It’s a little daunting writing about Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy. Filmed back to back and released to universal acclaim at consecutive Venice (Blue, 1993), Berlin (White, 1994) and Cannes (Red, 1994) Film Festivals, the Polish director’s disparate trilogy has taken on a kind of legendary status, with each film recognised as a classic even if removed from the pretence of any overarching theme (nominally that each film represents a French revolutionary ideal: liberty, equality and fraternity) or strained attempt at inter-film continuity (all three stories touch on each other in ways which are arguably entirely superfluous).
Each film is entirely different, not only in terms of story but in genre, setting and mood. Blue, which stars Juliette Binoche as a widow living in the shadow of a car crash which has killed her husband and daughter, is a tragedy and deeply introverted drama about a person’s longing to shed attachments and forget the past, set in Paris. White is a searing black comedy about revenge, social isolation and the immigrant experience, the majority of which is set in Warsaw, with dialogue in Polish. Julie Deply co-stars as a cold but beautiful woman who publicly humiliates her downtrodden husband (Zbigniew Zamachowski), inspiring an elaborate criminal plot. Finally, the Swiss-set Red is a kind of love story with thriller overtones, as Irene Jacob’s smiling and compassionate model Valentine strikes up an unlikely friendship with a cynical, misanthropic retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) after running over his dog.
Aside from fleeting, knowing cameos, the films are linked by repeated visual motifs (the image of an old person recycling glass; the opening shots of technology filmed from below) and personnel – notably composer Zbigniew Preisner whose music is so key to the trilogy, and most obviously the first film which centres around the death of a composer and the continued (and intrusive) life of his music which torments the protagonist and emphasises key emotional beats. They also share the director’s eye for small details and elaborate shot composition. But whilst some see Euro-scepticism as a key recurring theme (the films were released in the shadow of the Maastricht Treaty and reference the EU) to me the films seem resolutely apolitical and even amoral, even taking into account the supposed link to the ideals of the French revolution and the ideology they imply.
Blue, the “liberty” chapter, centres around the emotional liberty of Binoche’s Julie who finds she is no more free to forget her dead husband, his music or her new lover (Benoît Régent) than she is to completely detach herself from possessions and connections with the world outside her sparse Parisian flat. In this way the film is about a lack of liberty. Meanwhile White, through the tragicomic revenge storyline, is more about the concept of getting even than traditional notions of social “equality”, even if the main character’s upward social mobility – moving from poor barber to slick-haired businessman – could be seen as evidence of that traditional definition (and even still, it’s a disturbing portrayal of the ideal, with equality achieved through a loss of innocence and the embrace of criminality). As the “fraternity” chapter, Red is perhaps ultimately the most sincere and least sardonic of the trilogy – as the recognition of common ground and growth of great affection between otherwise opposite characters forms the heart of the story.
Above all these are beautiful films – towering technical achievements – filled with memorable images and sounds. The actors are superb in all three movies with near career best performances from the three central actresses in particular. Blue is the most innovative and unique film: a bravura exercise which shows off Kieślowski’s immense skill, with its counter-intuitive use of fades, inspired music reading sequences and intense bursts of the titular colour, though it is fittingly quite cold and scholarly. White is by far the most enjoyable film, full of bleak jokes which are intermittently dryly amusing and hilarious – not least of all the character’s brutal welcome upon his return to Poland. Red is , appropriately enough, the most passionate, heartfelt film – a poignant and morally complex look at ageing and the naivete of youth with regard to love and idealism.
Each so very different and yet all three are stunning examples of cinema’s possibilities whether seen in isolation or viewed as part of the sprawling intended whole. You could argue all day about whether Three Colours: Red was wronged when the Palm d’Or went instead to Pulp Fiction, but the fact that this argument is still waged within the pages of worthy film criticism should tell you all you need to know about the enduring significance and power of this incomparable trilogy.
Each film comes with around an hour of invaluable extras which offer a great deal of insight, not only into the technical process behind the lighting, acting and editing of the films, but also into the imagery and themes.
The best of these see Kieślowski chain smoking in an editing suite, explaining frame-by-frame the intentions and storytelling mechanics behind a scene from each film. These “masterclass” sessions are a gift to cinephiles and aspiring filmmakers, especially with the director having passed away over a decade ago. Each lasting just under ten minutes, they see Kieślowski explaining the coffee shop scene in Blue (with particular emphasis on a close-up of a sugar cube), the opening shots of White (focussing on the decision to open on a briefcase) and the sequence in Red that sees Valentine searching for a runaway dog.
The discs also feature extensive interviews lasting around 20 minutes with Binoche, Deply and Jacob about their respective roles, as they effectively provide mini-commentaries on each movie – re-watching key scenes and recalling the experience of filming as well as their impressions of the director. Producer Marin Karmitz is also on hand to talk about financing and releasing each movie and the origins of the project as a whole, telling several amusing anecdotes about getting drunk on whiskey with his director along the way. Blue and Red also feature extensive interviews with editor Jacques Witta which really get under the skin of the editing process, as he shows deleted scenes and individual shots that were cut in the name of pacing and disciplined storytelling.
White and Red also have “making of” features around 20 minutes long, which show a lot of low quality on-set footage inter-cut with interview footage of Kieślowski. Red also boasts a featurette about the film’s 1994 début in Cannes, showing some of the press conferences (in which the director announced his retirement) as well as interviews with the actors, who face some hostile questions from French journalists about their director’s perceived coldness.
Theatrical trailers on all three discs round out this fascinating package, far above the usual shallow extras which are often more akin to marketing features than film analysis. Here the special features leave you with the strong impression (however false) that you intimately know Krzysztof Kieślowski and have new understanding of his much vaunted masterpieces.
The extras are all standard definition and many older features have not made the transition from the original DVD release, but it’s still a very good package.
The Three Colours Trilogy boxset is released on Blu-ray today.