Home Video Hovel- Three Colors
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy consists of the films Blue, White and Red. Those are, of course, the three colors of the French flag and the films are meant to each be inspired by one of the ideals of the French revolution. In order, they are liberty, equality and fraternity. Kieslowski implied later that those were not at the forefront of his mind and perhaps were even applied after the fact for the simple reason that the film was financed by French people (I believe he was being somewhat facetious, as those themes do surface notably). Yet Kieslowski did seem to demonstrate, both in his films and things he said, an affection for France, particularly in how they viewed cinema. All three of these films are set at least partially in France and the country can have no complaints about its portrayal.
Whether or not one can actually learn about liberty, equality and fraternity from these films, they are certainly about something, or more than one thing. Kieslowski was not coy when it came to making films that explored large topics. After all, this is a man who named two of his previous films A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. One way of looking at the trilogy is to focus on its depictions of women and men and the relationships between them. Blue’s main character is a woman and White’s is a man while Red can be seen as having two main characters, though the woman is more prominent. Even a cursory study of the films in this light reveals a clear bias towards the females. Even in White, where our sympathies are attached to the male lead, his indignities make him more pitiable than relatable.
The cultural legacy of the trilogy does not only have to do with their quality, which is immense, but also with who was behind their production and distribution. No two companies represent the post-Sundance world of independent and foreign films as seen in the U.S. more than Miramax and France’s Canal+, both of whom are connected to this trilogy. There was a time, especially for a film fan at my then young age, when either of those two logos at a movie’s start were a guarantor that one was about to see something that was, if not necessarily good, at least what the cool people were talking about.
Blue, released in 1993, is about liberty, no matter what Kieslowski would have you believe. But, like the other two films, it takes a darkly ironic approach to its theme. Juliette Binoche plays Julie, a woman who has recently been heartbreakingly liberated from her husband and daughter, both of whom perished in a car crash that she survived. She attempts to make that disconnection complete by beginning a new life that has as little as possible to do with the one that came to a quick, bleak end. Of course, that proves impossible to do, making the point that a person’s past becomes irreversibly a part of her for the rest of her life. Kieslowski also fascinatingly contrasts Julie’s apparently selfish reaction to a man who was her husband’s friend. His actions seem altruistic at the outset but become more exploitatively selfish as the film goes on.
White, released in 1994, is similarly cynical and mocking in its treatment of the equality theme. It explores a man who is robbed of his equality, first in his marriage when his wife divorces him and then financially when he loses all his money. The humorous thing about this is that it compares equality to revenge. What is revenge, after all, other than the act of making things even? Kieslowski extends his reach to political and economic equality when he relocates the film to his native Poland. Comparing the image of a thriving France with a country still emerging from communism and teeming with opportunism makes for a depressing, if witty, contrast.
Red, also released in 1994, is perhaps more straightforward in its theme of fraternity than its predecessors are with their subjects. As the story of a young woman named Valentine who strikes up a reluctant and often contentious friendship of sorts with her cantankerous neighbor, it explores what it means to coexist with the people in your apartment building, your city, your nation. Furthermore, the film’s motif of the law (the neighbor in question is a judge and another neighbor, Auguste, is studying to become one) introduces the notion that we are only able to live together, to fraternize, because of the legal guidelines we’ve put in place. Kieslowski returns to his natural pessimism, though, when Red ultimately illustrates that enforcement of those guidelines remains at the whim of humans and thus is always fallible.
The presentation of the above films and their themes is masterful. Kieslowski, in his assuredness as a director, is comparable to the greats from Hitchcock to Cronenberg. He oversees not only the performances and the construction of the story but also some of the career best work from all three of his directors of photography. Piotr Sobocinski (Ron Howard’s Ransom) shot Red. Edward Klosinski (Lars von Trier’s Europa) shot White. And Blue was shot by Slawomir Idziak, with whom Kieslowski had worked on a number of earlier projects, including The Double Life of Veronique and whose work in the ensuing years with Andrew Niccol (Gattaca), Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down) and David Yates (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) likely secures him a slot as one of the all-time greats in his field.
In addition to their playful, if slightly misanthropic, riffs on the three French ideals, these films are further tied together by their delightful antagonism to their own genres. I’m nowhere near being the first person to point this out but it’s worthwhile to take note of. Blue is a tragedy that isn’t really tragic. White is a comedy that isn’t really comedic (especially once you reach the end). And Red is a romance that isn’t really romantic. In a series of films that features only the most minute overlap of characters, this is one of the most important aspects that make it a trilogy. Of course, the other thing that Blue, White and Red all have in common is that they are absolutely essential cinema.
The features on the set are phenomenal. They include a feature length documentary on Kieslowski as well as numerous contributions from his collaborators, like Binoche, Julie Delpy, Agnieszka Holland and Idziak. There are also essays, both video ones on the disc and written ones in the booklet, with a multitude of film writers. Most importantly, there are three short films by Kieslowski. That’s just some of what is offered. This is a set you should own.
“All three of these films are set at least partially in Paris…” but which bit of Three Colours Red was set in Paris? I only recognized the Carouge district of Geneva and La Manche where the ferry incident occurs.
Blue is all about the lack of liberty, not liberty.
All three films are to do with connections between people, irrespective of gender. The law connection is a hommage to his co-scriptwriter Piesiewicz and little to do with these films, unless you mean law beyond the human kind as portrayed by Kieslowski in his earlier Decalogue in which case you’ve touched onto a good point. Invisible laws of chance and unknowns, that we might not be aware of.
The judge and Valentine are neighbours? Erm, they do live two miles away from each other… 🙂 but I suppose you are right there.
You’re right. I should have said “at least partially set in France.” I’ve updated the post. Thanks for the heads up.
I used the term “neighbors” because I was talking about the “fraternity” theme. Perhaps it was a stretch but I think, for the purposes of my interpretation, it’s a fitting word.