TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 3 June 2016
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s magnificent Three Colours Trilogy is one of the outstanding achievements in cinema and deserves to take its place alongside his equally amazing series of TV films based on the Ten Commandments entitled Dekalog. Dekalog came out in 1988 and Three Colours Red in 1994. That means the director made 14 films (16 if we include the Dekalog spin-offs A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love) in 6 years, an extraordinary outburst of high quality artistic creativity unparalleled anywhere else. Not surprisingly perhaps considering Kieślowski’s hectic suicidal working habits (at one point he was editing Blue, shooting White and writing Red at the same time!), within two years the great man was dead.
Actually, the Trilogy is not so much to be set beside Dekalog as to be set after it, as a continuation of that project’s ethical inquiry. Kieślowski’s films changed dramatically when he started to work with Krzysztof Piesiewicz on No End in 1984. Suddenly the tone became metaphysical with a stress on the inner lives of the protagonists concerned and an insistence on asking those fundamental questions about human existence - “What is the true meaning of life? Why get up in the morning? What, in essence, is right and what is wrong? What is a lie and what is truth? What is honesty and what is dishonesty? And what should one’s attitude to life be?” (Kieślowski). It was Piesiewicz who suggested Kieślowski do Dekalog and it was he who also suggested making three films based on the tricolour of the French flag, each colour representing an ideal of the French Revolution – blue for liberty, white for equality and red for fraternity. Piesiewicz’s idea was to make a film where “the commanding dictums of Dekalog are understood in a wider context” (Kieślowski). The director tells Danusia Stok (in the highly recommended book Kieślowski on Kieślowski [Faber]), “Why not try to see how the Ten Commandments function today, what our attitude to them is and how the three words liberty, equality and fraternity function today? – on a very human, intimate and personal plane and not a philosophical let alone a political or social one…The West has implemented these three concepts on a political or social plane, but it’s an entirely different matter on the personal plane. And that’s why we thought of these films.”
All three films of the Trilogy undeniably follow through this examination “on the personal plane” in three gripping and superbly executed human dramas, but politics and society do form the back-drop to everything we see. Most obviously the Trilogy is a response to (and an expression of) the unification of Europe following the collapse of Communism in 1989. Blue is set in Western Europe, White is set mainly in Eastern Europe, and Red is set in politically (and historically) neutral Switzerland, the home of international law which legislates for a whole continent. Taken together the films constitute a fundamentally positive celebration of the unification of Europe with all the key protagonists negotiating a way out of their various personal impasses to face up to a bright and positive future. This really was as Europe stood at the end of the 20th century before the darkness set in with 9/11.
It might seem portentous (as well as an example of cynical commercial expediency) to make a trilogy of films based on abstract ideals connected with a country’s flag (the very country that provides the finance), but there’s no denying the fact that the French Revolution was a defining event in European history which saw the birth of modern society as we know it, and the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity have endured down the years as very potent ideals which we all live with whether we consciously realize it or not. Kieślowski and Piesiewicz couldn’t have picked a better symbol really for describing Europe at this critical juncture after the collapse of Communism and it is very interesting how they have approached an understanding of the ideals in each film. They do so by exploring them as contradictions. Blue (liberty) presents the impossibility of any one person ever being absolutely free as the heroine Julie (Juliette Binoche) makes a bid for absolute freedom by cutting everybody and everything off following the loss of her husband and daughter in a car crash, but is reigned back by fear, past memories, other people who won’t leave her alone and by jealousy. White (equality) posits the truism that actually nobody wants to be equal. They simply want to be more equal. Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) approaches self-redemption by seeking equality with his wife Dominique (Julie Delpy) to find he succeeds only at being ‘more equal.’ Red (fraternity) is concerned centrally with the impossibility of any one person being self-less. We only help and get along with others in order to help and get along with ourselves. The model Valentine (Irène Jacob) helps a sick dog and drags its misanthropic owner back to humanity in order to make up for the desire to help her drug addict brother and establish a father figure she does not have. At the same time this misanthropic owner – the omniscient retired judge Joseph Kern (Jean Louis Trintignant) – ‘plays [the Old Testament] God’ to the people living around him. He ‘helps’ others as a means of helping Himself.
