Three Colours: Blue Review
On 13th March 1996 the world lost a great filmmaker. Considering that Directors like Eastwood and Scorsese are clearly capable of working well into their twilight years, it came as a great shock when Krzysztof Kieslowski, in hospital for open heart surgery following a heart attack, passed away at the comparatively young age of 54, arguably at the peak of his career. He had just achieved international success with his seminal Three Colours Trilogy and, whilst back at the 1994 Cannes Premiere of the final chapter, Three Colours: Red, he had officially announced his retirement from filmmaking (no doubt due to stress as, at one point, he directed a record-breaking 12 movies in one year!), by 1996 he had co-written and produced a further trilogy based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy – the individual films entitled Heaven, Hell and Purgatory – and, in typical Kieslowski style, he was tentatively looking at taking up directorial duties on one, if not all, of the instalments. Although he would still leave the world with a considerable body of work – including the likes of The Decalogue and The Double Life of Veronique (as well as Three Colours) – the man was an artistic visionary, arguably one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and he will be greatly missed.
Kieslowski did not slip into filmmaking easily, initially being rejected by the acclaimed Lodz film school in Poland (the same school which Roman ‘Chinatown’ Polanski attended) and trying everything he could to avoid being drafted into the Army, before being accepted on a third attempt into the film school, and soon finding his home there making documentaries. Ironically, whilst portraying the truth in his documentaries, he soon found them used for damaging purposes (including as evidence in a criminal trial), and shifted focus to fictional stories, feeling that he could tell the same true-to-life tales, only within the anonymous confines of the film world. His first few TV efforts were critically acclaimed and he soon graduated to doing bigger work, including several controversially political movies which were criticised by the Polish Government. It was at this time that he started working closely with screenwriter and trial lawyer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who would go on to co-write all of his subsequent movies, as well as composer Zbigniew Preisner, who would score them. Kieslowski’s Polish filmmaking career culminated in the ambitious late Eighties project, The Decalogue, based on the Ten Commandments. It was a massive 10-film series, initially made for TV and funded by Germany – and it was originally intended to be directed by a series of different directors (having been co-written by Kieslowski and Piesiewicz), but Kieslowski, as would become a common trait, found it impossible to relinquish control over the project and decided that he would have to direct the entire series himself (although he did select a different Director of Photography for each of the ten chapters). After its comparatively sizeable success, he decided to re-edit several of the instalments for international release, including A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love (arguably the two best chapters), which were well received, although exhaustion would prevent him from releasing any further ‘international versions’, having, at the time, done effectively 12 films in 12 months.
His next film, The Double Life of Veronique, starring Irene Jacob in a dual role as identical twins – one was French and the other Polish – was French-funded, and was also internationally successful, so much so that he was able to commence work on his dream project, the Three Colours Trilogy. Although named after the three colours of the French flag – sequentially: Red, White and Blue – with each movie having the loose theme of one of the elements from the French Revolutionary motto: liberty, equality and fraternity, Kieslowski would later reveal that this symbolic undercurrent was fairly incidental, and present mainly because of the fact that the project had been French-funded, as opposed to being due to original script intentions. In actual fact, the trilogy, which is a socio-political refection on France and, to a certain extent, Poland (viewed through the eyes of both sides), was intended to be – and is perhaps more accurately described as – an anti-tragedy, an anti-comedy and an anti-romance.
Trois coleurs: Bleu
The first film tells the story of Julie, a woman who has just lost her husband, a world-famous composer, and their young daughter, in a car crash. She is a wreck after the accident and retreats away from everybody around her, discarding all possessions from her past and trying to hide away from the world, and particularly eschewing anything to do with music – you see, secretly, Julie is also a great composer, having worked with her husband on numerous acclaimed bodies of work for which only he took the recognition in order to maintain her anonymity. But when her husband’s work partner, Olivier, a man who also happens to be in love with Julie, announces that he is going to attempt to complete her husband’s final, unfinished, symphony, Julie must decide whether she is going to finally face the world that she has turned her back on for all this time.
