Red, Krzysztof Kieślowski
Courtesy of Criterion

Enigmatic and Emotional ‘Three Colors’ Is a Hypnotic Triptych of Polish Cinema

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three ColorsBlue, White, and Red – are grand reminders of the little motions that gather slowly but surely, to deliver the quick, sudden turns that give even the most indolent life meaning.  

Three Colors
Krzysztof Kieślowski
7 February 2023

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s stunning triptych, Three Colors, came to American shores during the first part of the ‘90s with admirable success. As far as world cinema goes, the three films that make up the trilogy, 1993’s Blue and 1994’s White and Red, managed the feat of transcending their very Polish “otherness” to deliver a universal message of regret and hope with such imaginative flair, that they even bested some of that era’s crowning Hollywood achievements, such as Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump.

Each of Kieślowski’s films in the trilogy is, in fact, a small, personal narrative that has been expanded to grand cinematic scopes. A lesser director would have stumbled haplessly over such a task, but the late Polish filmmaker (who made the bulk of his films in France) submits a calm and collected elegance with these stories that preserve their intimate and troubled worlds.

The three films are loosely connected, both by their themes of French city living (the films’ titles refer to the colors of the French flag) as well as the fact that the characters of each film make subtle but significant appearances in all three films. In this way, the trilogy is beautifully circumscribed, closing with the kind of delicate poignancy that Kieślowski’s work has come to be noted for.  

The trilogy begins with Blue, starring Juliette Binoche. Binoche plays Julie, the wife of a renowned composer in France. One morning, Julie, her husband, and their young daughter are involved in a fatal car accident that spares only Julie. The young woman, now a widow, wakes up in a hospital and, upon learning of her husband and daughter’s death, attempts to take her own life. Unable to go through with the suicide, Julie emerges from the hospital in cold and contemptuous spirits, spurning any reminder of her past life.

She does, however, continue with an affair she had been having with a friend of her husband’s, a fellow composer. When her senses get the better of her, she promptly leaves her home and moves into an apartment building to reorganize her life. But there are reminders and sour remnants of her prior life everywhere, and Julie soon learns that living out of her suitcase won’t help her escape from some of the dark truths about her late husband that have emerged. 

Blue’s somber mood never overwhelms; it is softened by the subtle visual palette of its thematic color scheme and dramatic musical motifs. Kieślowski also softens the blow of tragedy by embedding the story with what are curious surprises, as opposed to vulgar shocks – collective moments that seem to descend upon the story like a strange and subtle spell. His camera remains stationary for the most part and never intrudes in a showy display of filmmaker histrionics. Instead, the camera’s eye is a passive observer of Binoche’s more deliberate motions as she maneuvers the scenery with a mix of both stunned reticence and indignant resolve.

Binoche’s Julie, in fact, is never a truly sympathetic character. But she is one who, despite her sometimes-questionable motives, acts boldly and honestly and without design. Her cruelty surfaces from time to time, and even when she shows a merciless hand (locking a mouse and its newborn babies in a room with a hungry cat), her actions are clearly understood as occasions that are triggered by her recent trauma.

An actress who made a few waves with American audiences with Philip Kaufman’s 1988 drama, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Binoche’s profile was considerably raised on American shores with Blue. Her usually soft, porcelain looks and quiet dexterity is given a glassy hardness here as she navigates the sufferings she’s afforded by the story. Kieślowski, who co-wrote the script with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, layers his film with a host of circumstances that seem arbitrary but are eventually realized as expertly threaded elements integral to the overall arc. Cool and perfectly polished like the skin of a calm sea – and as shadowy as its depths – Blue doesn’t hit viewers with a visceral punch but instead arrives to meet them like a mysterious vessel coming into port.

Kieślowski’s second installment of Three Colors, White, somewhat lifts the gloom of its predecessor with touches of humor, albeit a dark brand. Starring Julie Delpy, who, at the time of its release, was making a splash on American shores with Before Sunrise (1994), surprises here as a callous and selfish gold-digger who spurns her ex-husband for his sexual impotence.

Polish ex-pat Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is a down-on-his-luck hairdresser who is scheduled in court for divorce proceedings. His soon-to-be ex-wife Dominique (Delpy) is divorcing because the marriage is not consummated. It’s clear that the grounds extend further from that single charge, as Dominique makes it clear to Karol that his lack of conviction in just about anything drives his impotence.

