Triple Threat: The Three Colors Trilogy

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s final films were an arthouse critique of Europe as it entered a new age

Movies Features Krzysztof Kieślowski
Triple Threat: The Three Colors Trilogy

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Maybe that’s why the trilogy is such a satisfying structure for so many epic series or curious corners of cinema history. This year in Triple Threat, Ken Lowe revisits another of cinema’s best trilogies each month, including some unofficial trilogies that have come to define a director, actor, or time in film history. You can follow the series here.

“Liberty, equality, fraternity” is France’s motto, the country’s rallying cry during its revolution and its statement of principle as a modern democracy. Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy treats each of these concepts with some measure of irony, detachment and criticism. The films—Blue, White and Red—unfold in different places, deal with different characters and tackle different subject matter even if, tonally, they all feel strangely similar. There’s connective tissue between the movies, but very little of it, and the look-how-it’s-all-connected reveal at the end of the final film, Red, feels poorly set up.

But, there’s also a scene in all three movies involving an elderly person (not the same one) so stooped that they can’t get a bottle into a recycling receptacle. In fairness to all three of these elderly Europeans, it is always an absurd scene: If a grown person, even a stooped old person, can’t get one green bottle into a recycling container, how poorly designed is the damn container? Surely a child or a disabled person couldn’t manage the feat, either. In all but one case, nobody even helps the poor old person. Set in and around the time when the European Union was about to be officially formed—it’s an explicit plot point in one film—it’s an inescapable indictment of European society as it’s being led by Western European powers like France (Kieślowski, who died in 1996, was Polish).

Now, 1993 was a long time ago. The war now happening in Europe seems bizarre and unthinkable, but in 1993 it must have felt inevitable, and the prospect of a European Union an impossible dream when the living memory of so many more people included two world wars that heralded the end of a different age. The 1990s were a time of tacky hubris in the Western world: full of articles and books about liberal democracy heralding the end of history as we knew it. The Nazis and Commies were defeated, Europe (which is always at war, historically speaking) was politically unified and the collapse of the Soviet Union meant no meaningful challenges to liberal democracy. It was pretty tone deaf, considering the conflicts and galling injustices going on in every other corner of the globe at the same time.

That dissonance isn’t the point of Kieślowski’s trilogy, in which his trio of protagonists are all struggling emotionally with heavy things like grief, rejection and loneliness, but watching it nowadays, it is the inescapable subtext.

The Movies

Blue begins with shots of a family traveling by car, and the brake line dripping fluid that they don’t know about. The crash claims the lives of Julie’s (Juliette Binoche) husband and daughter. As we watch her wretched convalescence in a hospital, we learn that her husband was a world-famous composer whose anticipated symphony celebrating the impending creation of the European Union is now seemingly destined to be unfinished. (The film came out two months before the treaty forming the E.U. took effect.)

We also learn, from a journalist who won’t give her any space, that Julie may be responsible for her husband’s compositions. The film follows her as she desperately tries to distance herself from her past, choosing to protect herself from the unbearable pain of her grief by divesting herself of all connection and possession. It’s ultimately a search for freedom—freedom from the obligation to a husband she learns has cheated on her, freedom from the public eye during her time of woe, freedom even from having to keep a home or take responsibility for causing more tragedy. At one point, unable to contemplate kicking a family of rats from her apartment, she enlists a neighbor’s cat and then just deploys it like a weapon, leaving the clean-up to a sex worker who lives downstairs whom she’s unintentionally befriended (Charlotte Véry).

Julie eventually achieves closure with her dead husband’s legacy and even seems to commit to accepting the spotlight. Whether she will achieve it, and whether it truly means “liberty” for her, is an open question.

White follows the story of Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a Polish immigrant whose Parisian wife (Julie Delpy) divorces him for being unable to consummate their marriage. Finding him sleeping in her studio, she lights the place on fire to pin the crime on him, and he finds himself penniless in the metro. There, he’s helped by another Pole abroad, Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), who makes an odd offer: If he’ll kill a guy who has requested he be killed, he’ll pay Karol a tidy sum. Karol agrees and, seeing that his now ex-wife has already moved on to another man, decides to go with Mikolaj back to Poland.

