POLISH director Krzysztof Kieslowski prefers not to make one movie at a time. Although he has made many stand-alone films, including ``The Double Life of Veronique'' two years ago, his most celebrated work is the ``Decalogue,'' a series of 10 movies on issues suggested to Kieslowski by the Ten Commandments.
His newest picture, ``Blue,'' is the first part of a trilogy inspired by the colors of the French flag - blue, white, and red, standing for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Blue symbolizes freedom to Kieslowski, but his film is no simple celebration of the satisfactions and challenges of liberty. Like most of his finest works, such as ``No End'' and the ``Decalogue'' spinoff called ``A Short Film About Killing,'' it probes the mysteries of its subject on physical, psychological, and even spiritual levels.
Lending further resonance to the story is the fact that it doesn't deal with freedom in a comforting form but focuses on unwanted freedom, which confers independence at the expense of familiar limits and boundaries.
The picture is not wholly successful, and some reviewers find its delicately crafted images too arty and artificial. It was received enthusiastically by many spectators at the recent New York Film Festival, though, and has won prizes at the Venice and Chicago filmfests; so it's now heading to commercial screens with a fair amount of momentum.
The main character, played with exquisite grace by Juliette Binoche, is a young woman who has just suffered a devastating tragedy: the death of her husband and daughter in a car accident. Since her spouse was a renowned composer - whose latest work, an orchestral piece meant to encourage global peace, was incomplete when he died - the artistic world takes a strong interest in her, and in her plans for sharing the composer's musical legacy with his former colleagues and admirers.
She wants nothing to do with the media-bred sympathy that comes her way in the aftermath of her enormous loss. Her new freedom is something she never asked for or wanted, and her only desire is to return some kind of order to her life.
But this is complicated by a couple of unexpected factors. One is the startling realization that her husband had a lover who meant a great deal to him during the last part of his life. Another is the music world's discovery that she secretly helped her husband compose his music, hiding her assistance, and allowing him to receive all the credit.
Besieged by these developments, she attempts to forge a new life away from the public eye - and to reconcile her own needs with increasingly urgent moral obligations.
``Blue'' is at its best when Kieslowski uses cinematic means to express the inner life of its heroine, whose tentative but growing awareness of her right place in the world - no longer dependent on fame, possessions, professional secrets, or even family relations -
is reflected in the delicate forms and sensuous colors of Kieslowski's impressionistic images, photographed by Slawomir Idziak.
This effect is enhanced by Zbigniew Preisner's beautiful score, which plays an even more important role in ``Blue'' than in ``The Double Life of Veronique,'' also about a woman whose personal growth is intertwined with musical activity.
In the end, ``Blue'' is not as satisfying as Kieslowski's best movies, largely because its finale - optimistic and uplifting, but superficial and a bit arbitrary - doesn't live up to the richly evocative events that precede it. Kieslowski shouldn't be criticized too harshly for falling short of the unusually high expectations he builds, but the ending of ``Blue'' suggests that he hasn't yet plumbed the depths of the vast philosophical questions that fascinate him so much.
* ``Blue'' does not have an MPAA rating. It contains sexual activity and scenes of death and mourning.