Krzysztof Kieslowski’s cooler-than-cool trilogy exploring Liberty, Equality and Fraternity remains the most essential French film collection of the 1990s.
If, as we’ve discussed previously, Betty Blue was the Euro arthouse darling of the 1980s, then Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy was the 1990s equivalent – the films most beloved of middle-class self-proclaimed intellectuals who wanted to show how smart and sophisticated they were. It became so much of a clichéd way of showing your sophisticated tastes that it was even mocked on Friends when Rachel claimed Three Colours: Red as her favourite film (when in reality it was Weekend at Bernie’s).
Of course, as with Betty Blue, we can’t allow the pretensions of the chattering classes to colour (no pun intended) our view of the films. By any standards, this is a remarkable collection of movies – perhaps not quite as flawless as they are made out to be (especially not if you look at them as one whole piece rather than three mostly unrelated films), but unquestionably among the finest films of the decade.
Made between 1993 and 1994, the films take their titles from the colours of the French flag and are loosely based on themes of the motto of the French Republic – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. These themes play loosely, sometimes ironically within the films, but each certainly makes a sort of sense within the central story.
Three Colours: Blue opens the trilogy, and stars Juliette Binoche as Julie De Corcy, the only survivor of a car crash that kills her celebrity composer husband Patrice and young daughter. At first, the shock drives her to attempt suicide – but when this fails (because of her own resistance), she instead decides to bury her past life – selling up her possessions, moving to a flat in Paris and attempting to live anonymously, apart from others. But her past won’t let go so easily – her husband’s former assistant, Olivier (Benoît Régent), who has long been in love with her, announces that he will be completing Patrice’s final work – a piece celebrating European unity. This forces Julie to confront him and ask him to stop – but she is slowly drawn into helping, as the film implies it was actually she who actually wrote the music to begin with. She also finds that her late husband had a lover, now pregnant, and is slowly pulled into the lives of others she has tried to be distant from – a neighbour who works at a live sex show and is being harassed by the other tenants of the building, her estranged mother, events that slowly pull her out of her isolation and to the point where she can face her loss.
In many ways, Blue is the most conventional film of the trilogy in narrative terms. You can easily imagine this story being told in some flat TV drama or throwaway movie. What makes it stand out is not so much the thin story as the combination of performances and visual flair. I would say that this is the most visually arresting of the three films – every shot is carefully staged and beautifully executed, every moment having a strange beauty about it. Add to this Binoche’s remarkable central performance, her determined coldness being slowly prosed open throughout the film, and the icy atmosphere of the blue that dominates the palate early on (the only one of the three films to really hammer home the titular colour) slowly opening up as her character does. It’s initially played as a tragedy, but the ‘liberty’ comes with both Julie’s shedding of the past and her acceptance of it.
The film also sets the scene for what is to come – each story deals, to an extent, with reinvention, the abandonment of the past and creation of a new identity, aspects of voyeurism and spying, and the pain of love, where those we care for turn out to be cruel, traitorous or exploitative. The film also points out the importance of the score – Patrice’s Euro Unity theme (an idea that would’ve been scoffed at by isolationist Brits then, as now) is authentically pompous, but also plays in more subtle moments throughout, coming back to drag Julie back to her past through memory. The music scores for all three films, composed by Zbigniew Preisner, are emotive, grand, sweeping and moody – they play a major part in dictating our emotional responses to each story.
Three Colours: White is, by a small degree, the weakest of the trilogy and also (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not) the only one with a male protagonist. It’s also the only comedic story, albeit in a rather dark and cynical manner. Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is a Polish hairdresser living in Paris, bring divorced by his rather shrewish wife Dominique (Julie Delphy). He looks oddly like Sam Raimi but is essentially the sort of downtrodden Pole in Paris played by Roman Polanski in The Tenant. Finding himself with a suitcase of possessions, no money (his bank account has been frozen), no home and no passport, he is befriended by a fellow Pole who agrees to help him go home via the old ‘hiding in a suitcase’ routine. This amazingly works, and before long – through luck and cunning – Karol is making a fortune on the black market and through shifty property deals. Enough for him to start his own business, play the slick and shady businessman and fake his own death in order to lure Dominique to Poland, where he can take his revenge on her.
Unlike the other two films, both set in Paris, White takes place mostly in Poland, and makes a few digs at both the country and the European Union it aspired to be part of, the post-Communist nation shown as corrupt and degraded – Karol’s transformation from sympathetic loser to slick-haired wheeler-dealer obsessed with revenge seems to represent the whole nation’s shift in attitude.
As a stand-alone film, White is an entertaining enough tale – the ‘equality’ perhaps being Karol’s climb up the economic scale and his bringing down of his wife, who could scarcely be more unpleasant in the early part of the film – but it doesn’t seem all that exceptional. Outside this trilogy, it would probably be a better movie, unhampered by weight of expectation, but also might be more anonymous. As a comedy-drama, it works very well, but it has less visual flair and less sympathetic characters, making it the weakest link of the three.
If White is surprisingly ordinary, then Three Colours: Red is unquestionably the oddest film in the trilogy. Irene Jacob is Valentine, a part-time model in a long-distance relationship with a man in England who we only hear on the phone sniping at her with suspicions and petty jealous demands. When she hits a dog in her car, she takes it to the surprisingly indifferent owner, a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Through a series of events, the pair strike up a strange, uncomfortable friendship, even though he is cantankerous and prone to listening in on his neighbours’ phone calls. It turns out that they have mutual connections within the supporting characters, some of which become increasingly odd and obsessive side stories. Valentine seems to be the trigger to pull the judge out of his lonely world of isolation and voyeurism, and he seems to have a near-mystical understanding of her. The judge dreams of her future, but we never hear the full details – just enough to intrigue.
Red is the most ambiguous film of the series – you can read it several ways, including as a curious fantasy film if that pleases you. It has at its centre a couple of very long sequences of Jacob and Trintignant talking in his ramshackle home, scenes that rely on the strong performances and Kieslowski’s confident direction to be as compulsive and moving as they are. This is certainly the most emotive of the trilogy, and definitely the one to end on (the films don’t otherwise necessary need to be seen in production order) as the final shots bring all three films together.
Each of the three films interconnects slightly, in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments. The obvious (in all senses) connection is a repeated shot of people struggling to but bottles into bottle banks. In Blue, the struggle is done alone; in White, it’s a moment of difficulty shared with Karol; in Red, Valentine helps the woman struggling. Liberty, equality and fraternity, film by film.
A couple of decades on, we can look at these films freed from the hype and the fashion statement aspects that saw the films so lauded initially. Seem with a critical eye, it’s clear that these were, in a sense, as self-consciously hip as any Tarantino movie – Kieslowski certainly knew exactly how to give his audience what would make them swoon. And Blue, in particular, can be seen as a triumph of style over substance (lots of the former, little of the latter). But the films also now seem more significant, freed from the weight of dinner party chatter interpretation. White is a very good film by itself, and Blue and Red are excellent stand-alone films. As a trilogy, they take on something else – and watching them back-to-back is a surprisingly painless experience. If your wallet only stretches to the one, I’d probably suggest Blue (Red is the better film, but perhaps less immediately engaging) – but ideally, you should be owning all three films.
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