The remarkable career of Krzysztof Kieslowski ended too soon with his untimely death at the age of 54, but he went out on a high note. The Three Colors Trilogy, made in less than three years, represents a wholly successful merging of aesthetic and thematic concerns — both as individual films and as components of a larger project.
The film’s titular colors — blue, white and red — are largely thanks to the French funding that underwrote the trilogy. That’s reflected in each individual film’s color schemes along with the corresponding French tenets of liberty, equality and fraternity, but Kieslowski’s films don’t just schematically correspond to some kind of gimmicky title treatment. While the colors and their meanings provide a solid thematic jumping point from which to consider the works, the sometimes playful, sometimes confounding metaphysics are much harder to pin down.
Whatever one thinks of Kieslowski’s method of interweaving stories and exploring ideas of spiritual and emotional interconnectedness (much like in his earlier masterwork The Double Life of Veronique), it’s hard to deny the trilogy’s visceral thrills. I’m not sure any modern director matches the sensuality of Kieslowski’s imagery, and each of these films is awash in it.
Blue stars Juliette Binoche as Julie, the wife of a famous French composer, who loses both her husband and her daughter in the car accident that opens the film. At the time of his death, he was working on a piece to symbolize the unification of the European Union, but Julie seems to reject any notions of interpersonal unity in the wake of his demise. Even as she learns of unsavory secrets about her husband, she’s reticent to accept emotional refuge from friend Olivier (Benoit Regent), and does her best to create an entirely new life for herself.
Blue is a pretty stunning confluence of image and sound, with Zbigniew Preisner’s pre-written score informing a number of Kieslowski’s visual choices and Julie’s emotional state. A repeated thunderous cue, accompanied by a charge of blue light or a blackout connects us to the character’s pain with powerful immediacy.
White sees Kieslowski returning for much of the film to his native Poland, and its political implications are likely the most prominent of the three films. In the film’s world, despite the creation of the European Union, countries like Poland certainly have not achieved equality — economically, socially or otherwise — and lag behind. That impotency is funneled into the character of Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) a hairstylist who is literally impotent, and thus divorced by his imperious wife, Dominique (Julie Delpy).
She abandons him with no money or possessions of any kind, leading the beaten-down Karol to return to Warsaw, stowed away in a suitcase without the means to purchase a ticket home. But eventually, a bit of cunning in the real estate market turns things around for Karol, and a revenge plot is hatched.
White is the comic outlier of The Three Colors Trilogy, and its deadpan tone often resembles a Kaurismäki or Jarmusch film. Kieslowski veers into darker territory than either of those filmmakers generally does, but he doesn’t entirely abandon his inner romantic optimist. Flashbacks to Karol and Dominique’s wedding are bathed in gorgeous white light, and eventually, the cynicism of the central plot withers.
Kieslowski closes the trilogy in grand fashion with Red, starring Veronique’s Irène Jacob as Valentine, a fashion model in Geneva who’s having trouble connecting with her boyfriend, who we only hear as a voice on the telephone. As Valentine discovers a tentative friendship with a crusty retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant), we see the romantic tribulations of her neighbor, Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), a man who constantly crosses paths with Valentine but never meets her until the film’s end.
Red is an interesting conclusion to the trilogy — on one hand, it’s the most human of the films, with the friendship between Valentine and the judge acting as its beating heart, but it’s also the most mystical. The judge tells his life story to Valentine, and it becomes clear that Auguste is somehow a kind of double, living out perhaps the same life. The film’s ending also goes for broke on the themes of interconnectedness weaved throughout the trilogy, and while such a finale might seem far too neat, in the sumptuous, mysterious world of Kieslowski, it’s just about perfect.