Beginning with his 1989 made-for-Polish-television series The Decalogue, Krzysztof Kieślowski moved away from the socialist realism that had informed his early career as a filmmaker and commenced constructing intricately interwoven stories featuring multiple protagonists whose lives intersect in a variety of unexpected ways, a storytelling technique film historian David Bordwell has dubbed “network narratives.” Kieślowski’s later films interrogate abstract moral and philosophical, even metaphysical, ideas in riddling, ambivalent fashion, while embodying them in often ravishing sensuous imagery. The Three Colors were Kieślowski’s final films, released not long before his untimely death in 1996 at the age of 54, marking the culmination of an intensely fertile period (10 hour-long shorts and four feature films), as well as the pinnacle of Kieślowski’s brand of open-ended, multivalent filmmaking.
As its organizing principle, the Three Colors trilogy equates the colors represented on the French flag with the idealistic principles undergirding the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity. The three colors dominate their respective films’ visual palettes, recurring within each diegetic world as certain symbolically charged objects, though the trilogy’s overall look varies considerably since Kieślowski employs a different cinematographer every time. Each film begins with a brief scene that illuminates the underbelly of its main action, only achieving its full significance retroactively: with the camera mounted beneath the chassis of a car careening down a highway in Blue, following an overstuffed suitcase moving along a conveyor belt in White, and, opening Red with one of the trilogy’s most bravura sequences, it travels at the speed of sound through relays and alongside bundled cables (below the English Channel, no less) to accompany a long-distance phone call. All three films treat their generic trappings with ironic subversion, much the same way The Decalogue handled each episode’s Biblical injunction: Blue ostensibly a tragedy that ends on a grace note of reconciliation, White less a laugh-out-loud comedy than a bitter satire on Poland’s place in post-communist Europe, and Red is romance as foreplay, in effect providing only the prelude to its central couple’s first encounter.
In Blue, Julie de Courcy’s (Juliette Binoche) husband, a world-renowned composer, and daughter are killed in the car crash that opens the film. Opting to divest herself entirely of her former life, Julie puts her country manor up for sale and moves to a flat in Paris, reverting to her maiden name, and desiring nothing so fervently as a life of utter anonymity. Things, however, conspire to prevent this eventuality; by “things” we should understand the many objects that populate Blue, doing double duty as props and nodes of coalesced meaning.
The film’s “thingness,” to paraphrase the philosopher Martin Heidegger, is very much to the point of its medium as well as its message: The score for Julie’s husband’s Concerto for the Unification of Europe that she tosses away in a garbage truck—and, as it turns out, wrote in the first place—winds up again in the possession of her former lover, Olivier (Benoit Regent), who has been commissioned to complete it. Because she cannot easily destroy it, Julie takes a sapphire blue mobile from her daughter’s bedroom as a lone souvenir of her past; hanging in her new apartment, it serves as a memento mori and, later, inculcates a moment of perhaps divine inspiration.
Blue is a film of just such privileged moments, be they shards of agonized experience or flashes of overpowering sensuousness: Julie running her knuckles along a jagged rock wall; the play of azure light among the dangling crystal pendants of her daughter’s mobile; the same light flooding the frame while the Concerto‘s music crescendos on the soundtrack. At unexpected intervals, Kieślowski deploys disconcerting fades to black, not to indicate, per usual, the passage of time, but rather to suspend for a moment the film’s visual flow and allow Zbigniew Preisner’s monumental score to overwhelm our senses, a little longer every time. Likewise, when Julie agrees to collaborate on the concerto with Olivier, cinematographer Sławomir Idziak lets the camera slide out of focus, a wonderful, obscure portrayal of the creative process.
Like Kieślowski’s earlier Double Life of Veronique, White splits its time between Paris and Warsaw; the plight of its twice-named protagonist, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), provides single-handed commentary on the condition of Poles abroad in the burgeoning European Union, as well as the blight of gangsterism and economic free-for-all tearing apart the social fabric back home. Our introduction to Karol succinctly sets the stage: Running up a flight of courthouse stairs, Karol startles a brace of pigeons into flight, stops to marvel at their airy progress, until one promptly shits all over his already shabby overcoat. His guilty glance around for witnesses to his embarrassment effectively adumbrates the film’s key question: What kind of equality can possibly emerge in the midst of systemic humiliation?
Dragged into the law court by his French wife, Dominique (Julie Delpy), for divorce proceedings predicated on the grounds of impotence (she claims the wedding’s never been consummated), Karol experiences a downward spiral that bottoms out with his journey home stuffed into the oversized suitcase seen in White‘s opening shots. Once there, the bag’s promptly swiped by a ring of thieves, taken to a landfill on the edge of town, prized open and, when Karol emerges, he’s kicked and beaten into submission. Gazing out over the waste-strewn dump, Karol enthuses, “Home at last!”