Karol meets an older man named Mikołaj (Janusz Gajos), a fellow Pole, in the Paris metro, where he has resorted to busking when he becomes homeless as the result of the costly divorce. Mikołaj offers to send the penniless Karol back home to his native Poland. With nothing left for him in France, Karol agrees, and he is furtively tucked away inside a suitcase, which Mikołaj takes with him back to Poland.

Karol returns to his former life, running a hair salon with his brother. But he has darker plans on his mind. Still obsessed and haunted by his ex-wife and perched on the precipice of hatred, Karol vows to make Dominique pay and hatches an elaborate plan to implicate her in a crime.

White’s surprising deviation from the trilogy’s first film is its setting in Poland. Most of the film takes place here (and, therefore, much of the film’s dialogue is in Polish), and the first part of the story centers on Karol’s re-acclimation of his native land. Karol wastes no time, however, in getting his plan of revenge on track. A series of schemes eventually lure Dominique to Poland, where she is to attend Karol’s funeral. Karol, who has faked his own death, now has Dominique within his sights on his home turf, and a fateful meeting with her will settle the score.

Where Blue gained from its leitmotifs and subtle imagery, White proffers from the intensity of its plot. Kieślowski hones in on the circuitous narrative, which is seemingly ushered by its one-good-turn-deserves-another outline but upended by a thoughtful and affecting finish. He frames his revenge tale against the drabness of a Polish small town, where the buildings and pavements are grey, the humor is dry, and the hopes even drier.

Zamachowski embodies the perfect victim-protagonist, a perpetual hangdog expression plastered to his face, even when things are on the upswing. That he plays his Karol as a likable sad sack is to the story’s benefit. Kieślowski’s script is a few touches shy from zany, and only the subdued atmosphere and Zamachowski’s understated performance help root White within the trilogy’s borders of stylish restraint. The film’s winning moment is the sudden upturning in its denouement: an enigmatic close that is tender as it is unexpected.

Red, the film that ties all three films together, is a story of memory and unlikely friendships. Kieślowski’ returns to the studied and precise imagery practiced in Blue for a film that boasts fine performances by its leads, Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant, and earned it three Academy Award nominations.

Valentine (Jacob), a fashion model, is driving home one night when she accidentally hits a dog on the road. Rushing the injured animal to the veterinarian, Valentine locates the dog’s owner and pays him a visit to inform him of the accident. The owner, Joseph (Trintignant), is an elderly curmudgeon, whom Valentine soon learns is a shut-in who enjoys spying on his neighbors, having tapped into their phone lines.

Initially disgusted, Valentine leaves but returns when she discovers on the news that Joseph has been sued by his neighbors after he has been caught spying. Valentine, taking pity, returns to his house to assure him that she has not turned him in. To her surprise, Joseph tells her that he had turned himself in, inspired and shamed by her disgust of him. A friendship soon begins between the two, one which will have life-altering consequences for Valentine.

The deeply lyrical turns of Red mark the film a class above the average art film. Red is as much about its own crafting (in its dramatic ironies, its narrative intersecting, and its symbolism) as it is about the telling of an involving and emotional story. Kieślowski, along with Piesiewicz again, pens dialogue that seems to only belong in books. But even these seeming detractions become integral to both plot and style, as the narrative’s inhabitants are pushed along like chess pieces by the force of an inspired writer’s hand. There is a method in the madness and the necessary convolutions that bring the waters of the story to its poetic shores.

Red’s machinations are the result of carefully plotted threads that service both of its preceding films. The marvel of the film is that we see the work without seeing the seams; so fluid and flowing are the transitions that the trilogy’s thematic tapestry is near-indestructible. Parts of Red and Blue also contain carry-overs from Kieślowski’s 1991 feature, The Double Life of Véronique (also starring Jacob). Those acquainted with that film will discover even further depths in these three films, which explore the nature of symmetrical lives.

Criterion’s release of Three Colors is exceptional. Its remastering of these three films is stunning, given that these films are rich in their coloring and textures. Images are sharp, crisp, and vibrant, bringing to life the lush color tones that saturate these films. Music is essential here, and the film scores are clean and undistorted, as are the dialogue and the ambient background sounds. The release comprises supplements and hours-long material ranging from interviews and documentaries to featurettes. Also included is an informative essay booklet.

Three Colors remains an unshakable entry in cinema, three soulful films which unfold like good novels. Regardless of how far removed one may be from the cultures, the privilege, or the circumstances these characters live in, the films stir emotions that reflect the shock of life’s happenstances. Blue, White, and Red are grand reminders of the little motions that gather slowly but surely, to deliver the quick, sudden turns that give even the most indolent life meaning.  

RATING 10 / 10