Kieslowski's "Three Colors"

The trilogy reappears on Blu-ray editions on both sides of the Atlantic.
David Hudson

Over the next few weeks, we're going to be hearing quite a bit about Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy — Blue (1993), White (1994) and Red (1994) — on both sides of the Atlantic. On Friday, the Guardian will begin streaming all three films in the UK and Eire, and you can read about the concurrent live-blogging sessions here. On Tuesday, Criterion will release the trilogy on DVD and Blu-ray and, on November 21, Artificial Eye will follow with its R2 Blu-ray package.

The Guardian has set up a special section on trilogy, gathering several related reviews and interviews it's run over the years. Dipping in, we can begin with Richard Williams, who wrote in 2006, "When Krzysztof Kieslowski died on March 13, 1996, it was as though a certain kind of cinema had come to an end along with him. The calm, reflective, compassionate gaze he brought to bear on the dilemmas faced by his characters made him the most humanistic of film directors." Audiences "felt they were watching the patient investigation of aspects of their own existences. 'That was the whole secret of Krzysztof,' I was told after his death by Zbigniew Preisner, a close collaborator who composed the music that became such a salient feature of Kieslowski's best-known works. 'People felt close to him through his films.'"

The day after Kieslowski's death, Derek Malcolm wrote, "His late discovery by the world at large as one of the few European directors capable of measuring up to the giants of the past was both a huge chance and considerable burden for him. He took his sudden fame and good fortune with the same stoicism as the difficulties of working under Poland's communist regime. He hated doing endless interviews and circling the festivals as a star guest. He constantly talked of retirement. But, as a fatalist, he reckoned that to be fashionable was temporary and that it was incumbent upon him to seize the day and make the best of it."

Three years earlier, Malcolm had written, "He won a share of Venice's Golden Lion (with Altman's forthcoming Short Cuts) for Three Colors Blue, the first of a new trilogy exploring the present meaning of the French Revolution's liberty, equality and fraternity. And, without doubt, he has made another brilliantly fashioned tale to put beside The Decalogue and The Double Life of Veronique…. Three Colors Blue has Juliette Binoche as the wife of a prominent European composer, who goes into a mourning which denies everything about her old life, when a hideous car crash kills both her husband and her child. Her attempts to avoid the traps of going backwards or forwards in her life — which include the discovery of her husband's mistress, and the discovery by others of an uncompleted and bombastic Concerto for Europe which only she can finish are in the end, abortive. But the film suggests that she has still found a new kind of freedom, even that born of emptiness and despair. What brings her back is first and foremost the music, from which she can never wholly escape."

When Blue was released in the UK, Jonathan Romney interviewed Kieslowski, arguing first that he "belongs in the lineage of Bergman and Tarkovsky, who figure in his own pantheon. He is another of those northern directors whose austerity suggests an uncompromising vision with transcendental import. A former documentarist, he made films in the 1970s and 1980s that dealt directly with the hard political realities of everyday life in Poland, notably Blind Chance and No End. But it was The Decalogue's more abstract moral concern that put him on the world map as an object of auteur adulation."

In 1994, Malcolm wrote that White "is the easiest of the three films to negotiate but by no means the least in weight. It's the kind of comedy only a hopeful pessimist could have made and, if that sounds like a contradiction in terms, you don't know Kieslowski very well…. Its central character is a Polish version of the eternal little man, in this case a mild-mannered hairdresser (Zbigniew Zamachowski) whose work to establish himself in Paris is rudely aborted by his French wife (Julie Delpy) suing him for the non-consummation of their recent marriage…. The film, like most of Kieslowski's which deal with Poles and Poland, is less headily stylish than Blue or Red, made in France and Switzerland respectively. But it feels somehow truer, as if the director instinctively knows how his characters should react and can thus afford a more direct, less elliptical approach."

A few months later, Malcolm argued that "Red's ending is more of a clever conceit than a satisfactory completion to this particular tale. We begin to see the artifice within the art. The film concerns a young student-cum-model (Irène Jacob) who, having knocked over a dog in her car, takes it back to its owner. He is an elderly, retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who is not much concerned about the animal and would prefer not to be disturbed…. Red is essentially about the burgeoning relationship between the old judge and the young girl, created by chance and moulded by circumstances well outside each other's control." In December 1994, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote at length about Red and its critical reception.

In 2000, Akin Ojumu spoke with Jacob about Red, but back in 1994, Simon Hattenstone met Kieslowski and declared, "After a few minutes, I begin to feel I'm interviewing Beckett's Vladimir, or a Rubic Cube." Kieslowski has just insisted that filmmaking is "not an honorable profession." Hattenstone: "Kieslowski not only leaves us to interpret the films, he leaves us to complete them. As Stanley Kubrick says in his foreword to the screenplay of The Dekalog: 'You never see the ideas coming and don't realize until much later how profoundly they have reached your heart.'"

Update, 11/10: For the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, "there is a definite touch of dinner-party trendiness that clings to the memory of these movies now, together with a touch of critical doubt, a suspicion that the Three Colors were contrived, over-determined, self-conscious and slow. When the third of these films, Three Colors: Red, was beaten for the Palme D'Or at the 1994 Cannes film festival by Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, it was a real market correction for a certain type of high arthouse cinema. Well, the bygone hype that once surrounded the Three Colors may have dated. But watched again sympathetically, the movies themselves stand up, not as the dreamy conversation-pieces of a thousand studenty parties – with blokes pretending to like them to impress their dates – but as an operatic triptych, a dramatic cine-poem of intense strangeness, indulgent and confident, set somewhere which looks like the real world, but isn't."

