Carol Morley’s Out of Blue follows Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson), a detective investigating the apparent murder of astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer) in a New Orleans observatory. As Mike attempts to unravel the many mysteries surrounding the incident, her own sense of reality and sense of herself fall apart and then back together again. I was fascinated by how Morley uses music to explore this process; Clint Mansell’s soundtrack is utterly mesmerising, but one particular pre-existing song also recurs within the world of the film itself: Brenda Lee’s rendition of ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’.
The film opens with the lonely death of a star in space, accompanied by Jennifer delivering a public lecture on the night of her own demise. We learn that dark matter and black holes were her area of expertise, and later that she believed in the multiverse theory – the existence of multiple universes running parallel to our own. Jennifer explains that “the catastrophic death of a star brings new life to the universe. In order for us to live, a star must die. We are all stardust” and that most of the universe is invisible to us: “there is much we can’t see, detect, or comprehend, yet we spend our lives trying to get to the heart of this dark energy, this dark matter. And you can tell a lot by looking”. For me, you can tell a lot by listening to this film, too.
Out of Blue is symbolically constructed around patterns of repeating images – including blue marbles, a blue pot of moisturiser, a red scarf etc. – and these visually lead Mike to the truth of what happened to Jennifer, as well as to a confrontation with the black hole of her own past by mimicking the flow and distortion of memory. Mike can’t remember anything of her childhood, and the investigation is as much about the clues to the empty spaces in her mind as it is a traditional murder inquiry.
‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ functions in a similar way to the film’s visual signposts. Mike first listens to the song after finding a cassette in Jennifer’s car, and from then on it becomes integral to the film’s construction and to its contemplation of trauma, death and endless longing for an inaccessible past. At the start of Out of Blue, Mike is every bit the recognisable hardboiled detective; her entire life is anchored in the homicide unit and we learn that nothing about her job phases her. With increasingly disconcerting consequences, her mask of control and detachment begins to fall apart to the accompaniment of the song. It affects her from its first notes, the melody matched against the immeasurable darkness of both inner and outer space: “I’ll be seeing you / In all the old familiar places / That this heart of mine embraces…”. Mike leans back in the car seat and seems on the brink of half-remembering something, until she’s suddenly interrupted by a tap on the window. The song continues to play and abruptly pause like this throughout Out of Blue; fading in and out of conscious awareness like a dream that spirals further away the harder you try upon waking to recall it.
At roughly the film’s half-way point, Mike realises that Jennifer took her own life, and that she recorded her last words over the Brenda Lee tape. The song is cut off and replaced by Jennifer’s goodbye message, and so although she is physically absent, she preserves a shard of herself, her pain and her astral philosophy, alongside its melody. Despite assurances from colleagues that the case is officially closed, Mike is unable to relinquish her fixation on the case – or deny its hold on her – as the contrast between the golden nostalgia of the song and the fragility of her sense of self becomes increasingly stark. The soaring romanticism of the lyrics and Lee’s voice create a yearning as infinite as the cosmos. The song creates a parallel universe of its own, one that evokes a fairytale inflected love rather than a young woman’s blood glimmering beneath an indifferent sky: “I’ll be seeing you / In every lovely summer’s day / In everything that’s light and gay / I’ll always think of you that way…”.
Throughout Out of Blue, Mike replays a video of Jennifer talking about astrophysics. For Jennifer, “we’re following the energy like a trail of clues. Leading closer and closer to this black hole’s dark heart”. Music in film and television is frequently used to collapse time and space; the montage in a romantic comedy that shrinks the unfolding of a relationship down to a few minutes is an obvious example. In Out of Blue, ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ harnesses this ability to manipulate time by triggering a disintegration of the borders between past, present and future for Mike. The words of the song become the spiralling paving stones of a vortex, and at the centre is a terrible truth. We learn that she has been conflating repressed remembrances of her childhood – specifically and tragically the murder of her mother – with Jennifer’s death and the circumstances leading up to it.
Out of Blue tells us that “the only way we can enter into a black hole is with our minds” and ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ accompanies that journey by crossing the boundary between imagination and reality, just as it does the border between our world and the fictional one. Mike finds a fragment of the lyrics scrawled on a postcard, and dreams of Jennifer lip-syncing to the song in a tinsel curtain adorned bar. Later, Mike listens to a record of it while lying alone on the floor of her home and similarly whispers along. It’s as if she’s repeating an incantation or attempting to summon something, or someone, hidden between its notes, until the needle gets stuck and her grasp on the present fractures further as the music skips and stutters.
‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ plays as Mike eventually uncovers her memories of her mother’s death, leading her to kneel side by side with her childhood self. Having navigated to the darkness that dwells within her mind and back again, the clues that she’s been gathering throughout the film fall into place like a mirror shattering in reverse. As Out of Blue draws to a close, it’s as if Mike is driving away into the night itself in search of further secrets, or to find her own place amongst the stars.
The film continues to haunt me; the way that ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ musically binds Mike and Jennifer to each other almost as a protection against the vast strangeness of existence, and the gap that the song articulates between life as it is and life as you want it to be. It perfectly captures how a person, an event, or a desire can become tethered to a song so that, on hearing it again, time seems to fall apart, and you with it: “I’ll find you in the morning sun / And when the night is new / I’ll be looking at the moon / But I’ll be seeing you”.