*** 11/26/11: ADDED REVIEW OF CRITERION BLU-RAY EDITION ***
The late great Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski cleverly "adapted" the three French ideals -- liberty, equality, fraternity -- into three thought-provoking modern-day dramas about people who cope with personal losses and tragedies. In BLUE, the first of the trilogy, a widow tries to set herself free (and gain liberty) from her emotional baggages. The second film, WHITE, is about a jilted man's outrageous plot to get even (thus, equality) with his ex-wife. The last film, RED, which is also Kieslowski's final film before he died in 1996, is about a lonely old man who is embittered by the memories of his youth and finds accidental companionship (fraternity) with a young model. All three films are understated in their tone, economical in their dialogs, elliptical in their editing and plotting (there are some mind-boggling flashbacks and flash forwards in WHITE), and haunting in their atmosphere.
The films regard the three French ideals quite indirectly, and in fact more and more so as the trilogy progresses. BLUE is the only one that deals with the ideal of "freedom" (albeit emotional freedom) in a concrete way, inviting us to ponder its meanings and its attainability. WHITE treats the concept of "equality" in a rather subversive and satiric manner, and it clearly wants us to rethink its meanings rather than accepting it at face value. And RED has to do with "fraternity" only circumstantially, and has more to do with the subject of destiny, and how our past is linked to our present. The three films are set not just in France, but also in Poland and Switzerland, and WHITE has primarily Polish dialogs. Hence, a sort of universality is intended.
The three films are also linked in various ways. All three films involve an unfaithful lover who dies, in one way or another. All three films involve a chance encounter between the distressed protagonist and a sympathetic observer -- the widow and the mistress in BLUE, Karol and Mikolaj in WHITE, the retired judge and the model in RED. Both BLUE and WHITE are about people who move to new surroundings to escape from his or her troubled pasts. And RED, ironically, is about someone who never leaves his home in order to wallow in his self-pity.
Kieslowski had done this sort of thing before. In 1988, he "adapted" the Ten Commandments into ten one-hour, modern-day dramas, collectively titled DECALOGUE, that invite us to rethink the meanings of those principles. In the segment for "Thou Shalt Not Steal," for instance, we witness the kidnapping (the theft) of a child from her adopted parents by her natural mother, who thinks she has a right to her custody. Thus, it turns clear-cut moral ideals into real-world dramas that have no clear-cut solutions or judgments.
The THREE COLORS TRILOGY (as well as DECALOGUE) has the scope and richness that truly earn the films' standing as one of the high points of modern cinematic achievements.
Criterion Blu-ray edition of THREE COLORS offers an improved video transfer over the 2003 Miramax/Buena Vista DVD edition. This is not merely due to the inherent advantage of high-def over standard-def, but also to the fact that Criterion created new remastered transfers that look much better than the old transfers. The Buena Vista edition looks good for its time, but compared to Criterion's effort, the colors often look too warm and saturated, and details in the shadows are often obscured. In a trilogy where colors have great visual significance, the better video representation on the Criterion Blu-ray is much welcome and needed.
Criterion also offers DTS HD-MA 2.0 surround tracks for the three films, but you may need to do a bit of funky adjustments to get them to work. Note that these are 2.0, not 5.1 tracks. Criterion expects you to use Pro Logic Surround decoding on your audio receiver to turn the 2.0 tracks into surround tracks. However, older receivers, like mine, may not be able to apply Pro Logic to DTS audio. So what I did was I had my Blu-ray player first convert the DTS audio into PCM multi-channel audio and pass it to my receiver, and then I was able to apply Pro Logic to the PCM audio. To compound matters, the WHITE disc's surround audio was encoded incorrectly, yielding 1.0 mono after applying Pro Logic. Criterion is currently fixing this problem, and will offer a replacement in December to those who already bought the set. Contact Criterion's point man Jon Mulvaney ( email@example.com ) regarding the replacement. On the BLUE and RED discs, the surround tracks do work, and with much higher bit rate they do sound better than the surround tracks on the Buena Vista discs.
The fully-loaded Criterion set contains several new supplements, but is also missing a quite a few extras on the Buena Vista set.
Bad news first. The wonderful full-length audio commentaries by film professor Annette Insdorf on the Buena Vista set are gone. Also gone are most of the interviews done by MK2 (producer Marin Karmitz's company) in 2001, with actresses Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, and Irene Jacob, editor Jacques Witta (for BLUE), and Karmitz (for BLUE and WHITE). Most of the MK2 featurettes are also gone: "A Discussion on Kieslowski's Later Years", "A Discussion on Working with Kieslowski", "Behind the Scenes of White with Kieslowski", and "Behind the Scenes of Red with Kieslowski". Selected scenes commentaries by Delpy and Jacob are also gone. Also noticeably missing are two student films by Kieslowski: "Concert of Wishes" and "The Office". All these valuable video and audio extras are NOT on the Criterion set. Needless to say, those who have the Buena Vista set should probably hold on to it.
The Criterion set does retain some of the old extras. It does have several of the MK2 featurettes: "Kieslowski's Early Years", "Reflections on BLUE" (featuring the cast and crew, Insdorf, film critic Geoff Andrew, and film director Agnieszka Holland), Marin Karmitz's interview for RED, and Jacques Witta's interview for RED. It has Binoche's selected scenes commentary for BLUE. All the wonderful "cinema lessons" by Kieslowski are also retained. The footage of Kieslowski announcing his retirement at Cannes also, thankfully, survived the cut. Also retained are two of Kieslowski's student films, "The Tram" and "The Face", although the picture quality of "The Tram" is noticeably worse than that on the Buena Vista DVD, with more print damage and a much darker picture.
The all-new extras offered by Criterion are all excellent. Each film comes with a 22-minute "video essay", done by Insdorf for BLUE, film critic Tony Rayns for WHITE, and film writer Dennis Lim for RED. These segments are essentially audio commentaries with film clips and stills. While they are well-written and informative, they seem a little too terse, due to their short lengths, compared to Insdorf's full-length commentaries for the Buena Vista DVDs.
There are new interviews with composer Zbigniew Preisner, actors Delpy, Jacob, and Zbigniew Zamachowski, and screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Criterion usually does great interviews, and these are no exception. They are all more in-depth and comprehensive than their MK2 counterparts. They were all shot in 2011. Ten years after they were interviewed by MK2, their enthusiasm and admiration for Kieslowski's work are apparently unchanged.
There are also three wonderful documentaries not on the Buena Vista set. The 16-minute "Seven Women of Different Ages" (1978) shows seven ballet dancers in each day of the week, from a little ballerina to an old ballet teacher, subtly depicting the journey of a dancer and of life itself. "Talking Heads" (1980), running 12 minutes, interviews several people in the order of their ages about who they are and what they want to be; it brings to mind Michael Apted's UP documentaries. And there is a 1-hour documentary made for Danish TV in 1995 called "Krzysztof Kieslowski: I'm So-So", where the just-retired director reminisces about his career, from his early films to his later masterpieces, and we hear many of his pessimistic views about art, life, and politics. He concludes the film by saying, "To know is not my job. Not knowing is."
The Criterion set also offers a fairly substantial 75-page booklet that includes a 18-page excerpt from the book "Kieslowski on Kieslowski" as well as interviews of the three cinematographers of THREE COLORS. The last page of the booklet also mentions the fact that Pro Logic is needed to hear surround sound, as I mentioned above.
Yes, this Criterion Blu-ray edition is a pricey set, and, unlike the Buena Vista edition, the three films are not sold separately. But the strength of the video and audio qualities and the comprehensive supplements still make this a worthy purchase.