bad thing, Sartre seems to have saddled us with another form of tyranny: The tyranny of responsibility for ourselves and the tyranny of endless choice.
This tension within the concept of freedom is beautifully demonstrated by Krzysztof Kieslowski in Three Colours: Blue, the first of a trilogy of films interrogating the values of the French Revolution (Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite).
The film opens with a beautifully stylised recreation of journey by car. Tunnel lights blur and refract in curved windscreens, fluid drips from breaklines and wonder and amazement sparkle in the eyes of a small child. This opening sequence is cut devastatingly short by an accident that claims the life of the world-famous composer Patrice de Courcy and his young daughter Anna. The only survivor of the accident is his wife Julie (Juliette Binoche) who wakes up in hospital only to discover that her family is dead and that she is free. Terrifyingly free. Initially, Julie does not cope well with the loss of her family and so she attempts suicide only to quickly realise that actually… she does not want to die. But if she does not want to die, then what is it that Julie wants to do with her life? Three Colours: Blue is an attempt to answer this (apparently) simple question.
Released from hospital, Julie issues a simple set of instructions to her lawyers: They are to sell everything and use the money to care for her domestic staff in their dotage. She does not want to touch any of the money and she does not want to think about it either. These were the trappings of her old life and she has no interest in them whatsoever. As these instructions are carried out, Julie also sets about severing all of the ties that bound her to her social world: Her husband’s final work (a celebration of European Unity that she supposedly wrote for him) is consigned to the bin, her husband’s best friend is slept with and then abandoned and any journalistic or biographical interest in her and her husband is met with absolute hostility and a refusal to cooperate. Julie is not just allowing her social network to whither away, she is actively cutting all the ties that bind her to a larger social world. Freed from her old life, Julie takes an apartment in Paris where she lives on her own, spending her life swimming and sitting in cafes.
Kieslowski explores Julie’s inner world using a pair of recurring motifs:
Julie’s desire for absolute freedom is represented by the colour blue: When she returns home from hospital, she installs herself in a room painted entirely blue, when she decides to rid herself of her worldly possessions, she grabs a handful of blue beads, when she goes swimming alone at night, she is lit with an ethereal cobalt light.
Julie’s desire for friendship and a sense of community is represented by the chorus from her husband’s final work. Every time Julie is confronted by a possible friendship or tie to the past, the screen goes black and the music swells. At one point she even overhears a local busker playing a similar tune and is shocked to discover that, far from being a homeless drunk, the man has a wealthy female friend who drops him off in her Mercedes before he starts to play.
Initially, Julie does a good job of stamping on the desire for friendship whenever it surfaces. Her night time swims in a cobalt blue swimming pool see her communing with the need for the sort of absolute freedom that can only come from complete solitude. However, as time passes, the need to forge human connections reasserts itself in two distinct ways:
Firstly, Sartrean existentialism states that to do is to be and that our true natures are determined not by our true hidden selves or by our position in some divine plan, but by our actions. By severing all of her old ties and restarting her life from scratch, Julie is effectively creating a new identity for herself (indeed, at several points, Julie’s old acquaintances comment on how she used to be nicer). However, as this new identity slowly emerges, Julie comes to realise that she does not much like the person that she is becoming. In particular, the old Julie never used to be afraid of mice but the new Julie is so terrified of them that she briefly considers buying a new apartment in order to escape a mouse that has recently given birth in one of her cupboards (the mouse family also serves as a pointed reminder of everything that she lost in the accident). Unhappy with her new personality, Julie visits her mother who informs her that actually, she did fear mice suggesting that the old Julie and the new Julie may well be one and the same person. Thus, Julie is ‘pushed’ away from isolation.
Secondly, when a neighbour knocks at Julie’s door and asks her to sign a petition to get a female tenant evicted, Julie says no on the grounds that she doesn’t like to get involved in such matters. This makes perfect sense as Julie is free and isolated. However, it later transpires that Julie’s decision to ‘opt out’ of being a part of the community prevented the community from evicting one of the tenants and that the tenant (a female sex worker) therefore sees Julie as a friend. Initially, Julie is quite cold towards her new ‘friend’ but after she steps in to clear out the mouse and Julie goes to the woman’s place of work in order to provide comfort, the pair rapidly become fast friends. Thus Julie is ‘pulled’ into re-entering the community.
The transition from isolation to being a part of a community and the abandonment of absolute freedom that comes with this transition is beautifully rendered through a series of (largely visual) sequences. For example, when Julie accepts her neighbour’s help, the swimming pool is drained of its cobalt sheen and a load of identically-dressed children run past the camera and jump into the pool. Once a place of absolute solitude, Julie’s pool is now a focal point for the wider community. Similarly, as the film progresses, Kieslowski occasionally drags our attention back to the television where we are initially shown skydivers (vertigo and free-falling without ties) and then elderly bungie jumpers (who are dropped from a platform but held in place by stout elastic chords that prevent them from falling too far).
Realising the folly of her ways, Julie returns to her family home and invites her husband’s mistress (who is carrying his child) to come and live with her. She also forges a bond with her husband’s best friend when he encourages her not only to take the credit for composing her husband’s work but also to complete the work that she was undertaking when her husband died. This growing professional and affective relationship grows through a beautiful sequence in which Julie finally surrenders to the music in her head and coaxes it through a series of different arrangements that convey a wide array of emotions all of them prompted by the conflict between the need to be true to oneself and the fact that humans are fundamentally social animals. This tension is also reflected in the words of the chorus taken from Paul of Tarsus’ First Letter to the Corinthians:
Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.
While it is easy enough to praise the exquisite formalism and elegance of composition that informs Kieslowski’s approach to story-telling, I am struck less by what he does well than by what he does poorly. Indeed, once you strip away the visual mastery, Three Colours: Blue is a very traditional drama about a woman who works her way through a personal crisis only to get her life back on track at the end of the film. Indeed, as Kieslowski himself has said of Blue:
If one loves, one stops being free. You can become dependent on the person you love. When you love someone, you live your life and see your values differently, through the eyes of the person you love.
As David Thomson argues in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2010), while this may be a sound basis for a film and a coherent way of reading Three Colours: Blue, this is not the film that I just watched. Blue is not about the redemptive quality of love or even about love at all, rather it is about the fact that freedom is a double-edged sword and that double-edged swords require that you handle them with protective gloves.
What strikes me most about Blue is its absolute coldness. Julie steps away from her old life with seldom a backwards glance and her eventual decision to rebuild a life that she shares with other people comes not from some deep love for the people involved or from the realisation that a solitary life is somehow untenable but rather from such psychological drives as intellectual vanity, boredom and the simple fact that it is actually quite difficult to live a life of complete solitude in modern society. The coldness of Blue mirrors the doubts that empowered Sartre’s critics; the existential human is free but his freedom from all values, all hidden essences and all worldly concerns also make him emotionally detached and psychologically remote. Indeed, while we may yearn for more personal freedom and cheer for those with the courage to detach themselves from the system, Julie’s aloof and unsympathetic countenance serves almost as a reductio ad absurdam of the existentialist dream: How much value can freedom possibly have if the truly free are such monumental pricks?