Krzysztof Kieslowski was at the apex of his talent when he wrote and directed his final three films. The result was a conjoined, sprawling artistic manifesto that’s gorgeous, depressing and exhilarating … and worth watching on the big screen as many times as possible.
Blue, White and Red comprise the Three Colors trilogy, which is playing in retrospective at the Tower Theatre on September 9.
Kieslowski, who was born in Poland, didn’t make warm films populated by friendly, funny characters. From his earliest work, he explored our deepest desires and our connections to others with a combination of ambivalence about the present and guarded hope for the future. He began his career as a documentarian with conflicting feelings about his Communist homeland, and his reluctance to embrace his birthright characterized in all of his early films, some of which are, frankly, dry and dull.
He didn’t find a mellifluous cinematic voice until Decalogue, a series of 10 hour-long films made in the mid-1980s and based on the 10 Commandments. The sequence is a remarkable exercise in intricate storytelling—though sometimes at the expense of any visual creativity—that exhausts the skills he honed in documentaries. By the time Kieslowski prepared to make the trilogy several years later, he had the visual acumen—and, truth be told, the talented cinematographers—necessary to tell his stories on a new level of sophistication.
Kieslowski and his longtime writing partner, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, conceived the trilogy as an artistic interpretation of the three colors—and the themes of liberty, equality and fraternity—represented on the French flag. With the relatively small window of our perspective, the films already seem almost miraculous in their ability to work together; when viewed as a unit, they tell a complex story of loss, redemption and the stickier side of love.
The first, Blue, is the most accessible and beautiful of the three. Juliette Binoche stars as Julie, whose composer husband and child are killed in an auto accident in the film’s opening minute. Julie’s grief—so thick it prompts a suicide attempt, yet eventually proves to be a cathartic device—is the film’s subject, and Binoche gives the most studiously reserved performance of a career filled with them. Like the “Mona Lisa,” Julie’s silence and stare allows us to create volumes of meaning in an empty space.
The film is also gorgeous. Its title is the color of depression, and Kieslowski photographs every possible shade. Using the instances of the color as his breadcrumbs, he leads us through a profoundly depressing cycle that still ends with hope and possibility. Julie had everything she thought she wanted, and yet she still finds liberty by losing everything.
White, the middle film, is a seriocomic fable. With its deliberate change of pace, it stands in stark contrast with Blue’s somber symbolism and Red’s sage perspective. Kieslowski’s visual scheme also is less ambitious; he saves his strongest statements here for a commentary on his own decomposing homeland, with the overriding observation that nothing stays the way you remember it.
Zbigniew Zamachowski is a Polish businessman reduced to ruin in a bitter divorce from his French wife (Julie Delpy). After a twist of fate rights him, he works methodically back to a position of equality with Delpy’s aloof character, while never losing the essential hopelessness that makes him human, and which got him in this mess in the first place.
Red, the final chapter, earned Kieslowski an Academy Award nomination—an honor that’s akin to giving Mother Teresa an Employee of the Month award down at the homeless shelter. The film is both a summation of the previous two and an exploration of a deeper pitch of the longing and loneliness of his entire oeuvre.
It’s the story of Valentine (Irene Jacob), a supermodel college student who runs over a dog one dark night. She takes it to its owner, a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who spends his days avoiding people and monitoring phone conversations on his radio. They fall in a kind of love, but the real and imaginary barriers separating them seem to be Kieslowski’s final statement on displacement and togetherness.
The uniting of unapproachable human beings meant something profound to Kieslowski. It’s present in all of his work—in 1991’s The Double Life of Veronique, Jacob continually misses encounters with her doppelganger, and he riffs on the same theme with Binoche in Blue.
Kieslowski’s visual choices are flawless, and his cinematographers bathe all three pictures in richness and grace. The scripts reward a careful viewer with subtle references to past films and the director’s artistic influences. In all, the trilogy is the work of a virtuoso who knew exactly what was left to say about his most passionate causes.
After completing Red, Kieslowski announced his retirement from filmmaking at 53, saying he wanted to sit on park benches and smoke cigarettes. His respite was short: he died on March 13, 1996, after a second heart attack. The trilogy was the last achievement for a filmmaker who blossomed shortly before winter. Luckily, we have this trilogy as a reminder of what Kieslowski was, and just how inspiring cinema can be.
Three Colors trilogy. Directed
by Krzysztof Kieslowski. Starring Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy,