Part One: The ‘Anti-Tragedy’ – Three Colours: Blue (Liberty)
By the time the 1990s was solidifying a cinematic voice, Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski was at a stage in his career whereupon he had nothing to prove; yet, with the Three Colours Trilogy, he created a complex and philosophical body of work which, to paraphrase Joyce, will keep the professors guessing for years.
Born in 1941, and raised in Communist Poland, Kieślowski became involved with theatre as a teen, an interest which would develop into a passion for documentary filmmaking. In 1975, the 34 year old director released his first fictionalised narrative feature; Personel, which went on to win several prestigious awards.
Improving his skill and delving ever deeper into social, ideological and theological contemplation, the latter half of the ‘80s would prove to be Kieślowski’s personal renaissance. Based on each of The Ten Commandments, his TV series The Decalogue (1989) consisted of separate, hour long episodes; each containing their own reflection upon a particular form of sanctity, amalgamating with a thematic, personal objective incorporated by the director. Stanley Kubrick, who wrote the introduction to the published scripts, said of the work;
“You never see the ideas coming and don’t realise until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.”
The show was a huge success and formed the basis of two feature length adaptations; A Short Film About Love (1988) and A Short Film About Killing (1988), the latter being more socially impactful than most artists could hope for in a lifetime, as it forced the Polish government to examine their own approach to capital punishment. With his work being lauded at Cannes, as well as on an international platform, Kieślowski was now being heralded as a creative contemporary of Tarkovsky and Bergman.
Released in 1991, The Double Life of Véronique serves, in many ways, as a precursor to the Three Colours Trilogy. The grandiose themes of his earlier work had been honed in to dwell upon a more introspective form of examination. A French / Polish co-production, The Double Life of Véronique was a surprising success at the US box office, taking in almost two million dollars; a factor which would prove to be advantageous when seeking funding for his next project.
The oft-cited summary of Three Colours: Blue is that it serves as the ‘Anti-Tragedy’ of the trio, representing the first colour of the French flag, whilst simultaneously exploring the theme of liberty. Starring a young and hypnotising Juliette Binoche, who reportedly turned down a role in Jurassic Park to work with Kieślowski, the film opens with the tragic loss of her husband and young daughter in an accident in which their car careens off the road, smashing into a tree.
Julie (Binoche) awakens in a hospital bed to be informed, in a very matter of fact way, that her family have died. Her kneejerk reaction is to break into a medicine cabinet and attempt suicide; something which she is unable to see through. Almost catatonic, she remains in her bed for days. In a heartbreaking moment she watches the funeral of her husband and child on a small portable television; emotionally and physically distanced from the proceedings. His standing as one of the world’s leading composers ensures that the world is paying attention, wishing to grieve alongside her. Julie rejects it, and begins a systematic deconstruction of the emotional self. Her mission to alleviate and dissipate any potentially harmful sensation has her dispose of, sell or give away almost everything she owns, save for the clothes on her back.
A brief sexual encounter with Olivier (Benoît Régent) a close friend and collaborator of her husband, also fails to bring solace or comfort, and so she leaves her rural idyll for an anonymous loft in the Parisian backstreets. Retreating into her own mind, Julie discovers that distancing herself from her past is more difficult than she may have anticipated. People encroach upon her life and space, forcing her to deal with the detritus left behind from the accident.
A fragile relationship with her ailing mother, Madame Vignon (played by Amor’s Emmanuelle Riva), is rendered ethereal and almost non-existent, due to the onset of Alzheimer’s, which results in Vignon being unable to identify or recognise her daughter. Encounters with Antoine (Yann Trégouët) the young boy who witnessed the accident, Lucille (Charlotte Véry) a working girl who lives downstairs, and Sandrine (Florence Pernel) the mistress of her late husband all present their own individual quandaries, which threaten to derail Julie’s self-imposed mission of detachment, but in many ways achieve the opposite. Magnanimity and generosity are so ingrained into her personality, that Julie finds herself incapable of distancing herself from certain situations where someone needs her assistance. Yet, in one of the many paradoxes that exist within the film, there are moments in which she is so engrossed by her inertia that she is unable, or unwilling, to become involved that she appears callous or aloof. One reoccurring scene within the trilogy showcases a pensioner, almost bent double, trying to put a wine bottle into a recycling bank. She goes completely unnoticed by Julie. There is also a moment in which she discovers a nest of mice in her apartment. This seems to affect her greatly. The feeble attempts of the rodent mother to hide and protect her young inflicts great pain upon Julie’s raw and damaged matriarchal sensibilities.
Sławomir Idziak, the Polish cinematographer who collaborated with Kieślowski on A Short Film About Killing and The Double Life of Véronique, beautifully accentuates the sensation of loss, isolation, disorientation and reflectiveness. His close up shots and framing add a lyrical degree of visual synchronicity which compliments the thematic and narrative structure to superb effect. Regular writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz (a lawyer who is now a member of the Polish Parliament), adds realism and believability to the dialogue. Be it that Piesiewicz’s additions are merely pragmatic, or are simply more grounded in reality than Kieślowski’s wide ranging ponderings, it remains one of those great examples of two minds working in a flawless, symbiotic manner.
Accreditation is, incidentally, another aspect to Three Colours: Blue which is central to the storyline. It transpires that many of the compositions that Julie’s husband became renowned for were, in fact, her own work. When Olivier attempts to complete an unfinished symphony, commissioned to celebrate the newly unified Europe, Julie is forced to step into the fore once again. Whether her motivations stem from obsessiveness, kindness or simple instinct is left in a superb state of ambiguity.
Julie’s grief is never overplayed, as it could be, meaning that this is very dissimilar to the work of Haneke or Von Trier. There are momentary shades of Marlon Brando’s Paul, from Last Tango In Paris, that flicker through Julie, but she lacks the necessary nihilism to fully embrace such darkness. That being said, the sight of her dragging her knuckles across a cobblestoned wall, leaving them bloodied and torn, is enough to elicit a shiver within the most staunch or desensitised onlooker.
Complex, brooding and sumptuous to behold, Three Colours: Blue is the perfect introduction to Kieślowski, in that it successfully displays his ideology as a filmmaker, without becoming overbearing in its symbolism. Binoche’s heartbreak is as real as the locations used; each one of them quintessentially French; warts and all. This also applies to the character of Julie, who is flawed and multi-faceted, an antithesis of the leading lady. Her liberty is found in the loss of all she believed made her whole, and furthered by an achievement of perspective on her own existence.
Timeless and poignant, the film was met with a decidedly mixed response upon release, with Vincent Canby of The New York Times stating; “The narrative is too precious and absurd.” adding, “The interpretation it demands seems dilettantish.” This was, however, in stark contrast to Roger Ebert, who lauded the film, championing the fact that it was ‘for adults’ and therefore, more worthwhile than many of its American contemporaries at the time.
Kieślowski would be the first to dismiss any pseudo-intellectual probing of his work. Archive interviews portray him as an evasive, polite but confrontational character who concerned himself more with the creation than any form of retrospective analysis. He told The Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone in November 1994;
“From time to time one ought to look objectively at life. When you achieve something, you don’t actually realise you’ve achieved anything. It’s only afterwards when you’ve lost it that you realise you’ve lost it.”
Maybe he speaks for his work, maybe on behalf of his characters but, regardless, once art becomes part of the public consciousness, the individual, or an audience, brings their own interpretation. This is when a film transcends its format and Three Colours: Blue does that with both grandeur and grace.
Part Two: The ‘Anti-Comedy’ – Three Colours: White (Equality)
For the second installment of the Three Colours Trilogy, Kieślowski takes us from Paris to Poland, with a satirical shaggy dog story about a put upon hairdresser named Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) who goes from rags to riches, motivated by the single most driving force that exists within man; revenge!
Karol is introduced amidst a divorce trial in a French courtroom, where his masculinity and very relevance are being brought into question. A character that falls between the protagonist of a Franz Kafka novel crossed with Harold Lloyd, Karol’s failure to consummate his marriage has left his stunning young bride Dominique (Julie Delpy) unsatisfied and unwilling to remain with him, to the extent that she has taken legal action. Karol’s inability to speak French serves to further demean him, leaving him vocally impotent; an unfortunate accompaniment to the rest of the charges being brought against him. He pleads that his side should be heard, at which moment Julie, from the preceding instalment of the series, accidentally bursts into the courtroom, as she searches for her husband’s mistress (See: Three Colours: Blue). This momentary nod is one of several small instances which loosely connect the narratives of the trilogy, all of which were shot back to back.
