Three Colors: Blue
See more details, packaging, or compare
In the devastating first film of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy, Juliette Binoche gives a tour de force performance as Julie, a woman reeling from the tragic death of her husband and young daughter. But Blue is more than just a blistering study of grief; it’s also a tale of liberation, as Julie attempts to free herself from the past while confronting truths about the life of her late husband, a composer. Shot in sapphire tones by Sławomir Idziak, and set to an extraordinary operatic score by Zbigniew Preisner, Blue is an overwhelming sensory experience.
The Criterion Collection upgrades their previous Blu-ray for Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue to 4K UHD, presenting the film on a dual-layer BD-66 disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration taken from a scan of the 35mm original camera negative and delivered here in 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition with Dolby Vision. Criterion also includes a standard Blu-ray disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation of the film and all of this title’s special features. The disc is the same one found in Criterion’s previous Blu-ray edition, down to the file timestamps. Though the encode has aged very poorly, my feelings are more or less the same as before. The title is only available in Criterion’s new 4K Three Colors set.
There are already controversies around the color grading for this new restoration (and the restorations of the other two films in the set), a topic I will most certainly get into. As of now, I’ll ignore that, and first focus on other areas of the presentation, all of which I’m happy to say are mostly positive.
Revisiting Criterion’s old Blu-ray (which, as I mentioned previously, is the same standard Blu-ray included with this release), I was somewhat stunned to see how poorly the older presentation has held up, compression being more problematic than I recall. As one would hope, the 4K presentation looks significantly better in this area, with grain rendered far more naturally and cleaner than what the Blu-ray's presentation was able to accomplish. This leads to more detail and a far more film-like texture.
The restoration has cleaned up almost everything outside of a few minor marks popping up here and there. Black levels are more robust than the old high-def presentation, with a broader range in the shadows. In turn, this improvement in the shadows helps with depth, and it’s in this area we get to see the first sign that the Blu-ray’s brightness and contrast levels are almost certainly off. Dolby Vision also helps in this area, getting some hidden details out while enhancing the highlights nicely. The colors also blend cleanly into the shadows without any blocky artifacts.
And with that, I then move into the presentation’s colors. There is no denying that the grading here looks markedly different compared to Criterion’s previous Blu-ray, and the shift is startling at first. It’s a significant difference, and I can see why some would be upset. Yet, as one makes it through the film, it becomes clear that what is being done grading-wise is not similar to what has become a trope with many recent restorations, where it feels things are pushed too yellow or too teal, like the wave of Ritrovata restorations that have looked (to put it bluntly) piss-yellow. This is entirely different, with too much going on in how light and color are layered in individual scenes for it to be simply a case of pumping up reds and greens or draining out blues in a blanket-like manner. Instead, it appears to come down to how the film was lit. While I won’t claim that the 4K presentation is 100% accurate (because I can’t say for sure), I will say I’m convinced this looks closer to what is intended and that the Blu-ray’s bland and muted grading is incorrect.
Of the three films in the trilogy, Blue features the more elaborate lighting design, and it shares similarities to Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique in many ways (not surprising since director of photography Slawomir Idziak worked on both films). Yellows, oranges, greens, blues, and reds (occasionally) are layered over one another in complex ways, and all of it can shift drastically within a single shot. That’s still evident within the Blu-ray’s presentation; it just ends up far more dynamic and striking in this one. Yes, some sequences here have a heavier “yellow” tint than the Blu-ray, yet, when looking at several interior shots caked in a yellow hue, there are cases where natural light comes in through a window and eats through that “yellow,” suggesting that the interior has been intentionally lit to create that look. There are a lot of sequences like this, whether in Julie’s (Juliette Binoche) apartment or Olivier’s (Benoît Régent), like where a skylight lets in natural light over his piano. But the most striking and apparent moments where this is employed are in some of the café scenes where the interiors present a heavy yellow tint while natural light comes in through the windows. Comparing these scenes between the two presentations makes it clear that much of what we see would have to be intentional and that it is the old presentation where the grading is off.
The following URLs lead to screen grabs from the 4K presentation (taken in SDR) found on the UHD and the old high-def presentation found on the Blu-ray for the same shot (note that the framing for the Blu-ray is off). They have not been altered outside of adjusting the size of the 4K image to 1920x1080. While the screen capture for the 4K looks undeniably yellow with no other color present in the interior of the café, it’s not hard to see when looking through the window out to the street on the left of the screen that blues and whites can be made out due to the natural light. Granted, the white present is still warm, but it still passes as white, suggesting the interior has been lit in a particular manner to create the look we get. In the Blu-ray’s capture, one can see that the exterior still shows whites and blues, but the interior has had all color drained from it, taking on a pale sepia hue in turn. The shot almost passes for black-and-white. This suggests that the Blu-ray's high-def presentation has had the contrast, brightness, and color levels adjusted and balanced out in such a manner to neutralize the colors, in what I assume was an attempt to make the image look acceptable for monitors of the time. Unfortunately, in doing so, all the nuances in the lighting and the layering in the shadows are gone, and that holds throughout all of the Blu-ray, with the colors overall bland and muted. The presentation in that disc is so flat and lifeless it’s hard to believe that Kieslowski and Idziak intended it to look anywhere close to that.
And then there are the blues, which are rich and striking in this new presentation, not blunted out at all. There are a handful of sequences at an indoor pool where everything is laced in blue, and it’s about as pure a blue as one can hope for. Blues also appear elsewhere throughout the film, looking blue, not cyan. They're far richer compared to what the Blu-ray can accomplish.
