This brief review was written as a summary for the Arts and Faith Top 100 Films List.
The great and final act of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s remarkable career was the production of a trilogy called Three Colors — Blue, White, and Red — that represents the colors of the French flag, and the values they represent: liberty, equality and fraternity.
This symphonic, poetic trilogy intrigued me in my first encounter with its opening chapter, Blue. Then it began to haunt me, and I returned to see that film four times in the theater. As I began learning to translate Kieslowski’s unconventional, intuitive form of storytelling, I fell in love with his images, with the performances he drew from his actors, and with the work of his musical partner, Zbignew Priesner. Since then, Three Colors has become my favorite cinematic achievement. I return to it again and again, blessed by its visual beauty, its musical invention, its astonishing performances (especially Juliet Binoche in Blue), and its inspired spiritual exploration.
Filmed in three countries (France, Poland, Switzerland), their plots overlap only slightly. Watch closely, and you’ll see the different main characters pass each other and remain strangers.
Blue, empowered by what may be Juliette Binoche’s greatest performance, is the first: In it, the grieving widow of an internationally renowned composer must decide whether to assist in the completion of her husband’s unfinished work — a symphony about the reunification of Europe. As she tries to begin a new life and escape the pain of memory and loss, she becomes entangled in the lives of her husband’s assistant Olivier, a prostitute named Lucille, and a beautiful stranger named Sandrine who keeps a scandalous secret. Blue is a personal journey of grief, forgiveness, and healing, but it is also a story about the heart of Europe, which history has broken to pieces, and all that will be necessary for reconciliation and hope.
White is a dark but whimsical comedy about Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a Polish hairdresser whose wife (Julie Delpy) humiliates him and abandons him. Furious and vengeful, he makes a devil’s bargain with a depressed stranger named Mikolaj, finds his way into wealth, and then stages a disappearing act that will help him carry out a wicked plot. Even as the film focuses on Karol’s misery, his unexpected failures, and his attempt to “dominate” Dominique, it’s also about Poland’s uncertain future and how cultural transformation may bring in a whole new wave of problems.
Red, the last chapter, follows a young fashion model named Valentin (Irene Jacob) who catches a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in an act of voyeurism. Frustrated by the legal system’s inability to uncover the truth of a matter, the old man sits at home and uses sophisticated surveillance to listen in on the “truth” of his neighbors’ private telephone conversations with some sophisticated surveillance. While the judge has given up on law, Valentine’s legalism makes her judgmental and condemning. Slowly they explore a middle ground — fraternity — until the film brings all three of the trilogy’s episodes together in an unexpected and dramatic finale.
While the films explore themes of liberty, equality and fraternity, don’t let those limit your experience or narrow your interpretation. They do not begin to summarize the wisdom that these films convey — many other themes, questions, and insights suggest themselves to us through the course of the stories.
But the three themes indicated can prove helpful as starting points for those who want to engage with and discuss the trilogy. And they are best phrased as questions: In Blue, what happens when Julie pursues personal “liberty” from her past and her pain? What would true, life-giving liberty look like? Or in White, what kind of “equality” is Karol seeking? These themes are suggested like lenses that will reveal different paths into understanding the riches of these stories.