The divorce is put through, despite Karol’s protests, and he finds himself bankrupt and on the streets by the end of the day. Taking refuge in a Metro station, he is pitied upon by a fellow ex-patriot Mikołaj (Janusz Gajos), who offers him a drink and a sympathetic ear. Karol, who has lost his French residency in the divorce, is faced with a quandary of habitat and must find a place to settle. Desperately homesick, he leaps at the chance to take Mikołaj up on his offer of a job.
Bundling Karol into a suitcase, they attempt to sneak him back into Poland, but the case is stolen and driven out to a desolate location. The group of opportunistic thieves are appalled and disappointed at the contents, so proceed to beat Karol relentlessly, leaving him in the dirt. He holds onto his only possession; a twenty Franc coin he had used to call Dominique from the Metro Station back in Paris, when she made him listen to her making love with another man. This coin is his symbolic grip on the past, one which the protagonists of all three instalments possess in one form or another. The past, in Kieślowski’s world, is not one that can be easily escaped; no matter how much one desires to.
Karol subsequently seeks the solace of his brother (Jerzy Stuhr), who runs a salon in a small, desolate corner of town. Slowly but surely, Karol drags himself up from the dirt, greatly aided by Mikołaj’s connections and favours, but when it comes time to find out the true nature of the job on offer, Karol is presented with both turmoil and conflict, which he must use his wit to overcome, lest he lose the best friend he has seemingly ever had.
The lightest of the three films in tone, aesthetic and delivery, Three Colours: White is more acerbic than its predecessor with regard to its treatment of themes such as status, perception and sexual politics. Karol stumbles his way from one unlikely event to another in such a playful and farcical manner, that it occasionally belies the solemnity of the analytical statements which are being made by the film. It takes a harsh look at the corruption and division of wealth which existed in Poland, as well as presenting some interesting contemplations on the idea that ‘you can’t go home again’.
There are less overtly stylistic visual tricks on display, when compared to the films which take place on either side of Three Colours: White (Blue and Red respectively), yet there is certainly no lack of substance. This is Kieślowski’s reflection upon his homeland; now stripped of the Communist makeup with which he grew up. He portrays it as a conflictive and difficult place, much like he does his characters.
Cinematography for this installment is provided by Edward Kłosiński and the transfer from the rich hues of Sławomir Idziak is stark and evident, however, it is perfect for the setting and overall bizarre nature of the film. Washed out and faded, the newly embraced capitalism that Poland revels in is depicted as a ruthless and cutthroat system, one in which even a poor klutz such as Karol can survive and prosper, should he be wily enough. Speaking in an archive video interview, Kieślowski spoke of how the Polish “don’t want a better common future (in the wake of Communism), they just want a little more for themselves; people don’t want equality, they want to be a little more equal than their neighbours.” This ‘every man for himself’ ideology is emphasised in the actions of Karol and the hoods which he becomes involved with.
An elaborate plan to lure Dominique back into his arms is fleshed out, and Karol begins to put wheels in motion so that he can exact his revenge, but not before taking delight in showing Dominique the life and delight that they could have had together.
The ‘Anti-Comedy’ of Three Colours: White is said to be based on the theme of equality, which is evident when examining the alternating levels of status and control which Karol and Dominique possess at different stages throughout the film. A curiosity which marvels in the simplistic delight of the absurd, and the joy which can be taken from watching the victim become the victorious.
Divisive, but undeniably delightful, Three Colours: White serves as the perfect antidote to the solemnity of its predecessor, and acts as a fantastic segue into the dense introspection of its subsequent partner. Perhaps it’s that White focuses on the collective attitudes more than the individual that some feel it is less resonant than its counterparts, but one could certainly argue that it is actually a more successful entry because of this.
Part Three: The ‘Anti-Romance’– Three Colours: Red (Fraternity)
The final film in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy is 1994’s Three Colours: Red, which stars Irène Jacob as Valentine Dussaut, a young and successful model, along with Jean-Louis Trintignant as Joseph Kern, a curmudgeonly retired judge. The interplay between the two is reminiscent of classic theatre, in that it is claustrophobic, wracked with tension and offers far more questions than it answers.
