Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy is a series of three films that were released in 1993 and 1994. They came out at the beginning of a Golden Age for foreign films and right at the height of the breakout of Independent Cinema. Both these categories are considered genres, but in fact, they comprise the umbrella of all the genres – musicals, comedies, dramas, mysteries, and more. They are typically recognizable by their reliance on more daring cinematic techniques and symbolic or obtuse storytelling methods. At the time of their release, these movies proved to me to be the pinnacle of what I expected from the genre. I would recommend them constantly at my video store, I would teach them in a college World Cinema class and even today hold them in high regard. The current Blu-ray release of the trilogy by The Criterion Collection only solidifies my original impressions of the films.
It’s hard to know how to approach discussion of the films. The films are not linked in the way that The Lord Of The Rings or Star Wars are dependent on the plot developments of the previous films. The films – Blue, White, and Red are named for and thematically linked to the colors of the French flag. The motto being “liberty, equality, fraternity”. It’s just as important to watch them in order as any other trilogy but only in the way the the themes of the previous films will inform the world of the next.
The films might refer to the colors of the French flag, but they are not political. By 1993, Europe has transcended politicalness. As the Communist dictators and the Berlin Wall all fell in the late 1980s, there’s a sense that these films exist outside any political boundaries. They are very personal films and the themes have to do with more Universal Truths. I’ll address the films one at a time, as they should be viewed.
Blue is the most minimalist of the three films. Juliette Binoche stars as Julie. In the haunting opening scene, she loses her husband and daughter in a car crash. She is unable to commit suicide in the hospital and spends the first portion of the film distancing herself from society. She removes all memories of her family and even destroys a score that her husband was composing. Her isolation is completed by the essential loss of her mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. The score is a single note if there is any during this point. The world is tinted blue, symbolic for her spirit.
Alone in Paris, Julie is confronted by parts of her previous life. An old friend of the couple, Olivier, pursues her to complete her husband’s score that was to be for the Unity of Europe. We soon hear bits and pieces of music that are parts of the score. The more she puts together her life, the more of the score becomes audible. She discovers her husband had an affair and the woman is expecting his child. She is able to give his “new family” their old house and that allows her to pursue a relationship with Olivier. It’s these reconnections that finally let her finish her husband’s work. And the chorus of voices are punctuated by the shots of people she has affected since her tragedy.
The idea of liberty is a very personal theme. Julie has to experience it by herself. It is only through her liberation that she is able to reconnect with society. Kieslowski’s use of the blue tint throughout is not overwhelming but selective. Enough so that the hints of red and white are subtle enough that they only inform the viewer after having seen the next two films.
The Blu-ray includes a video essay, cinema lessons with Kieslowski, “Reflections on Blue”, interview with composer Zbigniew Preisner, selected commentary by Juliette Binoche and a couple early shorts by the director. Just alone, this disc is amazing.
White is the brightest of the films – hence the color. But symbolically it’s also the least dark and it’s the closest I would call to a comedy. Yet, the white is never absolutely pure white. Our hero is the generically named Karol Karol played by Zbigniew Zamachowski. Karol’s journey starts in Paris in front of a judge (this is linked to the same court that Julie walked into in Blue). Karol also has everything taken away from him, but this time it’s through divorce by his wife, Dominique (Julie Delpy). Karol finds himself in the subway with only one coin to his name.
He meets up with Mikolaj from Warsaw in this subway. Mikolaj provides him with a plan to get back to Warsaw in exchange for completing a killing of a man who wants to die. The typical comedy of the film happens when Karol arrives back in Warsaw to a very bleak snowy landscape. But the snow is a dingy white, never perfect. The suitcase that he has been smuggled in has been stolen by workers at the airport who discover Karol in the bag much to their dismay.
Karol works his way to regain the masculinity he lost in Paris, first by being a hairdresser and eventually becoming a bodyguard. He still has to carry out the killing he promised. Upon finding it to be Mikolaj, he brings Mikolaj to the brink of death until Mikolaj finds his will to live. Karol works his way up from bodyguard to the point that he is in business with Mikolaj and making lots of money. He uses the money in an elaborate plan to try to win Dominique back. But when she is ready to come back, he ruins her life by faking his death and having her imprisoned for murder.
The idea of equality is a that of two sides being the same. Like our lead actor’s name Karol Karol being equal. He has been destroyed at the beginning and he ends up destroying her in the end. There’s an equal reversal of what we expect between Eastern and Western Europe. Karol is made poor in the richest country and he is able to get rich in what is typically the poorest. The bleak white (the sky is white-gray most of the time) is reflected even in the lack of luster in Julie Delpy’s hair. It’s my least favorite of the three but it’s an important stepping stone towards Red.
The Blu-ray includes another cinema lesson, a short making-of documentary, two more shorts by Kieslowski, a video essay, and more interviews. The film is not as subtle as the other two and the extras tend to play out the same way. But they are still excellent.
Red is the color of passion. It’s a life-affirming color. Red-haired and red-themed named, Valentine (played wonderfully by the beautiful Irene Jacob) starts the film having a phone conversation with her boyfriend who is in London. Drving home she hits a dog and through the fate of this event, she meets a retired judge. She discovers that the judge is listening in on the phone conversations of people in the neighborhood. He has isolated himself, as did Julie in Blue but he’s playing a part in the lives of the people around him.
There’s a subplot of two characters who both Valentine and the judge, Joseph Kern, hear on a phone conversation. There is a love story between Auguste (an aspiring judge) and Karin. Yet, they are missing each other’s phone calls – not connecting. Their relationship mirrors a story that Joseph tells about when he was a younger man. And we can also see that in a different universe, this is a relationship between Valentine and the older judge as a younger man. The film ends as Valentine and Auguste take a ferry to England. Yet the two never meet. The ferry sinks and we see in a news story – Valentine and Auguste emerge together (finally meeting as they are fated) but we also see Karol and Dominique from White and Julie and Oliver from Blue.
The idea of fraternity is the culmination of the themes from the first two films. Liberty of one person, Equality of two people, and Fraternity of many. The film is about connections and how we connect or don’t connect with each other. And yet, there’s the philosophy of fate. That lovers who are meant to be together will find each other in the end. The crossing of seemingly unrelated characters and stories, like that of phone lines crisscrossing Europe, plays out when connections are finally made.
This is the most complex of the three films and it’s a final gift from Kieslowski that keeps on giving upon each viewing. There are amazing doubles and connections throughout this single film and in the trilogy. There’s a ray of hope through the film. That despite missed possibilities, fate will fix everything in the end. As I consider all the work of Kieslowski, I like to take that as his final statement. That everything will be okay.
The Blu-ray is the best looking of the bunch. There’s another cinema lesson, another video essay, interviews, a short documentary on the film at Cannes, and an indispensable documentary called Krzystof Kieslowski: I’m So So… about the life and work of the incredible man.
The amazing Criterion Collection package of the three films is a must for anyone who loves film. It’s for those of us who watch a film on the surface but then like to go back and find deeper lessons to discuss. These films are ripe for discussions deep into the night. The collection comes with a comprehensive 76-page book of essays that compliment the extras on the discs. In the almost twenty years since their release, I’ve yet to encounter a foreign film that fills me with the same awe that I feel when watching and discussing these films. Thanks to Criterion for letting a new generation of future filmmakers and film viewers discover them too.