Appreciation: Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy

Be warned, this is not a formal review of these films. Consider this post to be only an appreciation; subjective and relatively non-critical. 

Although I don’t write as often I should on this blog, I assume that whoever is reading this knows that I am quite passionate about film in general. In fact, there was indeed a time when I dreamed about becoming a filmmaker, as I felt it was the one vocation that could manage to mend together my respect and admiration for photography and writing. Still to this day, even if my desires have somewhat been silenced by the reality of working in such an industry, I spend hours at times simply going through clips of my favorite films. It could be said that I revere these works so much that I wish, in some way, that I had been responsible for their creation in some other distant reality (quite selfish, I know). One example of the perpetuity of this sentiment, is the Three Colours Trilogy, directed by the brilliant and sometimes under-appreciated Polish filmmaker, Krzysztof Kieślowski.

The trilogy is dubbed as such, due to the title of the three films that comprise it: BlueWhite and Red. The titles are, according to what Kieślowski once said, simply a product of the fact that the films were financed with capital from France (blue, white and red being, of course, the main colours of the French flag).  Because of this, the trilogy encompasses the political ideals that make up the motto of the French Republic: liberty, equality and fraternity.

The man that created it all…

Krzysztof Kieślowski (1941-1996)

Krzysztof Kieślowski was born in 1941, in Warsaw, Poland. From the beginning of his career as a documentary filmmaker, Kieślowski seemingly always expressed an interest in telling stories that were shaped by the mundane aspects of life, all the while tackling the spectre that was Poland’s attachment to the Politburo of the Soviet Union. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, Kieślowski brought to life politically charged works that drew controversy from both the communist government and dissidents alike. Along the way, he would meet two of his most important collaborators: Krzysztof Piesiewicz ( a screenwriter) and Zbigniew Preisner ( a composer). With these two creative minds at his side, Kieślowski would go on to create, arguably, one of the most important television/short film mini-series to grace Polish television: The Decalogue. Highly acclaimed by critics still to this day, the series told 10 different stories –each relating to a single of the Ten Commandments– and centered itself, thematically speaking, within the home-rooted environment of a Warsaw tower block. The show sparked a great deal of professional admiration for Kieślowski. In a foreword to The Decalogue‘s screenplays, famed director Stanley Kubrick wrote: “…[Kieślowski and Piesiwicz] have the rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them.” Following the critical sucess of the show, Kieślowski, along with the collaboration of both Piesiewicz and Preisner, went on to direct The Double Life of Véronique, starring French actress Irène Jacob. Swept in romance, mysticism and sublime photography, the film started Kieślowski’s career and recognition in the United States and it went on to garner the Ecumenical Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1993, Kieślowski launched his most ambitious film project since The Decalogue by releasing Blue, the first film in the Three Colours Trilogy, starring famed French actress and Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche. All three of the films were released between 1993 and 1994 and would go on to receive critical acclaim amongst critics and judges worldwide. In fact, Red, the final film of the trilogy, would go on to be nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes and then be later honoured with three Academy Award nominations, for direction, screenwriting and cinematography. Fatigued by the creative demand of the project, Kieślowski, who could only be described as prolific since filming The Decalogue, would announce that the Three Colours Trilogy (which he shot in less than 10 months) would bring a conclusion to his career as a filmmaker. Despite this revelation, rumours persisted that he would inevitably return with something even more ambitious. Unfortunately, these hopes would be laid to rest in 1996, when Kieślowski passed away during open heart surgery, having previously suffered a heart attack. He was only 54.

Blue (1993)Let’s begin by clearing up something: Blue is my favourite of the trilogy. To add to that, I also believe it is the best of the three films, but that does not imply that White or Red are visibly inferior by any means. Blue, which feels as if it is bathed in some seemingly mystical shroud of romance, confusion and all-around melancholy, is a perfect example of how Kieślowski could capture the human condition like no other during his tenure. The film stars acclaimed French actress Juliette Binoche, who plays a woman trying to recover from the loss of both her husband and daughter in a car accident. Stricken with both grief and survivor’s guilt, Julie (Binoche) decides to disown herself from her past life and escape the pain of having to remember who she once was. As if under a trance, Julie spends the rest of the film trying to isolate herself from the world around her and focus on the minute details that make up her life; she moves out from her mansion and tries to pursue a minimalist life-style in a Parisan apartment, completely incognito. It’s hard to define any film as being perfect, but Blue, once you reflect deeply about it, is almost just that. Like The Double Life of Veronique, the film captures you almost instantly with its mood altering cinematography; the colours are livid and force you (gently, as if politely asking) to delve into the characters’ world and try to understand the emotions that come into play in the film. While watching it, you just can’t help but let yourself be dazzled by how the lighting not only brings emotion to a particular scene but also provides, along with the music, perspective within the narrative framework of the film. In a sense, the cinematography helps not only make Blue’s colour palette absolutely delectable, but also helps make the audience suspend their disbelief of the situations or characters, as the visceral nature of it all manages to deliver something real and emotive. What’s truly striking about the film is its musical score, composed by the great Zbigniew Preisner. Throughout the film, the music guides the audience and Julie through a whirlwind of emotions; the blaring trumpets startle us and awake Julie’s struggle of living with loss, while the haunting sounds of a single flute express a certain sense of renewal and rebirth, which Julie exhibits throughout her almost existential journey. And with that comes even more praise: Juliette Binoche is amazing in this film. Her ability to portray a woman who deals with obtaining liberty at the price of grief is memorable and touching. Through her solemn gazes and melancholic readings, Julie, the character, is brought to life in a memorable and poetic fashion.

