*Note: Contains Plot Spoilers*

An Introduction:

My first contact with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s breathtaking Three Colors came one winter
night when I watched the Golden Globes and noticed a few nominations for the film
Blue.  I was probably thirteen at the time—sitting in a darkened basement after the kids
I’d babysat had fallen asleep and I found myself filled with intrigue as I watched those
haunting images emerge onscreen.  I never forgot the mystical feeling Kieslowski’s
cinema evoked just from those precious clips aired on the Golden Globes.  Later, I
become better acquainted with the works from television’s Siskel and Ebert—most
notably from Ebert who has been championing the trilogy since its debut and broke his
own top ten rules both the year the films were released in 1994 and when tallying up the
best films of the 90’s alongside Martin Scorsese, by including all three as one work.  

Originally, I saw the films in reverse order and to this day remain so enraptured by the
artistic audacity and compassionate humanity that a viewing of
Red inspires that, like a
great novel, I find myself revisiting it every year or so (careful not to view too much as to
become insensitive) in order to see how the work affects me and how my understanding,
age and life experience causes the meanings to evolve.   The three films, which a few
years ago were released lovingly filled with enough extras to provide a home version of
film school, were inspired by the colors of the French flag and each deals with the
connotations associated:
Blue is for freedom, White stands for equality and Red
applauds fraternity or brotherhood.  For many years, I preferred the three in the reverse
order that I’d originally seen them but watching them this time, realize that life
experience has caused my philosophies to shift—
Red still towers over the others and
remains a personal favorite to this day, but the black anti-comedy of
White has slipped
into third place as I rediscovered
Blue and found more with which to identify as a
mature woman.  

So much has been written on the techniques and philosophical implications of
Three Colors
that a traditional academic approach would be a useless extravagance—an
excess of parroted research and citations of great film professors and thinkers.  Instead,
like the judge in
Red who is looking back at his life, I decided to go on a personal journey
with the films, looking at the ways Kieslowski uses his characters to make us think about
our own lives by weaving in both traditional film study and thoughtful responses to each
individual work.

1)  Blue

The film Blue is quintessential Kieslowski.  He takes what film critic and Kieslowski
expert Annette Insdorf said could’ve been the highly political concept of freedom and
turns it into a personal/psychological look at the idea of liberty from the interior mind
of a female.  Juliette Binoche portrays Julie, who, at the beginning of the film is cruelly
liberated by the tragic death of her world-renowned composer husband and child in a
car accident of which she is the sole survivor.  At first, Julie grapples with the deaths by
attempting a quickly aborted suicide but once she gets out of the hospital, she closes up
their large home and moves into a crummy apartment complex, cutting herself off
completely from her work, friends and any connection to the outside world.  Since as
Binoche notes, life has been hard on Julie, Julie decides to be equally hard on life, acting
out in self-destructive ways that range from crunching down on a sucker so severely it’s
a wonder teeth aren’t broken, sleeping with her husband’s colleague in order to
demystify herself since he’d always placed her on a romantic pedestal, and running her
knuckles harshly along a jagged wall.  She imprisons herself with this new freedom,
seldom leaving her apartment and visits her mother who watches television as a way to
witness the outside world.  They watch a man bungee jump onscreen together—this
symbolic act seems to foreshadow that Julie will need to take a risk, make a jump and
give up this imposed freedom.  She does so when the outside world interferes with her
melancholic solitude—discovering her husband had a pregnant mistress and being
forced to complete a symphony with her husband’s colleague, revealing to viewers that
Julie may have in fact been the composer all along under her husband’s name.  

There’s a meditative quality to the cinematography with the heightened blues invading
each frame and some wonderful symbolism, especially concerning a pool in which Julie
regularly swims laps.  Juliette Binoche explains on the DVD that the pool itself (a device
suggested by the cinematographer) represents life and death and Julie is swimming
between the two.  There’s a beautiful, brief image of rebirth that Binoche carries out
when Julie begins to emerge from the pool and the symphony fills the soundtrack.  Using
music to suggest her state of mind, we watch as Julie sinks back into the pool, gets into
the fetal position and then exits the pool like a fetus being reborn—the water serving as
a baptismal life force.  Binoche’s magnificent performance is the strongest of the three
films and as Ebert notes, the film is an “anti-tragedy”—it solidifies Kieslowski in his
“post-feminist” phase that
Senses of Cinema said marked his later female-centric works
and it’s fascinating that this usage of liberty is to show its limits and not offer the
Bridget Jones type of female proclamation of independence.  Kieslowski seems
to reason that true liberty isn’t possible after all.  Annette Insdorf notes that Julie must
open herself up to her immediate environment and those around her, as there’s an
obligation to life continuing that goes against the idea of true liberty, which Kieslowski