Now begins Karol’s rise to power, leveraging insider information into a sprawling, globalized empire, a narrative development that Kieślowski hashes out in a few elliptical montage sequences. The heart of the matter, as far as Kieślowski’s concerned, is Karol’s motivation; he’s done it all for love, which is to say, for revenge. Luring Dominique to Poland by faking his own death, now that he’s in a position of authority and power, Karol can finally consummate their relationship. Paralleling (and ironizing) Blue‘s blackouts, Kieślowski renders Dominique’s moment of blissful jouissance as a fade to white accompanied by her ecstatic cries. When Karol promptly disappears, the authorities apprehend and imprison Dominique for his murder. White concludes with the lovers in tears, Dominique pantomiming her plans for future happiness with Karol from behind the bars of her jailhouse window. As Kieślowski would have it, equality, like love, exalts in chains.
Red concludes the trilogy by presenting, in its final minutes, an astonishing coincidence that casts the entirety of what’s gone before in a new light, another of Kieślowski’s preferred “retroactive detonations” (as he expressed it in interviews). Prior to that, Red serves as something of a trilogy in microcosm, and its focus on three protagonists renders it the most disparate in narrative. Valentine (Irene Jacob, star of Double Life of Veronique) is a fashion model. Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), schooling himself in jurisprudence, lives across the street from her. Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a retired judge with a penchant for unauthorized eavesdropping, connects their divergent strands. Initially appalled when she discovers what Kern’s listening habits include, Valentine slowly, grudgingly opens herself up to the initially ill-tempered Kern, who in due course reciprocates; Kieślowski presents this platonic courtship as a series of intuitive exchanges; the two feel their way into each other’s histories, displaying an elective affinity that harkens back to the words from 1 Corinthians 13, to which the concerto in Blue was set, extolling the necessity and power of love—not Eros, but Agape, fraternal or communal love. Kieślowski’s characters all, out of their multifarious motivations, court isolation and aspire to self-determination, which inevitably ends them in an existential cul-de-sac. The three films chart the means, via art or love, that lead them back to human fellowship.
“Only connect!” E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End. “That was the whole of [the] sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted.” Likewise, this message seems inscribed in incandescent letters across every frame of Kieślowski’s exhilarating and affecting trilogy. Kieślowski’s films embrace mystery, allow for the vagaries of chance and coincidence, all the while maintaining a wry tolerance for the endlessly tragicomic lapses of our all-too-human nature.
Criterion presents Three Colors in an eye-popping 1080p remastering, working from original 35mm materials to clean and spit-polish these films. While inevitable, not to mention desirable, levels of grain remain, there are significantly fewer instances of artifacts, edge enhancement, or compression issues than the previous Miramax DVD box set. Colors, so vital to the films' form and content, are deep, full, and richly saturated. The French 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks present crisp, clear dialogue and, most importantly, Zbigniew Preisner's magisterial scores, which often strain to burst out of the films altogether, in breathtaking depth and richness.
Each disc contains a bounty of supplementary features (often two-to-three hours' worth), some drawn from the previous Miramax box set, many newly produced for the Criterion Collection, and all stepped up to HD quality. Each disc contains a "Cinema Lesson" featuring Krzysztof Kieślowski at an editing suite, discussing in detail the technical and thematic logistics behind one of the film's key scenes, as well as an academically inclined video essay from Annette Insdorf, Tony Rayns, and Dennis Lim, respectively, which replace the full-length commentary tracks provided by Insdorf for the Miramax edition. These essays are brimful of insights and deft characterizations, neatly and soberly exploring the films' flotilla of interconnections. Three early documentary shorts illustrate the initial phase of Kieślowski's variegated career. Interviews with the stars of each film mostly delve into process: Kieślowski was hands-on, declaring that a director was a participant, not a spectator, though he often limited himself to technical suggestions about gesture and blocking while leaving line readings open to the actor's interpretation. Interesting to note: Juliette Binoche and Julie Delpy were offered the title role in Double Life of Veronique and both declined; Binoche almost declined Blue as well, having been offered one of the leads in Spielberg's Jurassic Park, which she ultimately determined was not her idea of interesting work. (She would've preferred, she admits, to play one of the dinosaurs.) Since Kieślowski routinely collaborated with writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz and composer Zbigniew Preisner, in-depth interviews with both men serve as a career retrospective, as does an hour-long documentary, entitled "I'm So-So," filmed the year before Kieślowski's death, that includes some excellent clip selections, as well as the director's reflections on the films themselves. It's an engaging, apposite tribute to a restless and inquisitive spirit.
Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colors remains a vibrant, mesmerizing experience, presented in superb 1080p and expertly augmented with a bounteous spectrum of special features by the Criterion Collection.