Banner Releases: Krzyzstof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy on Blu-ray
Kieslowski’s Tricolour triptych might have fallen from fashion but undeservingly so – individually strong, collectively they are extraordinary.
Three Colours Trilogy
(Krzyzstof Kieslowski, 1993-4)
Back in the 1990s, when I discovered ‘cinema’ (as opposed to watching movies), the contemporary benchmark for the medium’s capabilities was Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy. The very definition of high art, you just had to mention those two words – or, better still, the original French: trois couleurs – and people would know where you stood as a cinephile.
Yet in recent years, the trilogy has become if not forgotten then certainly neglected, taken for granted as an example of a certain kind of film but in a culture where the paradigm has shifted away, possibly because of the director’s retirement-cum-death, from Kieslowki’s literate, symbolic style. I’m as guilty as anybody else: I watched the trilogy on their TV debuts circa 1996, liked them a lot…and haven’t watched them since. The Blu-ray release is the ideal opportunity to take stock. Now I’m wondering why I haven’t rewatched them every year in between.
The obvious thing first: Kieslowski might have been a patron of the art-house rather than the multiplex, but his films were made for Blu-ray. These are studies of sound and image, a carefully integrated mosaic of music, lighting, décor and faces. The editing is crisp and, for all its elliptical quality, surprisingly accessible, but Kieslowski is a mise en scene guy, directing attention to what’s in the frame via close-ups and shifts in lighting. In the extras for opening segment Blue, he gives a masterclass in how to film a sugar cube soaking up coffee, while in the same film the refracted blue light on Julie’s (Juliette Binoche) face hits with the impact of a special effect. The effect is so intense, so concentrated that Kieslow has to face to black to give us pause for reflection.
Blue sounds severe and daunting, especially when you combine the story (a grieving woman’s attempts to move on from her dead husband and daughter) with the funereal chill of all those blues. But Kieslowski is an optimist: he shows so that we might see. Blue – in the colour scheme of the Tricolour – denotes liberty, but the only true liberty is death…or the living death of senility, as depicted by Julie’s mother (played, two decades before Amour, by Emmanuelle Riva). Julie seeks calm under the waters of a swimming pool, but she has to resurface at some point.
Julie attempts to remove herself from life – trying to achieve freedom through reckless irresponsibility, like the extreme sportsman her mother watches on TV – but there’s always a bungee cord. There is always somebody who wants companionship, like the prostitute who befriends her. There is always somebody who needs help, even when Julie closes her eyes to the world. There is always a reminder of the past: a photograph, a necklace or (most memorably) a piece of music, whose tragic grandeur has a nagging insistence in Julie’s mind. This most expressionistic of films gets inside Binoche’s head like no other, and Kieslowski finds a midpoint between diegetic and non-diegetic: the music isn’t playing, but it’s always there.
But it would be nothing without Binoche. Speech seems to be one of the many things Julie has forsaken, but the broken spirit of grief doesn’t need words to communicate itself. The film is at its most eloquent observing Binoche, whether in rage (scraping her knuckles along a wall or smashing a window to aid a suicide attempt) or in contemplation of the world, her stubbornness refusing to let the tears come but still twisting into a mournful pose.
The real joy of the Three Colours trilogy is that Kieslowski doesn’t feel compelled to repeat himself, despite the obvious strictures of having a linked formula. Yet basing his structural concept on a flag proves to be a great idea, because the trilogy can wave backwards and forwards as need dictates. Case in point: White is as different to Blue as it is possible to get, hence the desperate scramble of the film’s marketing to accentuate Julie Delpy as the beautiful heroine a la Binoche (or, later, Irène Jacob). But otherewise this is totally different: male, Polish, and propelled not by introspective tragedy but an ice-cold black comedy.