Following the pattern of Dekalog Kieślowski chose a different lighting cameraman for each of his films. Sławomir Idziak (who had shot Dekalog 5 and The Double Life of Véronique) shot Blue, Edward Kłosiński (Dekalog 2) shot White, and Piotr Sobociński (Dekalog 3 and 9) shot Red. Each cinematographer was instructed to feature their respective colour strongly in their work to emphasize the focus on each respective ideal. This is done not so much through the use of filters, but more by the placement of objects and use of locations with the requisite colour prominently displayed. Apart from giving each film a unique feeling, what is interesting is the way red, white and blue are combined throughout all three films.
Blue is very ‘blue’, but there is barely a shot which doesn’t also feature white and red as well. In a swimming pool scene which starts completely blue a group of kids run in dressed in white swimsuits with red floats on their arms. Of course Blue is set wholly in France, the land of liberty, equality and fraternity and in the story we see all three ideals and their colours mixing together. We are encouraged to speculate on the way each one is integrated into the central story. True, Julie seeks for absolute liberty in her neurasthenic behavior, but equality is also suggested by her extremely generous charity and her refusal to put herself either above or below any of the people around her. Fraternity is suggested by a world which stubbornly clings on to her despite all her attempts to cut herself away. She wants to be like a sky diver plunging through life unattached to anything, but the film shows images which highlight the restraints binding her to humanity more and more – the strings holding her blue mobile ornament from the ceiling, the rope holding the bungee jumpers we see on TV, and the lines of music notation which tie her to her past and cry out to be completed. The score (a Concerto for the Unification of Europe) left by her dead composer-husband comes together as a harmony of different chords, which echoes the harmony of the various people she meets who drag her back to the fraternity of the human race. The film’s concluding montage is on one level a statement of all three ideals (fraternity above the other two perhaps) as we ‘hear’ a Europe unite through love which translates in the context of the film as the surrender of liberty.
White is very ‘white’ with both blue and red relegated to minor but fascinating roles. Indeed, to highlight the whiteness (Karol’s obsession with seeking ‘equality’ with Dominique) black is accentuated both visually and in the script which works as a dead pan black comedy. Karol begins the film crushed, impotent, penniless and dispossessed on the streets of Paris. In this opening 20 minute section the colour scheme is much the same as Blue with all three colours appearing at the same time. Karol’s loss of liberty is expressed by the loss of his credit card (coloured blue of course). When he and Dominique meet in court both are wearing burgundy red sweaters (they are not divorced yet) and this is echoed later in Poland when the nouveaux riche Karol drives a burgundy red Volvo to express another kind of fraternity with his company and his workers. He reaches absolute rock bottom after he is released from the suitcase in which he has been smuggled back to Poland, only the case has been stolen and he gets beaten up by thieves on a snow-bound rubbish dump which represents his homeland (“Jesus, home at last,” he says). The severe black and white composition (the sky is always white in this film) highlights the inequality which he sets about righting in the film’s middle act. He does so through a combination of self help and the fraternal help of others. His friend Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos) agrees to take him back to Poland and then later provides him with money to start a business. This is subtly expressed through coloured scarves. When Mikolaj offers to help the destitute Karol he is wearing a red scarf (he is offering fraternity), but when he meets Karol later to gain his ‘liberty’, his scarf is blue. Also offering fraternity is Karol’s brother Jurek (Jerzy Stuhr) who initially takes him in after his suitcase ordeal. The neon sign above his barber shop is noticeably both red and white (the fraternity of brothers who are now equal), but the film’s dominant black and white highlights Kieslowski’s concern with the ‘get rich quick’ materialism that swept Poland in the aftermath of the end of Communism, everyone wanting to be more equal than everyone else. The colour white literally blinds us on three occasions – twice on a repetition of a flashback (which could also be a flash-forward) to Karol’s wedding to Dominique where they are ‘equal’ before the Lord and once when Karol finally succeeds in bringing Dominique to orgasm. But this equality is both brief and illusory, the ideal proving to be as impossible to achieve as liberty was in Blue.
