An Appreciation – The Three Colors Trilogy
One of the most fascinating examinations involving the mystery of human connection comes from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94). The three films (Blue, White, and Red) signify the tenets of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. But that doesn’t begin to describe what these stories are like and how they seemingly relate, despite being separate from one another. Kieslowski takes these themes and molds them in a fashion different than what one may expect. These grand ideas are deeply focused toward personal and intimate stories, involving singular characters dealing with tremendous emotional adversity. In setting his films in a more grounded environment, Kieslowski enables us to connect with them in regards to love, life, and the invisible ties between strangers. Life is short, often times beautiful, and—on occasion—hilariously absurd. Kieslowski knew this, and depicted it in arguably one of the best trilogies ever made.
Three Colors would mark the peak of Kieslowski’s artistic height, and also its end. After Red was released in 1994, Kieslowski would announce his retirement, fully content to step away from the cinema. He would die two years later. But what he left was a catalogue of endlessly intriguing work that only got better as his career went on. Kieslowski was raised and taught in Poland, during the height of the Communist era. Much of his earlier work involved satires of the ruling government. But when the Cold War and Communism fell, Kieslowski turned his gaze toward characters in search of deeper meaning, of transcendence, even if they didn’t know how or where to find it. Often collaborating with his writing partner, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Kieslowski’s later work would involve ideas hinted at, but not readily apparent. The Decalogue (1989-90) was a TV miniseries of ten one-hour films, each based on one of the Ten Commandments, although it’s difficult to decipher which commandment goes with which film. In The Double Life of Veronique (1991), the actress Irene Jacob plays two different characters somehow connected by an unseen bond.
This is what Kieslowski was so good at: creating human stories filled with an aura of the unknown. He always leaves us wondering about the subtext, but provides enough to give us our own interpretation. Three Colors is no different. The first installment, Blue, tells of a woman’s desperate struggle to move on from terrible heartbreak. Juliette Binoche gives one of the best performances of her career as Julie, the lone survivor of a car accident that took the lives of her child and musical composer husband. Flipping the idea of “Liberty,” we watch as Julie does everything she can to be free of her past. She sells her family’s home, moves into an apartment, and tries to get rid of all of her possessions, including her husband’s unfinished music. But all the while, she is nearly consumed by the tragedy, often startled awake by the memory of her husband’s compositions (the score was wonderfully created by Zbigniew Preisner). Julie is a musical person herself, and clues indicate that she may have had a hand in helping with her husband’s success.
What Julie desires most is the ability to feel again. She was so in love with her family that her loss left her numb and near emotionless. But as Kieslowski moves the story along, we sense that Julie begins to reach out again, even if it is cautiously. This comes in the most surprising of places, especially with her husband’s friend and colleague Olivier (Benoit Regent). Olivier tracks Julie down, asking her to help him finish her husband’s music. Not only does this help her focus on something other than her family, it contributes to her interacting with others again. These people include her next-door neighbor (who moonlights at a rundown sex club), a young boy who was the sole witness to Julie’s accident, and—of all people—her husband’s mistress, whom Julie has recently discovered. One can only imagine how Julie’s world is turned sideways at this new revelation—everything she once thought to be true was a façade. But how does Julie react to it? By selling her home to her husband’s mistress! Julie wants to shed her past so much that she is willing to give up her old home to the very woman her husband was secretly involved with. She so wants to feel anything that she sleeps with Olivier, not because she’s in love with him, but because she needs a physical and emotional release from her pain.
Blue is a devastating look at freeing oneself from grief. There is much sadness, but at the end there is a level of catharsis, even if we aren’t sure Julie has quite reached her own happy ending. In the second film of the trilogy, White, Kieslowski’s switches the tone to make a darkly comic story of revenge. The theme of “Equality” is defined here as “getting even.” We are introduced to a lowly Polish hairdresser, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), in the middle of a personal crisis. His French wife, Dominique (Julie Delpy), has filed for divorce, citing that they have never consummated their marriage. Even worse, she blocked all of his credit cards, and frames him with burning down their hair salon. At his lowest point, Karol finds himself on the street, playing music with his comb in an attempt to make enough money to get back to Poland. But in Kieslowski’s world, what goes around comes around, and Karol’s journey to self-improvement (and finally to equal footing with Dominique) is funny while also being strangely moving.