Retrospective: Three Colors

Three Colors: Blue

Three Colors: Blue. Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski.

The first in the Three Colors trilogy, Blue, a film by Krzysztof Kieslowski, is a powerful but intimate opus on the life of a woman who has lost those closest to her, and her attempt to piece her life back together by ripping away the wounded pieces.

Blue opens on blue-tinged roads, the first sign of liberty, a highway before proceeding to the countryside. A young girl watches the cars out the back window, all those connections not made. A moment later, there is a horrible crash. The young girl dies, as does her father. Only the mother, Julie, played by Juliette Binoche, remains. Julie’s life is no longer what it once was. The wife of a great composer, she is forced to face a new world where his shadow follows her. And so she goes on a crusade to find any way not to grieve. In doing so, however, she learns to grieve in her own way.

She destroys the great opus that her husband–or perhaps she–had been creating as an attempt to shed that life. But the wonderful chorus of that work rings out as she tosses it into the trash compactor, warbling for only a moment before closing out strong. It’ll always be there, whether she destroys it or not. Julie even tries to fill that emptiness in her heart by sleeping with her husband’s best friend. He looks at her with adoration and love, while she just stares back.

All of these attempts to erase her old life only trap her deeper in the grip of her grief. Old keepsakes, like the blue jewels that hung from her daughter’s bedroom, and old wounds, like finding her husband’s lover, continue to remind her of what she’s lost. Even in her pantry, there is a small and lively reminder of her family.

The inability to move on haunts her; these moments of emotion creep up on her refusing to leave her mind. Her husband’s work still remains, like her grief, no matter the attempt to excise it. It is used only in fragments and its impact is sudden and commanding, as though it cannot be contained in her mind. Kieslowski briefly fades to black for most of these instances, as though the film itself is trying to block out its emotions.

Juliette Binoche gives a beautiful performance. Even at the coldest and most distant, the character is still very real and expertly human. She plays the character with care and kindness that hides behind her defenses, and over the course of the film, gives way to tenderness and resolve.

Three Colors: Blue is a film about the reminders of the life that we sometimes wish to forget, but are so ingrained in us that is unreasonable to think of them as burdens. Some are, surely, but others are who we are. Julie faces this in every facet of the film, and it drives forward the great film that Kieslowski has made.

Three Colors: White

Three Colors: Blue. Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Three Colors: White, the second in the Three Colors trilogy, is Krzysztof Kieslowski’s story about immigration, personal character, and success in business and of the mind. But it is in its more intimate setting, that of love and loss, that White finds its meaning. It may not all add up as well as the other two films in the trilogy, but it is still a great portrait of a man who is in need of personal discovery.

Julie Delpy stars as Dominique, a French woman divorcing her Polish immigrant husband, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski). He speaks very little French and has an issue with impotence. As their marriage dissolves, they are almost like strangers: his love for her is one-sided and boyish as she tells him in a language he does not understand that she does not love him any longer. And so he decides to return to his home country.

Karol is put through harrowing cruelty after harrowing cruelty, never an ounce of decency thrown his way. His wife doesn’t respect him, committing arson to get rid of him after the divorce (she also publicly humiliates him) and makes him listen to her talk with another man over the phone. He has no money nor passport, and so his new friendships him back to his homeland in a trunk. He arrives at a landfill, only to have his trunk unlocked by strangers who beat him. After a while,  this character is worn down to a nub, and it is a little disheartening to watch him denigrated time and time again.

Eventually, however, he builds something that is entirely his own and becomes a prosperous and clever man in his own right. The way in which the third act plays out is cathartic for Karol but will leave you unsure of who is cruel, and who is capable of humanity.

Zamachowski plays Karol with a tender care, his wounded glances and heartbreak making his performance affecting and difficult. Julie Delpy, while not in the film for as long, is playful in her cruelty, almost like she’s having fun. Janusz Gajos as Mikolaj, Karol’s friend, is exceptional; his knowing smiles and deadpan stares create a character that is fascinating to watch. There is a depth to him that is hidden among Karol’s story but is a standout nonetheless.