White (1994)Out of the three films that make up the Three Colours Trilogy, White is seemingly always relegated to being the weakest. Perhaps this could be attributed to the fact that the film blends comedic elements into a storyline that is fundamentally concerned with the theme of equality and that because of this it feels out of place with the two films that precede and follow it. Though I feel that White is indeed my least favourite of the trilogy, it still happens to be a great film and feels perfectly at home with its other perhaps more serious counter-parts. The film stars Zbigniew Zamachowski in the role of Karol Karol, a Polish emigre who falls in love and marries a French woman named Dominique, played by Julie Delpy. The main body of the film begins in a Paris courtroom, where Karol pleads to a judge about his situation with his wife, who is asking for a divorce over the humiliating fact that the mariage had not yet been consummated. As the court favours Dominique’s plea, Karol is relegated to possessing nothing, as his wife, his home, his work and even his passport are taken away from him. Left to beg in the Paris Métro, Karol befriends another Pole named Mikołaj (Janusz Gajos), who proposes to help smuggle Karol back to Poland. Mikołaj also asks Karol if he would consider taking on the job of killing someone he knows, as the person in question is unable to go through with it himself. What follows suit is a classic tale of revenge, as Karol, the once abandoned emigre, rises to the top in his native Poland and plans to get back at his wife for having belittled his rights as not only a husband, but also a person. As you can assess from the description,White possesses a storyline that seems more cheeky than guttural, in comparison to Blue that is. With that said, the film is absolutely beautiful and manages to bring to life both humor and romance through its characters; Zamachowski plays on the image of the bumbling protagonist quite well, while Delpy does a good job of creating a character defined in tones of eroticism and power. As with the rest of the trilogy, the direction is fabulous and even resulted in Kieślowski garnering the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival. Though the cinematography for this film was done by Edward Klłosinski and not Blue’s Sławomir Idziak, the images that the film conjures are memorable and its aesthetic manages to add a dream like persona to the film. Although White is most likely not the strongest of the trilogy, it does manage to tell a relatively personal story and set it against a political backdrop that brings out the themes of equality and renewal quite effectively.

Red (1994)As Roger Ebert puts it in the poster, Red (like Blue) is an absolute “masterpiece.” In fact, it is considered by many to be the strongest of the trilogy, though I personally feel it comes a close second to Blue. The film stars the always radiant Irène Jacob as Valentine Dussaut, a model living in Geneva who is burdened with her busy lifestyle and infantile boyfriend, who lives abroad. One night, as Valentine drives home she accidentally runs over a dog with her car, while trying to adjust the radio. Stricken with guilt, Valentine tracks down the owner, a retired judge named Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Kern, who is indifferent to the fact that his dog has run away and come back injured, tells Valentine to simply leave, placing the burden of taking care of the dog on the young woman. The next day, as Valentine takes the dog out for a walk, it runs away and leads Valentine to Kern’s home. The two, isolated in their own ways, begin to then develop a relationship throughout the film and open up to each other, slowly but surely. One day, Valentine, using Kern’s (illegal) surveillance equipment, listens in on a phone call between a couple. Auguste Bruner (Jean-Pierre Lorit) and his girlfriend Karin (Frederique Feder) discuss going bowling on the phone, as Valentine unwillingly listens to it all (she covers her ears in revolt). Later on in the film, the relationship between Auguste and Karin deteriorates completely, as the former catches his girlfriend sleeping with another man one evening. As both Valentine and Auguste’s respective story-lines progress, they eventually cross paths, unknowingly, on a boat travelling to England. What transpires towards the end of the film can only be described as brilliant, as Red manages to tie together both Blue and White all the while preserving the main theme of fraternity. (That sounds awfully ambiguous, but I want to keep this spoiler-free). The beautiful thing about Red is that it manages to serve the viewer a message about the first two films of the trilogy all the while providing a perfect conclusion to a movie concerned with how inter-connected humans truly are. With that said, Red is an incredible end to an incredibly memorable trilogy. From the direction, which is impeccable, to the gorgeous and sometimes awe-inspiring  cinematography by Piotr Sobociński, Red is the kind of film any director would be happy to release as their last picture, simply out of the fear that they may never be able to replicate anything quite like it again. Though Kieślowski shines as usual, Irène Jacob manages to also give a quite moving and heat-felt performance. Though she may be less experienced than Juliette Binoche, Jacob holds this tenderness and beauty that is hard to ignore, resulting in you simply falling in love with her –at least I felt that way watching her in both this film and The Double Life of Veronique. Her revered co-star in the film, Jean-Louis Trintignant, also delivers a solid performance, as a stoic, yet compassionate, retired judge. Overall, the film is memorable and a fitting end to Kieślowski’s thematic trilogy.

It is by viewing movies such as the Three Colours Trilogy that I’ve developed a deep respect for film as an art form.  I enjoy watching movies not only because they provide a distraction from time to time, but because they are also able, when smartly written and directed, to feed our artistic and philosophic interests. They provide experiences and sensations that at times a mere photograph or painting can not. I know I may have already written enough, but let me say, with total confidence, that if you truly appreciate film then you will adore, if not then simply respect, these films and their creator.

The Cynical Scribe


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