Arguably the most refined of the trilogy, Three Colours: Blue is commonly a favourite entry in the series. Certainly Kieslowski is at his most masterful with this chapter, perfectly blending strikingly directed visuals with integral musical themes, and veritably infusing this stunning stylisation into the narrative proceedings, to make them all important parts of a much grander whole. Every shot is perfectly chosen, the camera swaying effortlessly to the sound of music that the lead character is playing within her head, and the film is easily the best of the trilogy in terms of substance-inseparably-incorporating-style.
Performance-wise, it is also arguably the strongest of the three films, driven by Juliette Binoche, for whom this was an early, fantastic career choice, prior to her acclaimed performances in The English Patient and Chocolat. Binoche declined Spielberg’s personal request for her to be in Jurassic Park just to feature in Kieslowski’s Blue, and it was certainly the right decision. With great power, brooding inner turmoil and effortless mastery of her character, she manages to be both a convincing young widow and yet also defy the usual clichéd traits associated with this kind of personal tragedy. Whilst those around her are befuddled by her behaviour, frustrated by her seeming lack of emotion – even commenting on the fact that she is not perpetually in tears – and confused by her detachment and drive towards self-exile, she garners respect for her unusual attitude and atypical behaviour. Of course, events conspire to compel her to address the life that she attempts to leave behind, but, through the excellent script and Binoche’s flawless characterisation, the developments are never less than wholly natural.
Integral to Blue is the self-deception of the lead character, who has shunned fame in favour of anonymity and who is faced with the choice of embracing the lie that she had always been living, or grasping the truth – and admitting to the world – her true identity. Perhaps the most beautiful sequences are those featuring the genuinely stunning representation of her mind for music – like the way she ‘reads’ notes – but the most disconcerting moments come within these same scenes, pointed sections of silence when the screen goes black as if the scene has ended, even though it hasn’t, breaking the fluidity jarringly, to great effect.
Of course the underlying theme in Three Colours: Blue, beyond the overt examination of tragedy and, as it were, anti-tragedy (the more honest events are a poignant commentary on all the clichéd pitfalls of this kind of scenario – nothing is what it seems), is that of liberty. Indeed, whilst many would try and interpret it as a socio-political reflection on liberty within France itself, Kieslowski himself noted that the focus here was much more on private freedom and emotional liberty. It shows just how important emotional connections are within our lives, and juxtaposes that with the detachment and false indifference that many attempt, however unsuccessfully, to seek out.
Trzy kolory: Bialy
Three Colours: White follows the character of Karol, an award-winning Polish hairdresser whose new life in Paris is torn apart when his beautiful French wife, Dominique, frustrated by his figurative – and literal – impotence, decides to leave him. Although she tries her utmost to burn her bridges, going to great lengths to get the message across to him – including flaunting her sexual infidelity in his face and even framing him for arson – Karol manages to flee back to Poland and start afresh, slowly working his way back to feeling human once again and repairing the damage done. Despite his new identity and chance at a new life, it soon becomes clear that not only can he not let go of the past, but he also does not want to.
Whilst Three Colours: Blue may well be the most refined chapter, White feels like the most personal, if not in direct emotional context to Kieslowski’s own experiences (after all, unlike in White, Kieslowski himself remained happily married to his life-long sweetheart for well over half of his unduly short life) then certainly in reflection of his views on what was happening to his own country at the time.
White was written and released a decade before Poland would join the EU, back when it had just about left behind its Communist attitudes and was finally ushering in a new, more European era. Unfortunately Poland could only hope to be but an impotent player in the European big-leagues, and the brooding envy towards countries like France ate away at it, taking away its own innate good nature and decency, and making it corrupt and cheap, shady in its faux Capitalism. One has to wonder whether Kieslowski was genuinely concerned that his country’s idolising of its peers was only steering it in the wrong direction.
Yet despite this cultural symbolism, it’s the more personal emotional voyage that truly gives White its impact. The striking scenes, whilst nowhere near as visually opulent as those in Blue, remain painfully unforgettable because of the cut-to-the-bone honesty with which it reflects our own personal demons; our own fears. The aggressive downward spiral of depression, the self-aggrandising nature of impotence (of any type), the undeniable importance of sex in healthy relationships – and, perhaps even more importantly, respect; of course the theme here is equality, but what that means in terms of the narrative is not fairness, but actually redressing the balance: getting even.