The idea of language is a theme in White, as is the color itself. Whether it is the bust of a woman in the store Karol passes and later owns, in the foreground of his apartment and various living spaces, the color of the clothes Karol wears, or the first thing he is surrounded by upon exiting the suitcase in winter, white is in every frame. It is especially noticeable in the color of Dominique’s wedding dress, as a blinding white light comes down during a POV shot of her turning toward Karol and smiling. But it is in the flag of France where the white is most important. There it is the symbol of fairness and equality, qualities Karol is never treated with until he decides to take charge of his own fate. It is in emotional equality that Karol finds meaning during the destruction and rebirth of his character.

While White may not be the strongest of the trilogy, it is still a worthwhile journey into the hearts of a man and woman desperately distant, and the lengths one would go to prove themselves worthy, not only to another person but to themselves. Karol’s journey from schlub to businessman to schemer is a troublesome one, but it gives him the drive to become what he always meant to be, even if that may not always be a good thing.

Three Colors: Red

Three Colors: Blue. Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Three Colors: Red is a masterful film and the final film by Krzysztof Kieslowski. It’s an astounding piece of filmmaking in its craft and performances, in which two characters in a sea of noise come together and find one another through chance, or perhaps destiny. Kieslowski has taken the idea of fraternity, the final color of the flag, and turned it into a movie of emotion, care, and connection.

Valentine (Irene Jacob) is a model in Geneva and accidentally runs over a dog while driving. She returns the dog to its owner, an older judge named Richter Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who happens to be spying on neighbors’ phone conversations. This chance encounter becomes the core of the film. Another story plays out on the periphery, that of Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) a recent graduate who is on his way to becoming a judge. He lives around the corner from Valentine, and their paths nearly cross on numerous occasions. The film cleverly does this in single shots, Valentine or Auguste walking by while the other is focused on something else, the camera fluidly moving us from one narrative to another. It’s a sign of connection being just out of reach, but perhaps not quite ready to happen.

Valentine’s own connections are in flux. She earns the ire of her controlling boyfriend Michel when she does not answer the phone right away while she waits for him to return. Her mother and brother need her help to keep the family stable, but she does not know how she could possibly help them. Her life is one in need of change, and a looming trip to England could provide just that.

Red is everywhere in the opening minutes. It’s in the phone lines, it’s on the walls and the knick-knacks and the cars and the storefronts. It’s even in Valentine’s clothes. Red is everywhere, and Kieslowski uses it to create a beautiful canvas of striking color. It is most prominent in the photo of a melancholy Valentine standing against the side of a building, red surrounding her, an image that is brilliantly recalled at the end of the film.

There is an electricity to the filmmaking, a quick and dashing nature like the film itself is constantly out of breath. It has a pace that the previous two films do not, even when it slows down and takes its time. It is perhaps set to the pace of its heroine, whose life is always moving: in a fashion show, in a photoshoot, at a ballet class, at a listening station in a music store, at the judge’s home. Valentine leads a life of movement, never quite staying still until her conversations with Kern calls for it.

Irene Jacob plays the role with a caring innocence; Valentine wants to do the right thing. Her convictions are at odds with Kern’s habits during a wonderful scene where Kern tells her of a particular neighbor he spies on. He points out the house and says that if she feels so badly about his spying that she should inform them. She marches over there, but when the door opens, she is exposed to a picture of devotion and love, one that she is afraid to rock in any way. Jacob is a warm presence here, a joy to watch in the naive but determined way she plays Valentine. Upon her return, Kern tells her of another neighbor, one whose frequency he cannot listen in on. Valentine’s reaction to the neighbor’s potential job is inspired, showing that while innocent, she holds injustice in her heart.

The interactions between Kern and Valentine are the highlights of the film. Diametrically different people, they view life through their own prisms and come to clash over and debate their worldviews. Each thinks they are right when perhaps both are right and wrong in their own way. There is no animosity to their disagreement, but rather curiosity and frank openness. The openness only goes so far, however, as Kern refuses to reveal the story of the woman he once loved, which becomes a sore spot for Valentine and strains their friendship. Jean-Louis Tringtignant is so matter-of-fact and calm in his performance that some might find it too subtle. But there is a heart and sadness to his loneliness that Valentine is able to unlock during their talks.

Three Colors: Red is a film of fraternity, as the flag implies, but it is also about so much more. Human connection often happens by fleeting chance. That the film so magnificently uses this as its baseline is a grand finale to not only the trilogy but to Kieslowski’s work as a whole. Valentine and Kern’s lives have their intricacies, and when they come together, show that despite their differences, a connection is all it takes to change someone’s life.

Leave a Reply