The events take place in Geneva, where Valentine takes part in a photoshoot for chewing gum that results in her image being plastered across the city. She is involved in a distant (in both the literal and figurative sense) relationship with a possessive and immature young man. One night whilst driving home, she hits a German shepherd named Rita, whom she promptly brings to the vet. Following the details on the dog’s tag, she is led to the ramshackle house of Joseph. He is curt and dismissive, telling her to keep the dog, which Valentine finds peculiar, however, as she gets to know the cantankerous individual, she quickly realises that he is a deeply troubled and damaged soul.
One of Joseph’s pastimes is to ritualistically listen to his neighbours phone calls, voyeuristically following their daily lives, loves and indiscretions. Initially appalled by his actions, Valentine challenges him, but over time the two begin to share a certain sense of comfort in each other. It isn’t love, it isn’t friendship, and it’s an arrangement that could only take place in one of Kieślowski’s films.
Whilst its predecessors (Blue and White) utilised filter effects to emphasise a specific color palate, Cinematographer Piotr Sobociński, along with Editor Jacques Witta truly push the boat out with the final installment. Everything from curtains to apples and sex clubs to cars all practically bleed from the screen. An early shot teases and tantalises as it crawls along the exterior of a building, only to finally reveal (after briefly touching upon) an apartment; Valentine’s.
Billed as an ‘Anti-Romance’, Three Colours: Red is the most vibrant of the three films, containing an energy and sense of life that is missing from the protagonists of Julie and Karol Karol in their respective features. Valentine is the most hopeful of the three leads, almost naïve in her search for good within everyone, but this is challenged by Joseph, who believes that there is no such thing as selflessness, only the desire to avoid guilt.
The judicial themes are incredibly strong in this film, with Joseph abstaining from intervening with any of the affairs which are conducted around him. Valentine’s disgust strikes a chord within him, prompting him to own up; an action which sees him brought to court, then victimised and outcast by his neighbours.
It’s strange to think that merely twenty years ago, it would have taken such elaborate measures, as utilised by Joseph, to get an insight into the private lives of individuals. In a modern world where privacy is a dying concept, people live out the vast majority of their lives in the public sphere. Couples tweet each other instead of text, relationship status is a Facebook prerequisite for most, and the need for incessant documentation of minutiae is ubiquitous. However, in a not too distant past, the world was quieter, with fewer voices permeating our daily rituals. Maybe characters like Joseph were less sinister than they are made out to be.
The events within the narrative escalate to an obscure ending, which brings together the main characters of the trilogy, albeit in a manner which could never be anticipated. Three Colours: Red is an unusual and contradictory film which takes a great deal of unravelling before it begins to become less opaque. The central ideal of fraternity is explored in the relationship between Valentine and Joseph, but there is a subsequent narrative taking place of a young student and neighbour of Valentine’s, Auguste Bruner (Jean-Pierre Lorit). The paths of Auguste and Valentine never cross, but we are tantalizingly permitted to imagine a world in which they do; one which would free Valentine of her doomed current relationship.
With deep exploration of embittered loss (Joseph’s ambivalence stems from the fact that a woman he loved once cheated on him), the complexities of friendship, and the ability to overlook shortcomings, there is a great deal to digest in Three Colours: Red. Like its aesthetic it is rich, dense and at times, overpowering. Simon Hattenstone, in his Guardian review said that;
“At its worst, Red looks like a Volkswagen commercial for the existential professional woman.”
The density of the movie only serves to add to its intrigue and enriches the delight which can be drawn from it. It would be Kieślowski’s final work as a filmmaker. He retired from cinema “To read and smoke”, stating that “It’s not an honourable profession.” Sadly, he passed away two years later, in 1996, during heart surgery. He leaves behind a legacy which contains more insight, depth and skill than we may see again for decades to come.
Twenty years on from the celebratory manner in which the trilogy was received, it serves as a glimpse into a daring and exploratory time in the history of World Cinema, when pre-millennial angst was beginning to soak into a young generation still coming to terms with the findings of the post-war scholars and thinkers.
The Three Colours Trilogy is existentialism that is blended into postmodernism in its finest form. As to whether the professors have come to a conclusion on this one or not is yet to be revealed.