Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colors Trilogy is showing from December, 2019 and January, 2020 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
I watched my first Krzysztof Kieślowski as a high schooler, sitting next to my mother, in my town’s only cinema. As with anything in the early stages of my cinephilia, that baptism had been her idea. The movie theatre we’d pay weekly pilgrimages to had allocated a whole three-day run to The Decalogue (1989), and she thought that Kieślowski’s Ten Commandments TV saga would be a good place to start. I forgot much about those few hours, but not the perturbing feeling that crept up on me as the ten chapters began to unfold on screen. I sensed—and it’s a feeling that keeps resurfacing anytime I tread into a Kieślowski film, however many times I may have seen it already—that I’d been there before.
That curious déjà-vu is something anyone familiar with Kieślowski’s filmography might relate to. It’s the feeling of trespassing into a world where people and objects exist in some confounding and magical relations with each other, where little details accrue new and enigmatic meanings each time they resurface, and characters keep crossing each other’s paths without ever fully realizing just how closely intertwined their lives actually are. That endless cross referencing is as prominent in The Decalogue as it is through all of Kieślowski’s works, perhaps most notably in his The Double Life of Véronique (1991), the enigmatic tale of two young women (one in Poland, the other in France, both played by Irène Jacob) mysteriously tied to each other. But it also shimmers in the director’s parting gift, the Three Colors trilogy.
Structured on a double organizing principle, the trilogy was designed to orbit around the three colors of the French flag, and the three watchwords of the French Revolution. The first installment, Blue (1993) was keyed to freedom; White (1994) to equality; and Red (1994) to fraternity. But writer-director Kieślowski and co-scribe Krzysztof Piesiwicz (a lawyer by training who’d helped pen the director’s projects since 1985's No End) always invited to take the scaffolding with a pinch of salt. After all, the color-concept pairing had only come about in response to French funding, and the revolutionary bywords each chapter is ostensibly attached to spill over from one to the next. The common denominator between the three may then have less to do with the French motto, and more with Kieślowski’s interest in human fallibility and transcendence: our ability to overcome traumas as we embrace the myriad and secret ways that keep us all connected.
In Blue (1993), Juliette Binoche plays Julie, a Parisian woman who loses her young daughter and husband in a car accident, and struggles to recover from the trauma. From the outset, Blue’s freedom carries a tragic aftertaste: Julie is free quite simply because she’s left alone. Her husband was a celebrated composer; like the deceased lawyer in No End, he’s left some unfinished business behind: a grand concerto commissioned by the European Council. Whether or not Julie ever helped the man with his work (a suggestion Kieślowski leaves tantalizingly open), the tragedy forces her to sever all ties with the world around her. She abandons her chateaux-like countryside mansion to relocate incognito in an apartment off Rue Mouffetard in Paris’ Latin Quarter. But the world outside her flat keeps calling her back, in the shape of her suitor and husband’s assistant Olivier (Benoît Régent); a prostitute living in the apartment below her floor, Lucille (Charlotte Véry); and finally, Sandrine (Florence Pernel), a young lawyer whom Julie finds out was her husband’s lover, and is carrying his child.
To an extent that far surpasses White and Red, Blue is a film of a profound subjectivity. Slawomir Idziak, who had already shot Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1988) and The Double Life of Veronique, lets the camera embody Julie. We see the world through her eyes and reflected on them: extreme closeups of Binoche’s pupils refract the faces of doctors and people hovering above her like vultures with a moribund creature. And we swoon when she does, with recurrent fades to black that should ostensibly help her stave off traumatic memories, but can do little to shield her from the sound of her husband’s music (composed by Zbigniew Preisner, who scored the whole trilogy).
“She is trying to put a lid on her world,” Kieślowski argued of Binoche’s widow. But Blue doesn’t let her. Like White and Red, this is a chronicle of a reconciliation, and Julie’s chances to begin anew are contingent on her ability to understand that, hard as she may try to plunge deeper into forced isolation, she remains implicated in an intricate web of chance encounters, coincidences, shared sorrows and hopes—that serendipitous, perturbing, and deeply human fabric Kieślowski’s films are made of. Initially hashed out in a tragic tense, Julie’s freedom gradually acquires a more soulful and empowering undertow. No longer free purely by virtue of having no ties left to this world, she is finally free to make new ones, and understand that her pain can be someone else’s, too. A blue-tinged final montage shows her tearing up under the concerto’s chorus, a stanza plucked out of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. It reads as a summation of Julie’s struggle as much as a mission statement for Kieślowski’s whole oeuvre: “If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains; but I do not have love, I am nothing.”
This interplay of love and resurrection would ripple on to the trilogy’s second installment. Arguably the lightest and most humorous of the three, White opens in Paris, where a Polish hairdresser by the name of Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), is being sued for divorce by his young French wife (Julie Delpy’s Dominique) on account of his inability to consummate the wedding. Heart-broken and homeless, left with no money, documents, and dignity, Karol befriends a fellow Paris-stranded Pole, Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), who helps smuggle him back into Poland inside a suitcase. Back on the home turf, the two men meet again, and Karol starts amassing a fortune in the city’s real estate market, only to then fake his death as a means to lure Dominique to Warsaw.