Nothing goes Karol’s way for a while. On the run from the cops and having lost his passport, Karol smuggles himself into Poland in Mikolaj’s suitcase, which is stolen by unscrupulous airport employees who leave Karol beaten up in a landfill. Unwilling to go back to his career as a hairdresser (even a well-regarded one), Karol turns to a life of crime to finance his plan to take revenge on his cruel ex-wife. It’s a plot that involves climbing to the top and then taking truly extreme measures to lure her into a trap. And at the end, it’s unfortunately still very clear that Karol just isn’t over the woman, despite all she’s done to him, and he to her.

The stark differences between Eastern and Western Europe, and the tenuous life of an immigrant, are centerstage in White, the movie Kieślowski said is focused on “equality.” When Karol remarks that his brother has put up a neon sign at their old salon, his brother jokes: “Haven’t you heard? We’re in Europe now.”

Red is the most difficult to parse at first. Valentine, a runway model (Irène Jacob), can never quite get to the phone fast enough to answer her demanding and suspicious boyfriend’s calls. While out driving, she is distracted and hits a runaway dog that, it turns out, is cooking up a litter of puppies. When she takes “Rita” to her owner, she finds a cold and distant retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who doesn’t seem to care whether the dog lives or dies and won’t take it back. Valentine also discovers that the reclusive judge uses a listening post in his house to spy on the phone conversations of everyone in his neighborhood, and quietly judge the petty dramas of their lives. At the same time, the movie follows a young legal student, Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) as he deals with a shocking betrayal and the heartbreak that follows it.

The movie moves a bit more slowly and a bit less impressively than the previous two entries, but the theme of “fraternity” is perhaps more central to the story than those of either other film: Valentine and the judge are both isolated people as the film begins, and as it ends, they have come together—not just with one another, but, as we come to realize, with the characters of the other films, whose presences have been hinted at in one another’s features all throughout the trilogy.

The Three Colors trilogy isn’t one I hear namechecked very often today—Which arthouse films are?—but the movies were home runs with critics, garnering Academy Award and film festival recognition. They were also Kieślowski’s last films, and also the ones that truly garnered him international renown and acclaim. The movies are in that rare and bittersweet category of films that represent a director ending his run with his very best work.

Best Entry

There are a lot of things to recommend about each entry in the trilogy, from Red’s intriguing interconnectedness and story of redemption to White’s tale of an underdog pulling off a masterful revenge—all, it should be said, shot masterfully by Slawomir Idziak (Blue), Edward Kłosiński (White) and Piotr Sobociński (Red). That said, Blue is simply miles ahead of the other two in Idziak’s cinematography, in Binoche’s raw performance and in the way it so purposefully makes the score—the symphony that is at the heart of the story—into the subject of the film. I can’t think of another movie that’s played with the idea of whether music is diegetic or not. There are times when something will happen and the film will black out for a moment to play a musical phrase, then fade back in, no time seeming to have passed, and we know that whatever it was that was just said to Julie has hit her with a bolt of inspiration. These surprising intrusions, combined with scenes where Julie is examining the music as we hear it in her mind, are among the most compelling examples I can recall of filmmaking succeeding so perfectly on an emotional and a technical level all at once.

Trilogy Trivia

Kieślowski said that his motivation in choosing these three colors—the colors of the French flag in the left-to-right order in which they appear when it is flown—really had to do with the film finding its funding in France, and that while the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity might have been replaced by other things, the films themselves would largely look the same. It’s hard not to see that, having heard him say it, but it’s also easy to see how skillfully he was able to work the concepts into stories about emotions and travails that are universal.

Marathon Potential

At a total runtime of well under six hours, it is not difficult to grab a couple bottles of pear brandy, cook up some pierogi and try to shotgun all of these movies, but I’m not sure I would want to hang out with the friend group who would be stoked for it. There’s also the difficulty that Red just moves like molasses compared to the previous two. These are best enjoyed one at a time, preferably at a time in your life when you are in the valley between two momentous personal epochs. Be sure to schedule it!

Join us next month as Triple Threat sets the high table for the Hannibal Trilogy of Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon.

Kenneth Lowe is projected to infect the entire world population 27,000 hours from first contact. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses, on Bluesky, and read more at his blog.

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