Performance-wise, this entry is driven by Zbigniew Zamachowski (who had previously worked with Kieslowski on The Decalogue), who carries the powerful drama as the put-upon Karol, who, for the majority of the film, has just about the worst luck you can imagine. Seriously, the horrors that befall him almost slip into comedic territory – albeit black comedy. Ostracised by the language difficulties, and by the rigid stranger-unfriendly rules that govern this supposedly fair society, Karol finds his talents unrecognised and even finds himself stripped of his own masculinity in France, only to be reborn from scratch in Poland, but then corrupted in his struggle to survive and thrive. Zamachowski once again brings us a character who is almost impossible to like, but equally impossible to hate. At once pathetic, weak and subservient, the sympathy you feel for him is often overshadowed by frustration, yet when he finally starts to ‘act like a man’, you barely get a fleeting opportunity to root for him before his actions suddenly become far from commendable, and borderline shameful. Through it all though, maintaining a symbolically poignant bit of Polish heritage, he endures, and that, at least, earns him some respect (by comparison, his Polish co-star, Janusz Gajos, plays a much more restrained, and eminently, unequivocally likeable second-act companion for Karol).
Married up to Zamachowski’s Karol is Julie Delpy’s gorgeous but seemingly spiteful Dominique. Although her broader body of work is not particularly memorable to me, Delpy certainly proved her worth in the Before Sunrise / Before Sunset films opposite the underrated Ethan Hawke, and she has simply never been more striking than here in White; the fractured flashbacks of Karol and Dominique’s wedding playing on repeat like some advert for Delpy’s patented beauty. Although she does not have anywhere near the same meat to sink her teeth into as her female counterparts in the first and last Three Colours’ entries, Blue’s Juliet Binoche and Red’s Irene Jacob, respectively, Delpy still does well with the supporting role that she is given: for the most part we hate her, yet there is an underlying feeling that maybe she is not being true to herself and, therefore, what we are seeing is not her true self. Whether her actions were sub-consciously designed to provoke a reaction in her husband which would put his life, eventually, back on track, or whether she was merely just a victim of her own personal emotional conflict (as, indeed, Karol was), Delpy brings a hint of veritably pitiable tragedy to a potentially loathsome character.
White will never be wholly revered amidst the trilogy. As stated, it is a personal movie, and perhaps too personal. The only instalment to be shot mostly in Poland, and feature mostly Polish dialogue, it feels at odds with the two other distinctly French bookends, standing out not only in name (its title would be in Polish where the others’ would be in French) but also in style and narrative. Blue beautifully and masterfully matches style with substance, integrating visuals and music into the very story itself. White, on the other hand, almost feels like it was shot by a completely different director. Apart from the common colour theme itself, and a few brief nods of typical Kieslowski style (the repeating shot of the suitcase passing along the conveyor belt and the flash-forward image of Delpy’s Dominique getting back to her hotel room after the funeral), it does indeed appear quite stark and barren by comparison, as if it were shot on a fraction of the budget.
The development too is neither as seriously tragic, nor as substantial, and the almost light-hearted, quirky tale that is told (complete with quirky characters and even quirky music) is more farce than true-to-life drama. Yet nobody is laughing. Still, White probably has the strongest political symbolism in the Trilogy, and is also probably the one most likely to cut you to the core, breaking down the polite barriers of a politically correct society and addressing one or two questions about what you would really be prepared to do in order to see justice and fairness in the world. Would you act unjustly, would you act unfairly, just to see the balance redressed? If, in a supposedly fair state, it really was this easy to be publically shamed, framed for arson, and made to feel like you have to flee the country, then wouldn’t that call into question all of your theoretical ideals about obedience to the law and to society’s ‘rules’? (Philosophy students would no doubt love to take that question one step further, pose it in regards to nations as opposed to individuals, and draw into focus the eventuality of both corruption and probably even terrorism in this kind of imbalanced world).
At the end of the day, whilst nowhere near as easy to love, or even appreciate, as Three Colours: Blue, the much more personal and provocative White is certainly just as enduring in terms of food for thought, and makes for a strong middle instalment which will likely grow on you.
