Firstly, I should establish a caveat. Yes, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours is technically three films – the first is Blue, the second is White and the third is Red. But I struggle to see any of these individual films existing on their own. To me, Blue, White and Red are three vignettes in the same larger narrative. Despite lacking overlaps in plot and character, all three films are linked by one very simple fact: that they are French. Each film is titled after one of the colours on the French national flag. After the French revolution, each colour symbolised an ideal that was hoped to characterise the new republic. Blue stood for ‘liberty’, white stood for ‘equality’ and red stood for ‘fraternity’. Kieslowski explores the many forms that these ideals take in modern day France, as all three films explore what it means to be a woman in late 20th Century Paris (something I know all too well about).
Kieslowski is guiding you on how to interpret the film in the most subtle way possible; inevitably, you’ll watch Blue through the thematic lens of liberty, White through the lens of equality, and Red through the lens of fraternity. And that’s what Three Colours ultimately becomes. It is a master-class in subtlety, restraint, and how to say so much without saying anything at all. Love and loss have never been so compelling, powerful and absorbing.
The first film in the trilogy is Blue. Blue follows the emotional heartache of Julie (Juliette Binoche) after her composer husband and her daughter die in a car accident, showing us all the ways she tries to cope with her loss in her everyday life: sex, swimming, music. The colour blue is cold, it implies peace, it is the colour of the Earth – the sky and the ocean. Blue permeates the film, from Julie’s blue chandelier to the deep blue water of the pool she swims in. But in this film, blue symbolises liberty. And this is a slow, beautiful film about a woman trying to free herself from the stranglehold of loss.
Not much is spoken in Blue. Rather, all the ideas of the film and emotions of Julie are expressed through Juliette Binoche’s delicate and restrained performance. We not only see her break down when memories of her husband and daughter come flooding back, but we also see her attempts to be stoically emotionless as well, and we feel as if she is fighting back tears constantly. Every time these memories come flooding back, we hear the music from her husband’s unfinished symphony suddenly play. The overwhelming aura of ‘blue’ around the film creates a cold mood, but Juliette Binoche’s poignant performance gives the film a gripping emotional core. The end result is one of the most emotionally involving and least sentimental films you’re ever likely to see.
The second film in the trilogy is White. White follows the escapades of Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a Polish immigrant in Paris, after his French wife Dominique (Julie Delpy) divorces and humiliates him. Karol returns to Poland in a suitcase, and begins to restore equilibrium to his shattered life, especially through his elaborate scheme to take revenge on Dominique. The colour white signifies purity, innocence, renewal. White permeates the film, from the cold white of the Polish snow to the clean white of Dominique’s snowy blonde hair. But in this film, white symbolises equality. And this is a sharp, light film about a man trying to get even with his ex-wife and achieve psychological renewal.
White is most people’s least favourite of the trilogy, but I think it might just be my favourite. It is light-hearted, but never jauntily funny, while simultaneously being rather bleak, but never emotionally draining. If this is foremost a comedy, as some have professed, then it would be one of the least laugh-out-loud comedies I’ve ever seen, and White would make White Chicks look like inspired comic brilliance (is it racist to say that the French aren’t a particularly funny race? I think I can say that – I’m one 256th Corsican). But I’ve never looked at White as a comedy per se. It does have a lighter tone (perhaps mostly because of the ‘white’ pervading the film) and has a much more kinetic pace than the other two in the trilogy, but still deals with ‘heavy’ themes like the others – from assisted suicide to rampant capitalism. The bemusing plot spirals in unpredictable directions, making White the most entertaining and accessible film in the trilogy.
The final film in the trilogy is Red. Red follows the burgeoning friendship between a young model Valentine (Irene Jacob) and a reclusive, retired judge Joseph (Jean-Louis Trintignant – the male lead of Michael Haneke’s Amour) as their lonely lives become entangled by chance. The colour red evokes passion, love and infatuation. Red permeates the film, from the red of Valentine’s clothes to the red curtains behind her as she walks down the catwalk. But in this film, red symbolises fraternity. And this is a complex, muted film about the unlikely friendship forged between two lonely souls.
In Red, Kieslowski allows us greater insight into his characters than in the previous two films. We are positioned within the narrative of the film more so than in Blue and White. An element of voyeurism defines both Valentine and Joseph – Valentine is a model, whose profession revolves around other people observing her, and Joseph fills his time by illegally listening in on his neighbours’ phone conversations. Red is beautifully shot, with nonstatic cinematography that is always following the dual protagonists. We too are voyeuristically observing these characters and their increasingly intertwined lives, as we begin to understand their sense of ennui and isolation within the city of Paris.
Three Colours is an operatic exercise in subtlety, delicately revealing the many forms that love and loss embody in the common humanity of its characters. Simultaneously shattering and uplifting, tender and dark, Three Colours proves Kieslowski to be a master of the filmic craft, grabbing the audience’s emotions without any hack tools like sappy sentimentality. Each film is extraordinarily beautiful and emotionally involving in its own way, but together form this overarching tale about heartbreaking sadness and the emotional renewal that can result from pain, isolation and grief.
Fuck Star Wars, fuck Lord of the Rings, and fuck The Godfather – Three Colours is the greatest trilogy of all time.