Red is of course very ‘red’ and white also plays a prominent part, but blue is entirely omitted, the idea being there is no liberty for these characters trapped into repeating the same narrative cycles over and over again. Here we return to the world of Irène Jacob as encapsulated in The Double Life of Véronique with a highlighting of binary relationships and the doubling of characters, props and events under the auspices of one over-riding creative artist/Godlike doppelgänger figure in retired Judge Joseph Kern. He sees himself in the character of young recently qualified Judge Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) and the lost love of his life (the reason for his misanthropy) first in the character of weather forecaster Karin (Frédérique Feder) and then in Valentine, his ideal partner born 40 years too late. The way all of these characters interact shows a gradual progression from complete isolation from each other at the beginning to eventual complete fraternal bonding at the end, the film’s final denouement shown as being determined by our omniscient Judge Joseph who plays God to a universe in which nobody is free (the absence of blue), everyone is equal under ‘His’ law with white accompanying red throughout. This is seen especially by the huge red poster featuring Valentine modelling chewing gum which when torn down turns out to be white on the reverse side, the red and white Marlboro cigarettes which Auguste smokes and the red and white mise-en-scène of the theatre where Valentine’s final fashion show is staged (red seats, white ceiling). During the crucial conversation between the Judge and Valentine a storm blows up and blinding white light enters through opened doors and billowing curtains. The Judge’s disclosure of his past leads to an equality between two kindred spirits born at the wrong time for each other, and yet there is still time for ‘God’ to engineer a positive outcome for the girl who lives in an apartment above a café which bears His name. But what of His motivations? Does He do good for altruistic reasons, or does He do good simply to make Himself happy? True, the protagonists of all three films are allowed the possibility at least of a bright positive future, but this is engineered at the expense of many lives which evidently lie outside His concern. This is the discriminating Old Testament God here who gives and takes away for no apparent reason so making for an unequal world. True fraternity turns out to be as illusory as true liberty and true equality.
Retired Judge Joseph Kern is the last in a line of omniscient God-like artistic creator doppelgänger narrators in Kieślowski’s films. They all represent a higher power controlling everything we see from above. Other narrators were the dead husband in No End, the ‘young man’ who appears every time a crucial decision has to be made in Dekalog, and the puppeteer who uses/creates the lives of Weronika/Véronique in The Double Life of Véronique. This higher power is wielded by the lawyer-writer Piesiewicz and the director Kieślowski, the Gods of the narrative we see. They voice a thicket of ethical dilemmas centered on the enduring question of how we should all best live our lives. In Blue the dilemma is how should Julie lead her life when every reason for living has been removed? She has no husband or child to take care of and is affluent enough not to need to work or indeed to interact at all with anyone anymore. Why get out of bed every morning? Why live at all? Her rich inheritance including music which she may or may not have part-composed raises questions of what is actually hers. Is it ethical to live a dead person’s life and to complete a dead person’s music? In White the dilemma is how should Karol react to being dispossessed in a foreign land where things are basically unequal, and when he returns to Poland there is a complete lack of ethics in the way people spy, lie and cheat to ‘get rich quick’ in a bid to out-equal each other. Is it ethical that one wrong perpetrated on Karol in a foreign land be cancelled out with another wrong perpetrated by Karol on Dominique as revenge? Do two wrongs make a right and can the protagonists involved ever be happy let alone equal? In Red ethical questions multiply and rebound on all the characters. Ethically, what is the difference between spying on people legally through the power of the law granted to a magistrate, and a Peeping Tom spying on neighbors illegally? Ethically, how good is an act of kindness if by being kind you are mainly helping yourself (as Valentine does through picking up the dog) or even worse, destroying other people’s lives (as she almost does when she approaches a happy family to tell them they are being spied on)? Ethically, is it right that one man (the Judge representing Switzerland, the home of European law) should rule omnipotent and omniscient over everyone (the whole of Europe), deciding who survives and who dies, who prospers and who fails, who is impotent and who is potent, who loses everything and who gains the world? The questions asked by Judge Kern in Red reverberate strongly over all three films in the Trilogy giving it a unity which on casual examination may seem lacking.