2)  White

Perhaps more than any other image from the entire trilogy, the opening shot of White,
which shows a suitcase traveling on an airport conveyor belt remains the most
memorable of
The Three Colors.  Only after the final credits begin, do we realize that
contained in that suitcase, is our fateful hero, Karol Karol, a sad Polish citizen who
sneaks back into the country of his birth after his icy French wife divorces him for being
unable to consummate the marriage.
White stands for equality and it’s evident early on
in the film that in France, Karol is unequal to his beautiful young wife mostly because he
is unable to speak the language.  Seen today in a state where we’re holding an election to
decide whether or not to exclude illegal immigrants and non-English speakers from
rights guaranteed to English speaking Americans, it gets us even more involved in the
plight of our sad sack hero.  The film, according to Annette Insdorf, relies heavily on
voyeurism—it’s a Hitchcockian device made all the more intriguing being that our hero
is impotent.  However, unlike Hitchcock’s use of voyeurism in classic works like
or Vertigo, Kieslowski’s aim isn’t to make us feel guilty for watching Karol spy
on the woman he still loves and idealizes but rather as Insdorf notes it’s a gentle
voyeurism indicative of the filmgoer and used simply to evoke sympathy.  Further
influence of Hitchcock can be identified in the casting of Julie Delpy as Karol’s wife—
like Hitch’s frequent fascination with cool blondes, this “golden-tressed goddess”
(Insdorf) is perfectly cast as we quickly learn that she’s quite cold and calculating with
much more going on under the surface than her angelic looks imply.  Her cunning and
evil revenge for his impotence causes her to freeze his accounts, burn down her own hair
salon (framing him) and letting him hear her making love to another man over the
phone.  The luminous Julie Delpy was exploited in the advertising for the film with a
box illustrating
White as an erotic delight although there is very little sex in the film

In an exclusive interview, Delpy addresses the work, which she considers to be “a dark
fable with a touch of humor in it.”  Critics agree with some referring to it as an “anti-
comedy” (Ebert) and its humor is as Geoff Andrews notes, pretty broad—a very black
comedy that ironically is given the opposite color for its title of
White.  Much of the
humor of the work comes from the external environment, misfortunes or accidental
encounters and the most seemingly insignificant of objects.  This comedic tone and plot
involving Karol attempting to get revenge on his wife by becoming a successful capitalist
(now that the communist rule in Poland has finished) and then faking his own death
and implicating his wife, has made the work seem like the weakest link in the series.  
While it is perhaps the least emotionally involving or earth shattering of the three, it
provides a much-needed bittersweet piece to the puzzle of the trilogy.  When I was a
younger film buff, fascinated by complicated plots and neo-noirs, I found the greatest
inspiration in works with many twists and turns so White was my second-favorite in the
series.  It didn’t seem to fit in with the others as much but today, while I admit that it
has slipped into third place, after studying the ways in which Kieslowski cherished
ironies and dark humor—this pessimistic tale seems to provide the perfect set-up for
the moral uplift of
Red.  It’s also the only one of the three films featuring a man in the
lead role, although as mentioned earlier, most advertising featured Delpy.  Cited by
Geoff Andrews as the trilogy’s most extroverted performance, Zbignew Zamachowski is
wonderful playing the Nabokovian-inspired hero (his name Karol Karol seems to recall

's Humbert Humbert).  While he’s perhaps less noble than the women in Blue and
Red, we recognize the intense love he feels for his wife and worry when, as predicted, his
plan succeeds but he finds that once they have become equals, they’re both imprisoned
by circumstance.  

The confusing plot caused many friends to view the film a second time in order to fully
grasp the nuances and the ending, which Delpy notes was shot during
Red when
Kieslowski decided he needed to soften or humanize her character, has caused much
debate.  Having faked his own death, Karol becomes touched when he sees his wife cry at
his funeral.  He later has a romantic reunion with her and finally manages to
consummate the marriage with his wife (after they’ve been divorced) before
disappearing to allow her to take the fall for his “murder.”  Once she is imprisoned, he
realizes how much he still loves her and goes to the prison to spy on her with binoculars,
a single tear falling down his cheek.  Delpy’s character communicates with Karol in sign
language, which, according to Delpy, translates to “when I leave, we will go away
together and marry again.”  However, like Delpy, the audience is never sure whether this
scene is real or imaginary, if one or either character is crazy or if they genuinely feel
they are communicating.  Their equality has made them imprisoned (her literally in jail
and him by his fake death) but as Delpy notes, Kieslowski wanted to make sure he
communicated his belief that as long as there was life or love, there was still hope.  

