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Blu-ray Review: The Three Colors Trilogy — The Criterion Collection

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The Films

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.

The Blu-ray Discs

Criterion presents all three films in 1080p high definition in their original aspect ratios of 1.85:1. Each of these presentations represents a significant upgrade from the Miramax DVD box set released in 2003. Each of the films features a different cinematographer and the varying visual strategies all look marvelous. Blue has the most prominent grain structure, which can become quite heavy in dark scenes, but never comes across as digital noise. The grain reveals beautifully filmic fine detail in nearly every shot. White has a very clean look, with excellent clarity of images, while Red gets the most visual firepower thanks to its bold, flushed color palette. Jacob’s modeling session in front of a bright red background is an utter knockout. All three of the films feature consistently sharp images, film-like presentations and damage-free transfers.

Audio is presented in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks for each film. Bright and clean, with especially robust moments during Preisner’s powerful music cues, each one is excellent. Unfortunately, an encoding error seems to have snuck in on the White disc, which does not allow the user to translate the 2.0 track into a surround version via Pro Logic decoding, which the booklet suggests. Word is, replacement discs will be available directly from Criterion sometime this month.

Special Features

Criterion has brought together an outstanding collection of bonus material, creating a good deal of their own content and carrying some selections over from the Miramax release. The Miramax set was similarly bountiful in its extras, and with a lot of that material not making the transfer over, it’s probably worth holding onto for fans.

New material on the Blue disc includes a video essay by Annette Insdorf (Insdorf provided commentaries for all three films on the Miramax set, none of which are carried over here) as well as a new interview with composer Preisner. Also new is Kieslowski’s student short film The Tram. The disc also features a student film Kieslowski acted in called The Face, which was on the Miramax White disc.

Previously available extras include a cinema lesson with Kieslowski, a selected-scene commentary with Binoche, interviews with much of the cast and crew. The theatrical trailer is also included.

The White disc has a new video essay by Tony Rayns, new interviews with cowriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz and stars Delpy and Zamachowski, and two short documentaries by Kieslowski — Seven Women of Different Ages and Talking Heads. Carried over from the previous release are another cinema lesson and a short making-of. The theatrical trailer is included.

On Red, the new extras are a video essay by Dennis Lim, a new interview with Jacob and the 1995 feature-length doc Krzysztof Kieslowski: I’m So-So… Ported over are a third cinema lesson, interviews with producer Marin Karmitz and editor Jacques Witta, behind-the-scenes footage and a featurette on the film’s premiere at Cannes. The theatrical trailer rounds out the disc.

The package also includes a hefty 78-page booklet featuring essays by Colin MacCabe on the trilogy, Nick James on Blue, Stuart Klawans on White and Georgina Evans on Red. Also included are reprints of interviews with Kieslowski and the three cinematographers of the trilogy.

The Bottom Line

A well-appointed and visually stunning box set of three terrific films, Criterion’s release of The Three Colors Trilogy is a must-own, but hold onto the previous DVD set for the commentaries, interviews and short films that didn’t make it over.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.