Author: George Brekoulakis
Psychologist – Psychotherapist
Translation: Maria Ourani
Only if someone can tolerate the pining, the more or less conscious searching, the seemingly endless examination of how and why the loss occurred, and anger at anyone who might have been responsible, not sparing even the dead person, can he/she come gradually to recognise and accept that the loss is in truth permanent and that his/her life must be shaped anew. (Bowlby, 1982).
The cinematic, anthropocentric masterpiece “Three colours: Blue” (Best film & Best Actress, Venice Film Festival 1993) of Polish director Kieslowski, is the first part of a trilogy based on the colours of the French flag (blue, white, red) symbolising freedom, equality and fraternity respectively. The director’s muse, Juliette Binoche of French descent, impersonates Julie, wife of a famous composer and mother to a daughter. Her husband is busy composing of a concerto for the “United Europe”. Tragically, husband and daughter lose their lives in a fatal car accident, with only the protagonist surviving. Following this dramatic turn of events, Julie is engulfing by mourning, bereavement and loss.
In her mourning, Julie doesn’t accept the death of her loved ones. She acts disorganised and tries to kill herself due to her inability to cope and handle her deep pain and suffering caused by the loss of her husband and daughter. During her severe mental and physical resignation, she keeps repeating a characteristic phrase: “Now I have only one thing left to do: nothing. I don’t want any belongings, any memories. No friends, no love. Those are all traps.”
What is also striking in her moments of struggle and torment when she’s unable to express her feelings of sorrow for the death of her loved ones is her interactions with the housekeeper:
Julie: Why are you crying?
Housekeeper: Because you ‘re not.
Many times, feelings manifest themselves through other people like in the case of Julie and the housekeeper where the latter cries not only as an act of compassion for the sorrow of losing someone, but also on behalf of Julie. The universal feeling of pain has its roots in desire, attachment, longings and expectations. Julie’s loss of attachment and emotional bonds causes disorganisation and pain. The British psychiatrist Bowlby perceives the reaction of mourning as a biologically programmed psychological reaction to the trauma of separation, in the same way that inflammation is a predetermined sequence of organismic reactions to the body injury (i.e. redness, swelling, fever and pain). The pain and sorrow brought by loss derive from the realisation that the person who once was a safe haven, a place of relief does not longer exist.
According to Bowlby (1980, 1982a, 1988a) there are four stages in mourning.
- Numbness: a soldier who is wounded in the battlefield may not feel the pain and he may keep fighting until he is offered help. Julie in the beginning of the film has difficulty in receiving help, all her feelings are repressed, she refuses and actively denies reality.
- Craving, seeking, anger: the people in mourning may be very mobile and they may wander from one room to another, scanning the whole place with their eyes, seeking and hoping that their loved one may reappear. Freud (1917) considered that the purpose of this mental seeking is detachment: “mourning has a very specific purpose to fulfil, to disconnect the memories and hopes of the living person from the dead person”. On the other hand, Bowlby perceives the purpose of mourning not in a teleological way but as an evolutionary purpose, considering the mental seeking of the person in mourning as an attempt to recover and reconnect with the lost object. Bowlby perceives the prevalence of visual images of the dead, that often haunt the person in mourning, as an intense perceptual loop that relates to the look and the sound of the voice of the lost person and which may lead to the misinterpretation of aural and visual signs. The person in mourning tries desperately to locate the lost figure of his/her attachment. Bowlby constantly emphasises the significance of the expression of anger, so that the person in mourning will be able to work through his/her loss. The only thing that an angry person does not want to be reminded of, is that loss is irreversible. If he/she can blame somebody for the loss, in a magical way the seeking of the one to blame will lead him/her to the restoration of the loss (Bowlby, 1961c). In the film we see Julie turning her anger against herself, leaving the house where she used to live with her late husband and her daughter, and moving to a new house without basically coming to terms with the loss.
- Disorganization and despair: mourning may inflict anxiety of persecution and guilt because the person in mourning returns, in an abrupt and violent way, to the emotional abandonment and deficiencies of childhood years. During this stage of disorganisation, the person in mourning constantly doubts and seeks his/her lost ones. However, reality forces its verdict that the object does not exist anymore in memory and hope.
The process of mourning consists of constructing anew a safe inner base. The construction of this safe base relates to a safe environment that in the past was reliable and able to handle and process new bonds. The experience of pain, acceptance of loss and reconciliation with the lost ones as well as with herself, leads the protagonist to rebirth, to a new circle of life. When Julie becomes aware of an extramarital affair of her late husband and of a child born in this affair, she connects to and identifies with her inner child at a larger extend. Mourning and loss can awake a person and make him/her aware of his/her existence. Acceptance comes with the reconciliation and completion of the late husband’s concerto from a score that has been saved.
The consciousness of existence and catharsis occur through the film’s closing music. There, the song of the self-taught Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner is in fact a composition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. This song constitutes the catharsis of the viewer through the hymn of love that always believes, always hopes, always endures.
Chapter Thirteen of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind, love is not jealous or boastful, it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
As for prophecies, they will pass away, as for tongues, they will cease, as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now, we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So, faith, hope, love, abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
The acceptance, the reconciliation deriving from compassion for oneself and love are the basic characteristics that help Julie, the protagonist to confront the daemons in her path of loss. This inner seeking and reorganisation lead to a new inner base and to a personal freedom, just like the blue color of the flag.
Bowlby, J. (1988). Developmental psychiatry comes of age. The American journal of psychiatry, 145(1), 1.
Bowlby, R. (1995). Domestication. Routledge.
Bowlby, J. (1998). Loss: Sadness and depression (No. 3). Random House.
Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss: Loss, sadness and depression3.
Lyons-Ruth, K., Jacobvitz, D., Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. (2008). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. Attachment disorganization: Genetic factors, parenting contexts, and developmental transformation from infancy to adulthood, 2.