3)  Red

As mentioned earlier, the characters in Blue and White search for freedom and equality
respectively, only to find that those goals in the strictest sense aren’t entirely what they’
d imagined.  According to film critic Geoff Andrews, Kieslowski argues with his study of
Red that love and compassion is in fact the thing for which we
are all searching.  In what would sadly be his final film before his retirement and early
death from heart complications, Kieslowski seems to have made the film he’d been
striving to create his entire life and those who’ve seen his earlier works including
and The Double Life of Veronique will find foreshadowing and small details
he pulled perfectly out of his hat like a magician with
Red. The visuals and music in the
film are used at their expressive best (Andrews) and every frame drips with text and
subtext, making it vital for repeated viewings in order to appreciate its many layers.
Annette Insdorf explains that
Red was to be his summation work and that he didn’t
want to repeat himself on film anymore and had found limitations with the medium
that weren’t present in literature.  Andrews concludes that above all
Red seemed to be a
“thank you” film for his audience who’d stood by him throughout his career.  The film
was also a valentine to its star, Irene Jacob (whose character is ironically named
Valentine).  Kieslowski had worked with Jacob in
Veronique before and had written this
part specifically for the actress, whom Andrews proclaims Kieslowski seemed to have
fallen a bit in love with during their work together.  Jacob has a natural openness of
spirit and great warmth (Insdorf), which seems to radiate off the screen from the
moment the audience first sees her.  We’re instantly connected with this woman and as
Indsorf notes, Valentine is the only character in the trilogy that assists an elderly
woman recycling a bottle (she’d been struggling to do so as characters in the other films
looked on apathetically).  Jacob’s relationship with Kieslowski was so strong that she
was able to suggest a rewrite when she found the first draft too idealized and the female
character not deep enough.  Her instincts regarding Valentine paid off and convinced
Kieslowski, who made her character more complicated by adding in some back story
and family issues that help explain her interactions.

The film contains Kieslowski’s trademark ideas of fate, destiny, coincidence, accidents
(happy and otherwise) and missed or made human connections in its tale of a young
model and student (Jacob) who befriends a retired judge.  The judge, who seems to
represent Kieslowski (according to Andrews and his friend Agnieska Holland), spends
his time spying on his neighbors with high tech recording equipment, listening to their
phone calls and finding him involved in their lives.  While most people would want
nothing to do with such a human being, Insdorf shares that
Red “is a film against
indifference,” and that Jacob’s character is simply “good”—wanting to reach out and
understand another human being to find out his motivations.  Her request that he stop
spying makes him do so—together the two challenge and provoke each other and bond.   
It quickly becomes evident to the viewer that the judge has two personas in the film—the
elderly judge of Valentine’s acquaintance and a younger man whose life shares many
similarities with the older man.  Fascinated by Kierkegaard’s
Repetition or the idea of
living past mistakes over when one is older and has gained wisdom, the film can be read
as Jacob states as “a look at later life and early life” and what happens after your hopes
and dreams don’t work out as planned.  Critics have called the film one of the most
intriguing studies of “platonic love” ever filmed and perhaps by including this second
aspiring judge audiences realize that if the older man were Valentine’s age, the two
would’ve been soul mates.  There is also a question of whether or not the judge is a God-
like figure—one who looks over and “judges” his neighbors.  Although he doesn’t have
any perceived mystical God-like power, it is the judge who helps steer Valentine to her
fate and advises her to leave for her getaway on a ferry.  The ferry ends up crashing and
only a few people are saved in what Insdorf says is a Noah’s Ark of the previous films as
two from each film in the trilogy are saved including Valentine and the young judge who’
ve finally met and may at last become romantically involved.  The end of the film
manages to find hope even in the tragedy of the ferry accident and contains once again,
a close-up of a character looking voyeuristically—this time around, the character is the
judge (or Kieslowski) and as Insdorf proclaims, he’s looking at us, the audience and
implicating us in his final humanity and realization that there’s more to his life than he’
d imagined.  

In Conclusion:

Red is a masterpiece and one of the all-time great foreign imports ever to hit American
soil.  Like the judge who seems to find an inspiration for life or a breath of fresh air in
Valentine (echoing the artist/muse idea of Kieslowski and Jacob), viewers find they are
uplifted and hugged cinematically by this intelligent and inspiring work that will
continue to awe viewers every time they see it.  Tragically, it’s the last film released by
Kieslowski, who after “retiring” seemed to change his mind and was working on
Hell and Purgatory. The completed script for Heaven was filmed by Tom Tykwer (Run
Lola Run
) a few years ago but, while it’s a good film, like Spielberg tackling Kubrick’s A.
we wonder how the original master would’ve made it.  On the DVD for Red, Annette
Insdorf asks a question she cannot answer, wondering if Kieslowski, that great lover of
destiny, perhaps knew of his mortality (his own father had died young and he’d always
been in ill health) and that’s why he chose to make so many films so quickly.  Or she
wonders if it was the pace and the production schedule of cranking out so much in the
last years of his life that ended up destroying his heart.  I don’t want to think the latter—
although to be killed by cinema is the dream of great directors like Scorsese who once
proclaimed he would die behind a camera.  No, in my mind, like the judge in
Red who
seems to know what’s in Valentine’s future, Kieslowski knew his time was limited and
decided to live out his life to the max, looking back like the judge in ways of being able to
reinterpret his past.  It’s a strange idea for someone who doesn’t believe in the
paranormal, but then again, I believe in the power of cinema, and Kieslowski’s
can make a believer out of anyone.
The Three Colors
A Viewer's Guide to
White & Red
By Jen Johans
(c) Jen Johans.   filmintuition.com
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