It has been suggested that the Trilogy represents the world as it is seen by narrative art in toto – Blue is anti-tragedy, White is anti-comedy and Red is anti-romance and although the stories of all three only come together right at the end of Red, all three are bound tightly together in a subtle repetition of ideas, motifs, situations, binary repetitions and subliminal connections which rebound throughout. These are films which can be watched a thousand times and still offer up something new, some revelatory nuance which has been missed before. Kieślowski and Piesiewicz avoid spelling things out overtly and encourage us to enter their world both intellectually and intuitively – “You make films to give people something, to transport them somewhere else, and it doesn’t matter if you transport them to a world of intuition or a world of the intellect” (Kieślowski). How one responds to these films then is very much a personal reaction, one determined by our own life-experiences which Kieślowski and Piesiewicz want us to bring to bear on our response.
I will examine each film in greater detail later under each individual title, but here I will address just a few of the themes, ticks and tropes which reoccur and bind the films very tightly together as a Trilogy. All three films begin and end the same way. They open with the visualization of abstract mechanisms which course under our everyday existence – Blue opens with flashing lights whizzing past as seen from beneath a car driving through a tunnel, White opens on a carousel in an airport bearing a suitcase through subterranean tunnels headed for an un-stated destination, and Red opens with a phone call leading to the camera hurtling down telephone lines across Europe, under the sea to be met by an engaged signal on the other end. Immediately all three films force us to question what courses beneath our seemingly benign everyday lives. The films finish on three of our key protagonists in tears looking through glass. To say why they are in tears would be to say too much here, but suffice to say all three scenes confirm the impossibilities of the three ideals the films are centrally about. The glass is part of the intricate mise-en-scène of all three films wherein characters are forever seen doubled through windows, mirrors and other reflective surfaces. All three films feature nervous, sensitive protagonists who have great intuition. Blue and White feature liberty and equality which are individual traits and Julie and Karol both face up to their ethical dilemmas and emerge ready to live another day even if liberty and equality are both shown to be illusory. Red features fraternity which is a group trait, not an individual one and features two protagonists (Valentine and Judge Joseph) who are no less intuitive and also face up to their dilemmas which eventually turn out to be a shared one. All three films feature the legal process very strongly. Each one has a crucial court room scene and in Blue and White, the protagonists of both films briefly appear in the other’s films as Julie mistakenly enters the courtroom where Karol and Dominique’s divorce case is being heard. In addition to courthouse scenes we are also given other lawyers who are charged with carrying out the protagonists’ lives. Julie’s lawyer (Pierre Forget) is charged with dispensing her estate while Karol’s lawyer (Aleksander Bardini, also the lawyer in No End!) is charged with changing his will. Red is most lawyer-bound of all as two of the main protagonists are judges.
All three films show characters negotiating new lives, but retaining objects from their past. In Blue Julie retains a large blue mobile which recurs as an important visual motif throughout. We connect it to her lost daughter, but we could also connect it to her own childhood. In White Karol takes back to Poland a 2 Franc coin and a plaster cast of Marianne which in his imagination becomes Dominique. Both represent the key motivation for his search for equality – to get rich quick and to win back his love. In Red the judge has retained a fountain pen which had been given him by his lost love and which symbolically stops working as he consciously changes his life. This is echoed in Red by Karin giving Joseph’s doppelgänger Auguste another fountain pen. Also present in all three films is a scene of an old person trying unsuccessfully to put a bottle into a bottle bank, the reaction of our three protagonists demonstrating the respective ideal each one is concerned with. Julie doesn’t notice the old woman in the spirit of freedom, Karol laughs cynically at an old men being as ‘low’ as he is in the spirit of equality, and Valentine happily helps an old woman in the spirit of fraternity. In addition to windows and mirrors, broken glass is a re-occurring feature especially in Blue (the window Julie breaks in her bid to commit suicide and the blue glass she tears from her mobile in a moment of grief) and in Red (a broken beer glass in a bowling alley which suggests a dispute between August and Karin and the judge’s windows which are broken by stones thrown by his neighbors). Unifying (and perhaps anchoring) the Trilogy are Biblical references (I Corinthians 13 set to music at the end of Blue, Matthew quoted in Red) and Preisner’s music which moves from a full blown concerto for 13 symphony orchestras and massed choir in Blue (music is a very important structural element of this film in particular) through a deliciously lop-sided tango for the blackly comic shenannigins of White to a hypnotic Bolero for Red. At one point in Red Valentine visits a record shop and amidst the cacophony of different music being listened to by customers we can make out the music from all three films which are ascribed to a certain ‘Van den Budenmajer’, the nom de plume used by Preisner ever since Dekalog 9 where we first met the name.