Trois coleurs: Rouge
In Red, Valentine, a young student and part-time fashion model living in Geneva, accidentally hits a dog with her car and, seeking out the owner, she comes across Joseph Kern, a gruff retired Judge with a penchant for using his radio to listen in to the telephone conversations of his neighbours. Shocked by the invasion of privacy, Valentine seeks to stop him. The Judge, on the other hand, whilst unimpressed by Valentine’s innate naivety, also finds his emotions stirred by her unlikely companionship.
Without a doubt the most fantastical of the three instalments, Three Colours: Red takes the contrived twists of fate that populate White, and exaggerates them just to bluntly make Kieslowski’s point: namely, that all of our lives are connected in some way, somehow. Populated by reflections of the past, recollections of dreams of the future, foreboding portents and visual motifs that are carried throughout, there is no doubt that this feature is much closer to Blue in terms of refinement, carrying the same sort of stunning visual style, only this time pared up with a more abstract, intangible narrative. Sure, the events that take place are almost impossible to associate with the real world, but, of course, as the viewer we are perceiving a more global view – the players within this little sandpit are blissfully unaware of the characters that orbit them; the events that will befall them.
The Judge tells Valentine a tale from his youth, about the only woman he ever cared about in his life; he talks about a dropped law book which landed on the very page that came up in his exam the next day; he explains how the woman left him for another man but he went after her, yet never found her – the events are played out in parallel with another character who lives, unbeknownst to Valentine, in the same apartment block as her.
Harder to fully grasp than the other, perhaps more human dramas told prior to it, Red certainly fits its categorisation as an anti-romance, similarly playing against type in its bid to paint love as a force of nature, a confluence of events far beyond our control. It explores polar opposites finding commonality between them – the Judge loves Valentine’s innocence, despite his own stark cynicism: he embodies harsh real-life experience and the ensuing pessimism; she is the epitome of youthful openness and a world of seemingly limitless possibilities. She feels like the world is her oyster; anything is possible – he sees his life as over; hope has long since been lost.
Whilst Three Colours: White was a personal political tale, Red remains quite close to Kieslowski’s heart in its refection of his own inner conflicts, which are brought to life through the two lead characters. The kindness and genuine caring of Valentine is often obscured by the damage that she leaves herself open to; her naivety marking her own downfall, but her strong feelings against indifference being the overriding power that sets her apart from the crowd. At one point the Judge reassures Valentine and tells her to just ‘be’; i.e. to remain true to herself and allow destiny to map out her future, and one has to wonder whether this was the resolution of the director’s own internal battles.
After the female-protagonist-driven Blue, and the male-driven tale of White, the two come together once again to reach some kind of a balance with not only the dual tale of Valentine and the Judge, but also the parallel tales of the other student lawyer (whose life story resembles the same one that the Judge recalls to Valentine). The movie feels much more ethereal than the other chapters, and so we get a suitably whimsical performance from Irene Jacob in the lead role as Valentine. Kieslowski previously worked with her on The Double Life of Veronique, bringing out a much more quantifiably powerful performance there, but her contribution to Red is suitably capricious, naive and intangibly driven by fleeting sentiments. Easily the most beautiful of the three lead actresses, the French-born Swiss Jacob glows with palpable emotions more so than any of her counterparts. Though her career would only go downhill from here – a feeble attempt at English-language success in Hollywood seeing her fleeing back to France to work on little-known movies ever since – she will always be able to look back on her work with Kieslowski as being the absolute high point in her career, and her talents will always be evident in these works.
Opposite her Jean-Louis Trintignant is great as the cantankerous old Judge, weathered by his own experiences and left alone in life to be surrounded only by his own corrupting cynicism. One of the most tragic characters in the entire trilogy, the relationship between him and Valentine is beautifully brought to life in a convincing, authentic fashion, setting the scene for the ultimate twist of fate; the ultimate act of destiny – almost the equivalent of going back in time to meet the Judge in his youth, back when they would have been more suitably matched for a full relationship.
Rounding off the Trilogy, Kieslowski’s Red is as ethereal in its core narrative as it is in its political allegories: whether observing the invasion of privacy, in the name of justice, as perpetuated by a supposedly ‘lawful’ state, or commenting on the immature ideals of the kind-to-everyone Swiss as juxtaposed with the more defensive, burned-by-experience French. Clearly the sentiments of ex-courtroom lawyer and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz are much more evident in this chapter – as well look at the law, and its place in society, as well as ethics and socially acceptable behaviour.