White is more linear and accessible than Blue: far less abstract and driven by a love of storytelling. As such, it’s the least regarded of the trilogy but it’s the best entry point for comprehending the pattern of the trilogy as a whole, and Kieslowski’s attitude to the idea of the Tricolour: ironic and interrogative. Kieslowski’s chic style in Blue is so ‘French’ that it takes White to remind us that he is Polish, with a scuzzier visual palette that starts in the fag-end of Paris (the streets, the Metro) and then conspires to make it look positively beautiful next to Warsaw. In Kieslowski’s idea of equality, there are many ways to go up and down – and sticking a neon sign in the dingiest of neighbourhoods qualifies as high class.
White? There’s very little that is obviously so, especially after the overt hues of blue which washed over the earlier film. But the point is that true equality – the purity of white – is impossible. So here the symbolism is closer to off-white: the pigeon shit which marks Karol (the lugubrious Zbigniew Zamachowski) as one of life’s losers, the printed diplomas which define his social status, the muddy snow of Poland. And, of course, money, which starts white and then becomes unequal depending on what value is printed onto it. The only true white is the bridal dress worn by Dominique – but that is seen only in flashback and the relationship is already over when the film begins.
Equality, then, is defined by context, and Kieslowski’s sharp plotting charts the trajectory of Karol from clumsy, unloved immigrant in Paris to cocksure yuppie in Poland, via the surreal sight of his trans-European journey, stuck in a suitcase. As such, it’s the most political of the Three Colours films, a companion piece to Kieslowski’s earlier Dekalog without requiring the Biblical severity. Note, also, that this is very much driven by the beginning of the post-Soviet move of Eastern Europe towards capitalism, making it an unusually prescient film dated only by a key prop being a two franc piece. While the film is funny, the laughs get increasingly ghoulish, relying on a contract to kill a suicide, a faked death and a double-cross. Equality would require everybody to be on the same playing level, but it just isn’t going to happen.
And then, having redefined tragedy and comedy, Kieslowski finds the mid-point between the two, aptly, in a film about fraternity. Red is at once the most conventional of the films – it’s the kind of middlebrow, dialogue-led two-hander that people associate with art-house cinema – but also the most original, as Kieslowski deploys his rich visual imagination and grasp of symbolism to map out unusual bonds between characters.
In essence, Red is an odd couple romance, “the model and the naughty judge,” but Kieslowski has too much taste and refinement to turn it into a May-to-December affair. Instead, it’s a meeting of head and heart. Irene Jacob’s Valentine – the name gives it away – gives back to Joseph (Jean-Louis Trintignant) his lost sense of romance and self-respect; in turn, the latter introduces intellectual danger to a life that might otherwise drift into vapidity.
So far, bar the off-kilter details (Joseph has replaced the doubt at the centre of the judicial process with the certainty of espionage), so ordinary – and this would be mawkish in lesser hands. But Kieslowski is alive to the possibilities. His camera continually darts away, looking for things to observe and connect, as if one fraternal bond in his movie is no enough. Shot compositions, repeated objects, character beats all get repeated, as Kieslowski shows the connections that people are usually too busy and self-contained to spot because they are flush with redness – anger, jealousy, violence. Unlike the use of the signature colour in the earlier films, Kieslowski doesn’t overdo the red: it is saturated and impossible to miss, but daubed here and there within the frame, isolated pockets of redness that are distant from each other as the characters.
In this sense, Joseph’s illegal spying is a smart thematic choice – and a prescient one, too. Edward Snowden might have something to say about what he’s up to, although Joseph would nowadays be addicted to Facebook. But even as long ago as 1993, Kieslowski was keenly aware of how a lifestyle governed by technology simultaneously brings people together but keeps them apart, with his opening shot, racing along the phone lines, anticipating The Matrix. In this world, there is function, without feeling – the point of Valentine’s jealous boyfriend, heard but never seen. But in the image system of glass, Kieslowski reminds us that there have always been barriers between people, and the repeated breaking of glass highlights the importance of tearing them down.
It all comes down to the magic realist ending, and the hand of Fate ultimately bringing together the protagonists of all three films – and retrospectively explaining why Kieslowski chose these characters. But in the diverse genres, tones and even styles (the director used a different cinematographer on each film to keep things fresh), here’s a reminder that the fraternity of cinema includes many strange bedfellows. Say it loud and proud: these Three Colours are still something to shout about.