All around, this looks quite stunning, and I'm more than happy with it. It’s a livelier, far more vibrant presentation than the Blu-ray and feels, at the very least, to better represent what was intended.
The 4K UHD “upgrades” the soundtrack from 2.0 surround (found on the Blu-ray) to 5.1 surround, presented in DTS-HD MA. It sounds like an upgrade in name only, as I can’t say I noticed any evident splits in the rear channels, though the dynamic range sounds a little wider. The moments where the screen fades to black and the orchestra comes crashing in are impressive, with excellent bass through the lower frequency. Outside of those moments and some street sounds, most of the audio is focused on the fronts, with most of the dialogue centralized in the center channel. It sounds pretty good in the end.
All features are found on the second disc, a standard, dual-layer Blu-ray that also houses a 1080p presentation of the film using the older restoration. Criterion is simply porting over the disc from their previous edition, which means everything found in that edition is also included here.
Things start again with a video essay by film scholar Annette Insdorf entitled On Blue, which runs 21 minutes. Insdorf did audio commentaries for all of the films for Miramax’s box set, and sadly they were never ported over, more than likely due to licensing issues. This feature may be part of an attempt to make up for it. At any rate, it’s a solid essay with Insdorf talking over some clips from the film covering its visuals, use of sound, and how the theme of “liberty” is presented. She even closes off with notes on another trilogy Kieslowski had planned to do after Three Colors and how this film could have tied into it. As always, she’s knowledgeable and covers the film's themes thoughtfully, though the piece suffers a bit because it sounds like she is reading straight from notes.
Following that is a 7-minute piece from 1994 called Kieslowski’s Cinema Lesson, featuring the director at an editing suite breaking down a scene at the café with Binoche. Here he talks about his use of close-ups, emphasizing her character’s point of view, and then talks about the pains that went into capturing the short shot of the sugar cube soaking up the coffee, which he needed to do in about 5-seconds (they tried all sorts of cubes until they found a brand that would soak up the coffee in that time). Despite the incredibly short runtime, the video delivers incredible insight into the director’s process (the other discs also include similar features).
Recorded in 2004, Criterion presents a 25-minute select-scene audio commentary featuring Juliette Binoche, which I assume was recorded for another edition of the film. She talks over a few scenes though her discussion doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the sequences her comments play over. She focuses primarily on working with Kieslowski, which involved some butting of heads, and how she played her character. She talks a little about being offered the lead role in The Double Life of Veronique and how she could not do it then, but thankfully Blue came around. Humorously, she also mentions how she was offered a role in Jurassic Park around the same time and even admits she was a little conflicted. Ultimately she chose to work with Kieslowski. Despite her getting teary-eyed when talking about Kieslowski’s funeral, it's a fun track with a couple of funny moments. It's a shame she doesn’t talk over the whole film.
Criterion next includes an interview with composer Zbigniew Preisner, who also recorded one for Criterion's edition of The Double Life of Veronique. For 21 minutes, he talks about his working relationship with Kieslowski and, while referencing the actual music sheets, talks about the score for each film in the Three Colors trilogy, focussing on the different styles and tones and their origins. He also talks about the fictional composer Van den Budenmeyer, whose music (written by Preisner, of course) appears not only in this trilogy but in one of the segments of The Dekalog.
Reflections on Blue is an older piece running about 17-minutes and presents interviews with critic Geoff Andrew, actress Juliette Binoche, filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, scholar Annette Insdorf, and editor Jacques Witta. Insdorf again talks about the theme of “liberty” in the film and how Kieslowski managed to make the movie more personal instead of political. In contrast, others speak about various technical aspects, Idziak focusing on the look of the film and pointing out some of the changes they made to the script to keep it all visually interesting (for example, Binoche’s character was supposed to be a jogger, but thinking a pool may look more interesting Idziak suggested she be a swimmer). Binoche talks a little about some of her more intense sequences, like dragging her fist against the stone wall and the scene where she violently eats a lollipop. Then Witta covers editing the film and the use of fade-ins and fade-outs. The feature provides a more thorough look into the film's technical aspects.
We then get another similar piece shot around the same time as the previous supplement. Entitled Kieslowski: The Early Years, the 15-minute segment again features Holland (who gets more face time this round), Andre, Idziak, Insdorf, and Irène Jacob. This 15-minute segment focuses more on his school days and early film career, with Insdorf providing most of the history. Holland recalls meeting Kieslowski in school and her friendship with him. Then all play a part in suggesting how the political climate in Poland influenced his work, even if his work isn’t overtly political. Though short, it’s surprisingly in-depth and is another decent inclusion.
Criterion then includes two short student films. First, we get the 5-and-a-half-minute student film The Tram, which Kieslowski made in school in 1966. This silent black-and-white piece focuses on a young man who boards a tram and begins a flirtation with a woman on board. Though it isn’t as advanced as his later films, it still has some interesting use of close-ups and impressive editing. The second film, The Face, is another student film from the same year that stars Kieslowski and was directed by his classmate Piotr Studzinski. It’s a little heavy-handed with some dizzying editing, but it’s interesting enough as Kieslowski’s “suffering artist” begins trashing all his self-portraits. Both are presented in 1080i and also look surprisingly good.
The disc then concludes with the 2-minute French theatrical trailer.
Again, a commentary would have been excellent, maybe a new one from Insdorf (if they couldn't get her track from Miramax), but the material offered here still does a commendable job covering the film's production and exploring its themes and visuals.
Criterion doesn't throw in any new supplementary material, but the new 4K presentation blows away the bland-looking Blu-ray presentation.