Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White, Red (Trois Couleurs: Bleu, Blanc, Rouge)

Michael S. Smith

Taken together, Blue, White, and Red are a visionary swan song for one of European cinema's most poetic moralists.

Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White, Red (trois Couleurs: Bleu, Blanc, Rouge)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Benoit Régent, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delpy, Irène Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant
Distributor: Buena Vista Home Video
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Miramax
First date: 1993-1994
US DVD Release Date: 2003-03-04

Few filmmakers have ended their careers on as high a note as Krzysztof Kieslowski did when he retired in 1994. He died less than two years later, but his late career included the awe-inspiring Decalogue in 1988, and the mystical Double Life of Veronique in 1991, followed by the ambitious Three Colors. Taken together, Blue, White, and Red are a visionary swan song for one of European cinema's most poetic moralists.

The three films comprise a lyrical, expressive, often beguiling meditation on human frailties and the need for connection. Kieslowski and his longtime screenwriting collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz take the two-centuries old slogans of the French Revolution -- liberté, égalité, fraternité -- and examine them not as political concepts, as might be expected, but as personal touchstones. The films trace the interior lives of characters burdened by circumstance, alienation, death, and loss. Rather than working towards overarching resolution, each film achieves a small catharsis.

Like Michelangelo Antonioni (but without the fetish for architecture), Kieslowski portrays these lives through images, without explanatory dialogue. This deeply metaphorical language produces a series of unforgettable impressions, none more elegant and powerful than the moment in Blue, when Julie (Juliette Binoche) takes a nighttime swim in a deserted pool, its waters suffused with blue light.

Blue is the color of liberty (white stands for equality, red for fraternity), but it is also the color of sorrow, and here Julie is swimming in grief. At the start of the film, a car accident claims the lives of her husband and daughter. Julie is badly injured, but survives, only to live through the hell of profound personal loss. Her initial response, self-immolation, turns into an aspiration for absolute freedom in the form of isolation. She sells her possessions and her home, destroys her composer husband's scores, and strives for anonymity. "I want no belongings, no memories, no friends, no love," she says. "Those are all traps."

Ineluctably, those traps impinge on Julie's life: a neighbor asks her for help; her husband's collaborator, Olivier (Benoit Régent), loves her; and she comes upon unnerving secrets from her husband's past. Julie does everything in her power to keep these demands and discoveries at bay, failing to realize that she will find her liberty by confronting her past. Only by opening herself to memories and obligations can she achieve redemption.

As a portrait of grief, Blue eviscerates, but in its cinematic virtuosity, it mesmerizes as well. Filled with reflections in mirrors and windows and first-person perspectives through Julie's eyes, it also contains one of Kieslowski's most arresting techniques: a quick dissolve, typically a demarcation of time, to mark Julie's recollections or thoughts. All of these elements lend beauty to her suffering.

Binoche's performance surely enhances this beauty. Typically an efficient actress, she turns this almost wordless role into a minimalist portrait of sorrow. The story of Blue is told almost entirely in her face and gestures, and with expressions so appropriately economical that you think she might melt into the background: her quivering chin, a brief flash of pain across her brow, her fist scraping against a wall.

White, a black comedy about a man's obsession, revenge, and redemption, is less understated than Blue, but it is no less ironic. At the film's beginning, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is publicly humiliated by his wife Dominique (Julie Delpy), who files for divorce on the grounds of his sexual impotence. Small, unassertive, and physically weak, he's a put-upon fellow whose matrimonial and vocational woes force him to return to his Polish homeland, smuggled by a newfound friend in, of all things, a suitcase. He resumes his job as a hairdresser in his brother's salon, but, moonlighting as a security guard, he is able to purchase property and then sell it to its original prospective buyers. Karol's accumulating wealth is an elaborate plan to exact revenge upon Dominique.

Kieslowski once remarked that the problem with equality is that everyone wants to be more equal. In a capitalist society, like the post-Communist Poland to which Karol returns, being more "equal" is an obsession. The economic opportunities that are open to Karol allow him to reclaim his dignity and potency.

Like Blue, White explores the significance of objects. Karol's only possessions when he returns to Poland are a porcelain bust and a pocket comb. If the bust's alabaster hue recalls Dominique's skin, providing Karol with a constant focus for his revenge, the comb is a reminder that his problem, like Julie's, is lack of perspective. When he holds the comb to his eyes, the teeth, like bars of a jail cell, signify his imprisonment in a lonely, perverse existence. Karol is incapable of realizing that his happiness lies in human connections, for instance, in fraternity with the wife who has forsaken him.

Connections, in which freedom and equality may be found, are strongest in Red, the most affirmative of the three movies. Such strength is suggested by the color itself, which permeates every frame -- in doors, clothes, landmarks, cars, lights, blankets, signs, even dog leashes. This ubiquity only seems to underline -- in its arbitrary connectedness -- the harrowing isolation of the main characters, who meet through what seems to be pure chance. Valentine (Irène Jacob) is a model with a boyfriend who is never home. When she accidentally runs over a dog, she takes it to its owner, a lonely, retired judge named Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

He spends his days listening to his neighbors' telephone conversations with high-tech equipment. This repulses Valentine, while Joseph is entirely indifferent to her, but they gradually bond. His secret past, in which his deep love for a woman was destroyed by her infidelity, makes him wish he had been born later so that he might have loved Valentine instead. In turn, she is drawn to him by his seemingly authoritative observations about her family, her emotions, and her purpose (his injunction to her is simply, "Be").

Red is not about grandiloquent lessons, and it doesn't drive the trilogy towards some inevitable conclusion. It tumbles through one accident after another and finds its meaning about fraternity in colors, images, and objects, and in Valentine herself. Her innocence makes her slightly unaware of her own feelings and the world around her, but it also makes her more likely to find community; she is more generous than her counterparts in the first two films. The most resonant moment in Red consists of a basic gesture, the judge's outstretched hand placed upon a window as Valentine places hers next to his.

This instance of bonding -- of fraternity -- is not an answer to the film's many questions of circumstance, estrangement, and loss. Rather, it's a last line in a parable about separation (Valentine from her boyfriend, Joseph from his past lover) that conflates past and present, and links disparate people including a young lawyer named Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) whose importance is unexplained, in an unresolved mystery.

Red, like Blue and White, is neither instructive nor judgmental. They are moral, but not moralistic. All feature a recurring instance, as an old woman (or, in White, an old man) tries to place a glass bottle in a recycling bin. How Julie, Karol, and Valentine react to this situation says much about them, but the films do not judge their reactions. No action or choice is right or wrong, and there are no accidents, despite all the chances encounters. In Three Colors, everything leads to, or away from, human connection.






The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.