What really puts the central examination of liberty, equality and fraternity on a personal plane (one everyone can relate to) is the way the dilemmas faced by the protagonists stem from sexual infidelity and the problems of sexual compatibility in general. Searching to live up to these ideals is shown to be incompatible with successful love wherein people can be truly happy. Kieślowski and Piesiewicz taking their cue from F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1928) perhaps through Erich Rohmer’s Moral Tales, this is the biggest theme which sears through the Trilogy gluing all three films seamlessly together. In Blue Julie finds out her husband had been having an affair with Sandrine (yet another lawyer!). In White Karol’s impotence causes Dominique to desert him for other men. In Red sexual infidelity has turned the judge into a misanthrope with August playing his doppelgänger forced into playing Peeping Tom as he watches another man between Karin’s legs. Fear of infidelity looms over Valentine’s relationship with her absent boyfriend who makes annoying accusatory phone calls. This theme is visualized by making the faithful ‘good’ characters (Julie, Valentine) dark haired and the unfaithful libidinous ‘bad’ characters (Sandrine and Lucille in Blue, Dominique in White, Karin in Red) all blonds. Kieślowski and Piesiewicz must have been bitten by blonds in a previous life as all the libidinous characters throughout Dekalog are also blond. Revealingly, the infidelities depicted in these films have both positive and negative effects. Julie’s discovery causes painful jealousy, but it wrenches her back to join the real world. She learns to love again by giving up her liberty. Karol’s humiliation leads to eventual rejuvenation (a surge back to potency) and a corresponding rejection of the pursuit of equality. August’s cuckolding combined with tensions in Valentine’s relationship effect the possibility of a start of a new relationship between the two as they meet after the disaster. This consummates the judge’s life-long desire to unite with his true love through his doppelgänger, but at the expense of hundreds of lives and the rejection of the possibility of true fraternity for all. In the end true love wins through even if it is a prison which makes liberty, equality and fraternity impossibilities and a world where man and woman can only perceive each other at best “through a glass darkly.” This is movingly conveyed in the image of Julie and Olivier (man and woman) making love through glass to these exact words from Corinthians 13 at the end of Blue and then confirmed in the final but one image of Red as the judge cries through the glass of a broken window.
I want to finish by stressing how open-ended these wonderful films are and how wary we should be to try to interpret things too definitely. Much is mysterious, opaque and difficult to read, especially I would say Red where the metaphysics become particularly labyrinthine with subtle doubling and binary combinations reflecting on many different levels both in the deeply resonant script and in the complex visuals. To take one example, one possibility is that August doesn’t actually exist, that he is Joseph’s alter-ego posited by him to correct a mistake he made in the past. Like the greatest art these films merit the closest attention and will give up different things as one travels through life. Everyone is encouraged to watch and bring their own experiences to the table to understand the incredible richness of what Kieślowski has set before us. This is pretty much as good as cinema gets.
THREE COLOURS BLUE
(1993, France, 94 minutes, colour, Dolby Digital 5.0, Enhanced for wide screens, French language / English subtitles)
EXTRAS: Kieślowski masterclass / Interviews with Juliette Binoche, Jacques Witta (editor), Marin Karmitz (producer) / 3 extracts from Zbigniew Preisner’s soundtrack score
THREE COLOURS WHITE
(1994, France, 88 minutes, colour, Dolby Digital 5.0, Enhanced for wide screens, French & Polish languages / English subtitles)
EXTRAS: Kieślowski masterclass / Interviews with Julie Delpy, Marin Karmitz (producer) / Making of documentary / 3 extracts from Zbigniew Preisner’s soundtrack score
THREE COLOURS RED
(1994, France, 95 minutes, colour, Dolby Digital 5.0, Enhanced for wide screens, French language / English subtitles)
EXTRAS: Kieślowski masterclass / Interviews with Irène Jacob, Jacques Witta (editor), Marin Karmitz (producer) / Kieślowski at Cannes 1994 / Making of documentary / 3 extracts from Zbigniew Preisner’s soundtrack score
I’M SO SO…
(1995, Denmark / Poland, 55 minutes, colour, Dolby Digital 2.0, aspect ratio: 4:3, Polish language / English subtitles)