Update, 11/13: "Taken together, the films of Three Colors are amplified, but each stands alone," writes Sheri Linden for the Los Angeles Times. "Working with his longtime creative collaborators — screenwriting partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz and composer Zbigniew Preisner — Kieslowski used a different cinematographer for each installment, creating disparate visual schemes. The chromatic motifs are no gimmick but an expression of heightened receptivity, the stories told from within the prisms of their characters' emotions: the blue crystals of a mobile that once hung in a child's room; the white of a wedding veil and of the car in which the bride drives away, alone; and the red that courses through characters' crisscrossing paths in a story of connections, both missed and inescapable."

Update, 11/14: "The Three Colors Trilogy marked the culmination a decade of collaborations between director Krzysztof Kieslowski and composer Zbigniew Preisner," writes Kieslowski scholar Nicholas Reyland in the Guardian. "Their film work is characterized by musical moments which illuminate the story and open up channels of interpretation between the work and the audience. These are cinematic narratives — as Stanley Kubrick once said of Kieslowski's The Decalogue — which dramatize ideas, rather than merely talk about them. Preisner's music is central to that process." And he talks us through "a few key musical moments to listen out for in Blue, White and Red."

Updates, 11/15: "Red ultimately culminates with a note of tentative optimism, not just for the protagonists of this film but for those of the entire trilogy," writes Georgina Evans for Criterion. "The final scene of Red lends the Three Colors trilogy a coherence that has so far been absent…. Kieślowski went so far as to say that the climactic scene of Red reveals that White had a happy ending. There is an expansiveness to this vision, in which everything may or may not be connected, in which fictional characters continue to have lives in times and places that exist beyond their filmic stories, that absolutely fits with the resonant quality of Red."

At Slate, Dan Kois notes that "while Blue and White were modest art-house successes, it was Red that captured the imagination of American cinema lovers, earning not only Academy recognition but more at the box office than the other two films combined." 17 years later, he argues, "it's White, the forgotten movie in the middle of the trilogy — thought inferior by many even today — that has aged the best. Kieslowski's most personal film, it's a sharp-edged comedy of manners — and surprisingly prescient about the struggles facing a united Europe."

Stuart Klawans for Criterion: "White is the story of how the hapless Karol, reduced to nothing in the first third of the film, rises to entrepreneurial success in the next third (having discovered in post-Communist Poland that money literally sticks to him). He then uses his new resources to get revenge on his ex-wife in the final act — a loving, one might say captivating, revenge. In brief, White is a comedy." And it "would stand out from Blue and Red for its significantly contrasting tone as much as for the story elements that distinguish it from the others — its quasi-farcical doings, its focus on a male protagonist, its Eastern setting…. It seems there's no separating White's possible political theme ('This is Europe now') from its moral one, which is that the existence of a border is no excuse for withholding human concern."

"Some critics feel that the later phase of Kieślowski's work, from The Double Life of Véronique (1991) on, is too glossy and politically vague when compared with his Polish work," writes Nick James, also for Criterion, "but what Blue and the rest of the trilogy have that the earlier films lack is a much greater ambition to tackle the enormities of the day — the unification of Europe being the most obvious idea put under the microscope. In 2002, I suggested to readers of Sight & Sound that Blue should be considered a serious candidate for one of the top ten films of all time in a poll the magazine conducts every ten years. Though I conceded that Kieślowski's film might seem of modest reach when set beside, say, Citizen Kane or Battleship Potemkin, the objection disappeared for me both in the context of the trilogy as a whole and when I considered how rich a portrait of spiritual survival in the contemporary world Blue was painting. To me, the film seemed, and still seems, to examine the feminist rallying cry 'The personal is political' with greater scope and sensitivity than any other."

"Kieślowski in this period went from being a well-respected filmmaker within his own country to being one of the all-time greats of world cinema," writes Colin MacCabe, again, for Criterion. "The trilogy itself, his final work, almost defies belief: written, shot, and edited in less than three years and screened in succession at Venice, Berlin, and Cannes, so that for one year, Kieślowski dominated art cinema as no one ever had, or likely ever will again."

Updates, 11/16: "Too pretentious?" asks Tim Grierson, recalling how the trilogy changed his life. "Too precious? Too mannered? Oh, maybe. But a part of me holds onto the feeling that Kieslowski stirred in me so long ago. I went to Los Angeles to find movies that could transport me. His films did just that. More importantly, they instilled in me a belief that this is what movies really ought to do."

Listening. Paul Matwychuk and Heather Noel discuss the trilogy — and disagree on the question of just how well it's withstood the test of time.

Update, 11/20: "The subtlest of details weave through the three films, flourishes that marry them to the same cinematic universe," writes Sean Axmaker for MSN Movies. "'I have said all I need to say on film,' remarked Kieslowski after completing the trilogy. 'Red is my summation.' Revisiting the films 17 years after the release of his summation, I find Blue to be the most intimate and poetic of the three and Red the most complex and densely woven, reverberating with doubles and disconnected relationships that dance around one another throughout the film until the final scene of Red, a coda that pulls all three films together in an unforgettable scene of emotional power and beauty."

The photographs of Kieslowski at the top were taken by Jiri David in 1990 and 1995. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.

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