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.