Monday, January 19, 2009

Three Colors Trilogy: Blue/White/Red (1993-1994)

The three colors in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy are said to represent the colors of the French flag, and the values they stand for - blue (liberty), white (equality), and red (fraternity). But the trilogy is about as apolitical a work as one can imagine. The three values are examined from an emotional, not a political standpoint. Like Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, a series of ten hour-long films examining each of the Ten Commandments, the Three Colors trilogy explores the meaning of a traditional set of values in the modern world. Seen on their own, the films stand up as rich and fascinating character studies. But the trilogy is greater than the sum of its parts, and ultimately emerges as a beautiful and haunting work – despite some missteps.

Blue tells the story of Julie (Juliette Binoche), whose husband (a famous composer) and daughter are killed in a car crash at the beginning of the film. Julie decides to break off any connection to her past life, abandoning her home and moving to a Paris apartment. In White, a Polish man named Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is divorced and abandoned by his French wife of six months, Dominique (Julie Delpy). He eventually returns to post-communist Poland, rebuilds his life, and becomes determined on seeking revenge. Red closes out the trilogy with the story of an unlikely friendship that forms between a kindhearted young model (Irène Jacob) and a cynical old judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

Blue begins the trilogy with a bang - a purely figurative one, though, since Blue is a very quiet, subtle, and somber film. There is no “plot” to speak of, other than the set up in which Julie loses her family in a car crash. Rather, Kieslowski gives us an almost first-person look into Julie’s life, without providing any exposition. She is an intriguing character from the start precisely because we do not understand her. Why can she not carry on with her suicide attempt? Why does she sleep with her husband’s colleague only days after her release from the hospital? Why does she decide to toss away her husband’s last great work, a piece of music he was writing for a prestigious European concert? These kinds of questions propel Blue, and Binoche’s ambiguous performance is fascinating.

The film is also wonderful to look at. Kieslowski uses the color blue to great effect – a blue haze dominates some scenes, blue beads dangle from Julie’s apartment, and Julie takes late night swims in a lonely blue pool. The film also makes great use of classical music, particularly the consistently replayed “Song for the Unification of Europe” composed by Julie’s late husband. Blue closes with an incredibly artful montage that shows the various characters in Julie’s new life. It is a perfect blending of image and music, and a fitting end to this masterful work of art.

White is considerably less brilliant. It is the only comedy in the trilogy, and as a result seems rather disconnected from the two other films. It is the most narratively busy movie in the trilogy, with its story arc of a Polish man who gets divorced by his wife, winds up a beggar in Paris, returns to Poland, starts a successful business, and eventually hatches a revenge scheme to get even with his wife. Yet for all this plotting, the characters themselves simply are not very interesting. The relationship between Karol and his wife Dominique, which the entire film hinges upon, is never fully developed. For the most part, the film fails to connect on an emotional level.

White is not without its strengths, however. As with the other films in the Three Colors Trilogy, it features exceptionally strong acting from its leads, particularly Zbigniew Zamachowski as Karol. His performance is not as nuanced as the female leads in Blue and Red, but he is a perfectly likable and funny hero. The supporting cast is equally strong, with the standout being Janusz Gajos as Mikolaj, the Polish man who befriends Karol and helps him to get his life back. Mikolaj is not without his own demons, however, and the friendship between Karol and Mikolaj is one of the most compelling features of White. Kieslowski also again makes great use of the color white in telling his story. White is not a bad film, necessarily. It just feels somewhat lightweight in the company of Blue and Red.

Red brings the trilogy full circle with a fascinating study of chance and friendship. Irène Jacob stars as Valentine, a lonely young model who by chance meets a retired judge named Joseph Kern when she runs over his dog. Valentine is initially turned off by Joseph’s cynicism and habit of spying on his neighbors. Yet a friendship quickly develops between these two unlikely friends. Running parallel to this story is the story of Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), a young judge struggling with love. Auguste lives next door to Valentine, yet they somehow never meet.

Red works on a number of different levels. There are character parallels between the young and old judge, there is the sheer artistry of the cinematography and editing, and there are the motifs that echo themes from the previous two films. But the most memorable scenes in Red are those of Valentine and Joseph just talking. I have consistently praised the acting of the trilogy, but Jean-Louis Trintignant as Joseph really outdoes himself here. Like Valentine, we at first dislike Joseph and take him for a nasty old man, but Trintignant slowly shows us the many layers that make up this man, and the tragedy that he is hiding. Above all, Red is an intelligent film about human connections.

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy is a work greater than the sum of its parts. Although I did not greatly appreciate White, I have come to admire it as a piece of the whole, along with the masterful Blue and Red. The whole trilogy could be dissected endlessly, in an examination of its themes, and its use of color, cinematography, music, and editing. Yet what stood out to me upon first viewing were the quiet moments of pure human emotion - Julie’s conversation with a stripper in Blue, Mikolaj’s life-altering decision in White, and Valentine and Joseph’s final conversation in Red. This is the real triumph of the Three Colors trilogy – besides being a technical triumph, it understands what it is to be human.

Blue: A
White: B –
Red: A

Trilogy: A -

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