Discussing White, Kieślowski insisted that the film was about humiliation as much as equality. In a world where “men are not and do not want to be equal,” Karol’s quest for equality boils down to a struggle to get even, with the infamous world around him as much as his heartless wife. Even the white elements that surface all through Edward Klosinski’s cinematography oftentimes evoke a belittling aftertaste. No sooner has Karol stepped toward the court and his looming divorce than white literally falls onto him in the shape of a pigeon dropping. From there on, to borrow from Stuart Klawans, the Pole “keeps getting whited out,” whether on the snowy streets of Warsaw, under the sheets with his wife, or in the memories of their wedding day, conjured through an overexposed tracking shot inside the church that has us watch, with Karol, as Dominique walks away from the altar and out toward the open air, whiteness flooding the frame like a halo of light. It’s painfully beautiful.
Still, reducing White’s equality to a matter of personal vengeance would be to miss out on the ways the concept evolves alongside Karol and Dominique’s own relationship. Writing about White for Film Comment, Annette Insdorf highlights that Zbigniew Preisner’s original score reverberates across the trilogy not as a mere ornament, but a narrative device in its own right. Preisner composed a symphony for Blue, a bolero for Red, and a tango for White. And the Argentine genre (at once seductive, playful, and lyrical—the woman boasting the flashiest steps but only to the extent that the man’s hand will allow her) offers an appropriate aural translation of Karol and Dominique’s rapport. A punching bag in France, Zamachowski’s Chaplinesque everyman morphs into a slick and picaresque alter-ego back in Warsaw. Conversely, dominant in Paris, disarmingly beautiful and glacial as the white ceramic bust Karol takes home from France (a fetishized souvenir on par with the ultramarine chandelier Binoche rescues from her old home in Blue), Delpy’s Dominique seems far more vulnerable in Poland, her cool façade crumbling under the realization that not only she’s missed her supposedly dead husband—she still loves him, too.
White, much like the whole trilogy, is a tale of new beginnings; whiteness, tied as it may be to humiliating mementos, is also linked to Karol’s several resurrections. He pops out of a coffin-like suitcase in the middle of a landfill—mugged, beaten and disheveled—to deliver the trilogy’s funniest line while marveling at the garbage all around him: “home, at last!” He rises from an impotent pariah to astute entrepreneur, and of course, returns from the dead and to his wife as a new (and sexually competent) man. But the single most important re-birth takes place during the film’s ending, when Klosinski’s camera zooms in on the prison Dominique is locked in, squeezing the bars outside the frame until her image shifts from imprisoning to liberating. Spurred as it may have been from a desire to retaliate, White is not a vengeful story. From inside her cell, Dominique gestures at her ex-husband: she’ll serve her sentence, and then they’ll remarry. He stares at her, tears seeping from his eyes. Kieślowski called this a happy ending: they may not be free, but they realize they still love each other. They are equal, not so much in that facile an-eye-for-an-eye reading, but because they are free and able to begin again, and anew, together.
In its own roundabout way, Red arrives at a similar conclusion. In the trilogy’s last chapter, Irène Jacob plays Valentine, a student-cum-model living in Geneva, and Jean-Louis Trintignant an embittered and retired judge from the same city. She lives in a luminous apartment and spends her evenings on the phone with her long-distance boyfriend; he lives in a house close to the lake, locked in a state of self-imposed and misanthropic exile, eavesdropping on his neighbors’ phone conversations. Chance—so omnipresent in Kieślowski’s films—brings the two together: Valentine runs over the judge’s dog, and returns the wounded animal to the owner. But when he reveals his secret hobby, it is not at all clear whether she’s more horrified by his spying or by his unapologetic decision to spend the last few years of his life in a loveless lockdown.
Both the young woman and the judge share a life of isolation, suspended in a state of protracted wait. Valentine is waiting for her lover to return; the judge is waiting to die. They both know this about each other, despite never making it explicit: in a movie that feels like an uninterrupted late-night conversation, a pas de deux reminiscent of Éric Rohmer’s 1969 My Night at Maud’s, part of the many pleasures of Red is to watch as Jacob and Trintignant tiptoe around each other, negotiating just how much they can reveal of each other before retreating into isolation again. Their acquaintance may well morph into a friendship of sorts, but it is the shared knowledge of their loneliness that creates the precondition for that to happen. And this shared knowledge is, I suspect, the sense of fraternity undergirding the trilogy’s last chapter: one that culminates in amity, but is premised on resemblance.
Possibly more so than Blue and White, Red is a game of doubles and echoes. In that sense, it harkens back to The Double Life of Véronique, not merely by virtue of Jacob’s presence, but for that uncanny state of aporia it elicits. It beckons you into a vast lattice where everything seems magically linked, but just how far and intricate the connections one can only intuitively grasp. All through her journey, Valentine keeps crossing paths with Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), a young law student living in an apartment opposite hers. As a judge to be, he walks through Red as a stand-in for Trintignant’s younger self, a connection that’s further corroborated by a history of heartbreaks the two men unknowingly share. But Valentine offers both a chance for redemption, plucking the old judge out of his confinement, and serendipitously bumping into August in the film’s last scene, an impromptu rendezvous whose future one is free to imagine.
As the final chapter in a trilogy of loneliness, Red bookends the lesson Binoche’s Julie had learned in Blue: that the only way to reconcile oneself with the world is to appreciate that you are part of something larger. There is something at once humbling and heartwarming about the epiphany: your joys and sorrows become—by virtue of you belonging to and embracing your humanity—everyone else’s. It is fitting that the whole trilogy should end with a happy ending, the protagonists of each of the three installments all miraculously rescued and floating on the same lifeboat after a maritime disaster. “They’d be amazed to hear / that Chance has been toying with them / now for years,” reads a passage of Love at First Sight, a poem by Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska upon which Kieślowski said Red was based. It’s an uplifting and contagious realization.