Its Swiss setting is of course directly related to Kieslowski’s underlying political commentary against indifference: a common perception around the world of the Swiss ‘sitting on the fence’, away from the rest of the world, isolated, cynical and somewhat voyeuristic. Through the eyes of the French Valentine, it is strange that the Swiss Judge no longer has any views on what is right and what is wrong.
At the end of the day, however, Kieslowski again reminds us that his works are more personal than political, that he is showing us honest feelings about love, life, fate, destiny and, ultimately, about human connection once again. The final moments of Red bringing us something akin to a closing reflection on all three instalments, on the intertwined lives of all the pairs of characters across the Trilogy, perfectly bookending the epic saga.
There is no question that Three Colours remains one of the greatest film trilogies ever created, and arguably represents the culmination of everything that made Kieslowski such a master auteur in the first place. His skills and talents refined to precise perfection, the three films work beautifully together as a study of the human condition, and of the connections between us all.
Although the three films work mostly in parallel, they are almost sequentially chronological, events and even characters briefly crossing over across all movies. In Blue we see Binoche’s Julie walk into a court-room where a Polish man is struggling with language issues in a divorce case; in White we find that this man is Karol; and in Red all of the key players can be glimpsed in a moment that symbolises their ultimate destinies. Originally Red was also supposed to have a short scene where we see White’s lead character of Karol assisting some of the off-screen characters in Valentine’s life, further reinforcing the cross-pollination of the three movies, but this was left out in favour of just the bookend sequence which just brings all the characters back together.
In addition there are recurring motifs across all three movies, with each one having a short scene where an elderly person attempts to put a glass bottle in a recycling bin: in Blue, the lead character Julie has so detached herself from the world that she is completely unaware of the futile attempts by an old lady to recycle a bottle; in White, Karol chuckles to himself at the inability of an old man to reach the recycling bin – finding bittersweet solace in the knowledge that somebody else in the world has similarly bad luck; and in Red we find the only character who actually reacts and does something to help, as Valentine reinforces the anti-indifference sentiments to help the old woman finally recycle a bottle.
Certainly all three films also focus on the notion of jettisoning your past – even your very identity – and starting afresh, as well as detachment from human contact vs. the undeniable human connections that we all form, that we all need, and that we have no control over. In each entry there is a symbolic item that ties the protagonist to the past – Julie’s blue beads, Karol’s 2-France piece, and the Judge’s fountain pen, with which he used to wield a god-like power over the fates of men. Ultimately, however, we are reminded that human connection wins out, and that there is simply no point denying it – whether you’re faced with the seemingly unstoppable torture of lost love, the inevitable damage and destruction caused by deceit, or the obsessive fascination of voyeurism, we are reminded that it is human connection that governs our lives, our loves, our happiness; we are reminded that fate and destiny have their own part to play and that we simply cannot fathom the powers that work beyond the grasp of our intellects.
Whether you enjoy the beauty and melodious symphony of Blue, which rides through an emotional torrent of tragic loss and shock revelation upon revelation; the shift in nature of White, which drifts into both black comedy and loose fantasy territories on its journey to explore the nature of equality and, effectively, revenge to redress the balance; or the ethereal sentiments of Red, which glides around on fleeting emotions and uses almost fairytale-like fantasy to expose the true irony of such a fateful existence, all three are artistic masterpieces; perfect blends of visuals, dialogue and sounds, attuned to the relevant themes of their respective narratives, and carrying you on the very same voyage through Revolutionary motifs, political allegories or simply reflections on elements of the human condition. You may have a personal favourite, but it would be hard to compare even your least favourite entry to almost any other film out there – they are all so clearly works of art that reside on a different level, much like the works of Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life), which are similarly impossible to compare other than amongst their own brethren.
There’s a whole world to discover in Kiesolwski’s final work, the stunning Three Colours: Trilogy, itself a tragic reminder of the great talent that the world has lost. If you haven’t yet explored his work then there is no better place to start then here. Highly recommended.