Liberté, égalité, fraternité. The ideals that constitute the motto of the French Republic are as fraught with practical multiplicity as they are flush with abstract purity. Whether applied to political or personal spheres, the desirability of these ideals, the degree to which we genuinely seek out and uphold them, is mired in second guesses, ambivalences and inexplicable gestures. Do we really want to be free, equal, brotherly?
Devised and scripted by Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski and the Polish writer, lawyer and politician Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the Three Colours Trilogy was the art-house event of the 1990s. It remains one of cinema’s most complete and ambitious directorial statements: emotionally resonant and formally provocative, philosophically rich and unspeakably beautiful, a paragon of collaboration and yet quintessentially auteurist. It uses France’s motto as its conceptual foundation, yet the ways those ideals are explored in Blue (1993), White (1994) and Red (1994) are counterintuitive or obscure. Which is to say, in keeping with human nature, the trilogy’s subject. “All three films are about people who have some sort of intuition or sensibility, who have gut feelings,” Kieślowski once said. They may be more thematic than narrative, but these are stories driven by action, by impulse, not by words or intellect. You won’t watch these films and immediately suss out the characters’ motivations. That’s one of the reasons I find them endlessly watchable.
The opening sequence of Blue is nearly Hitchockian in its cumulative suspense: a close-up of a tire rumbling along a freeway, another of a metallic blue candy wrapper being held out a car window by a child’s hand, another of an engine cable leaking fluid. We see the child’s face in this sequence, which leads up to an accident, but never those of the adults in the car. When sometime after the accident Julie (Juliette Binoche) wakes in hospital, she’s informed of her husband and child’s death by a doctor who we see exclusively as a reflection in Julie’s eye, a shot whose virtuosity cannot overwhelm its usefulness. It’s a way of developing a bond with Julie that’s somehow both intimate and relegated to the surface—we see via her eye, not through it.
Morbid though it may be, Blue considers Julie’s double-loss as a platform for freedom. Her husband was a famous composer. Without family obligations or financial concerns, she’s suddenly, truly free. She evades mourning, doesn’t dwell over photos or headstones, leaves her luxurious country estate for a modest apartment in Paris’ rue Mouffetard. She starts over, consoled by solitude and ordinary daily pleasures. But her husband left behind an unfinished piece, a major commission meant to celebrate the unification of Europe. It was long suspected that Julie was heavily involved in her husband’s work, and the piece, fragments of which have been found by a journalist, will be finished with or without her. We hear those fragments, in actuality composed by Kieślowski collaborator Zbigniew Preisner. They are marked by weighty rests, echoing the film’s idiosyncratic fades-to-black, which mark not the passage of time but something like Julie’s internal pauses. But Blue is also characterized by flutters and gradations: light is always dappled, refracted or corrugated, quietly tumultuous. The film ends with an unexpected, extraordinary act of generosity. Perhaps giving something away becomes Julie’s real route to freedom.
Though not much played for laughs, White is structured like an anxious comedy. Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski, star of Kieślowski’s Dekalog 10), a Polish hairdresser, begins the film stranded in Paris with no money, no home, no passport and, worst of all, no wife. The lovely, cruel Dominique (Julie Delpy) divorces him. Her rationale: Karol’s failure to consummate their marriage. Something about this life—emigration? expectations?—has rendered Karol impotent. But he meets a fellow countryman while playing ‘The last Sunday, tomorrow we’ll part,’ an old Polish favourite, on his comb in the Paris metro. The men hatch an absurd plan to get Karol back home, where he reunites with his brother, delves into crime and real estate, starts a successful business in the newly capitalist-friendly Warsaw, saves a man from suicide, fakes his own death, and, little by little, devises an exceedingly elaborate revenge on Dominique. Or is it a reconciliation? Both possible outcomes suggest an interesting reading of the notion of equality. White is goofy, busy, playful, shot through with sex problems and bleakly amusing contrasts between the economic health of European nations, yet its final scene, recalling Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), finds Karol and Dominique separated, confined in their disparate ways, yet communicating through invented signals, and it is perhaps the most eloquent, mysterious and moving single moment in Three Colours.
The most tightly aesthetically controlled film in the trilogy, Red is filled with red things: an awning, a door, a sweater, a Jeep, a bowling ball, even a bowling alley. Red is love, hate, danger. Colour isn’t a special effect in Red but, as in the films of Antonioni or Tarkovsky, it is what’s in front of the camera; it is objects punctured with significance, and Kieślowski places a magpie’s attention to attractive, enigmatic, often luminous things. Attractive, enigmatic and luminous could also describe Valentine (Irène Jacob, star of Kieślowski’s 1991 masterpiece The Double Life of Veronique), a student, dancer and model living in Geneva. An accident involving a pregnant dog leads to an acquaintance with Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant) a retired judge who has become, in keeping with a number of Kieślowski characters, a chronic voyeur. Fraternity: these two will forge an unusual friendship. Were one of them born either decades earlier or later, they could have made a vibrant couple. Nevertheless, each gains something essential from the other.
Red ends with reports of a ferry’s catastrophic capsizing. There are only seven survivors—six of whom are central characters from the trilogy, two per film. This has been interpreted as coincidence—Kieślowski had an obsession with chance to rival novelist Paul Auster’s—but I prefer to think of it as the reverse: the stories conveyed in Blue, White and Red don’t converge in that ferry accident but rather stem from it. Those six could have been another six and Kieślowski would have told their stories instead. Sadly, Three Colours marked the end of Kieślowski’s story. He announced his retirement from filmmaking after Red and was not to survive another two years. He directed over two-dozen documentaries, a dozen features, and a legendary television series. He died during open-heart surgery at a Polish hospital in 1996. He was 54.