Shades of truth: encountering Kieslowski’s ‘Three Colors.’ – filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski – includes biographical information

John Ottenhoff

SHORTLY AFTER the triumphant completion of his Three Colors trilogy, Blue, White and Red, in 1994, Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski announced his retirement, citing his belief that cinema could not achieve the depth of literature or adequately show a character’s inner feelings. His friends revealed, however, that Kieslowski was in fact planning new projects, including a trilogy provisionally titled Hell, Purgatory, Heaven. But his death at age 54 on March 13, 1996, ended that project and a brilliant cinematic career. His viewers must be content that his accumulated work stands as testimony to the powerful depth of vision that cinema at its best can attain. Kieslowski created films of artistic brilliance and moral depth, haunting inquiries into the modern condition that merit careful attention, and thereby stands with Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa in the ranks of the most important modern film directors.

The Three Colors trilogy offers viewers a fine introduction to the director’s artistry and moral vision. While all three films stand on their individual merits, they also form a closely linked trilogy that demands attention as a whole. The colors and the films represent the French flag and its symbolic values–blue, liberty; white, equality; red, fraternity; yet these films are much more than simple thematic sermons. They can be classified as “art films”: with their superb production values and gorgeous color themes they are a joy to look at. Yet Blue, White and Red are more accurately described as political, social and moral meditations, films that promote reflection more than superficial visual attraction. In Kieslowski’s view, his films ask questions about ideals confronted by the contradictions of everyday life. They are not monuments to great ideals but inquiries: Do people really want liberty, equality, fraternity?

In Kieslowski on Kieslowski (Faber and Faber, 1993), the director identifies his motivation for the trilogy as growing out of his earlier ten films on the Ten Commandments known collectively as The Decalogue: “Why not try to make a film where the commanding dictums of the Decalogue are understood in a wider context? Why not try to see how the Ten Commandments function today?” he said in reference to the Three Colors project. The West, he points out, has implemented the concepts liberty, equality and fraternity “on a political or social plane, but it’s an entirely different matter on the personal plane.” While Kieslowski and his characters often face the abrasions of politics, he claims that all his films are about individuals–“individuals who can’t quite find their bearings, who don’t quite know how to live, who don’t really know what’s right or wrong and are desperately looking.”

Kieslowski asks his questions with insistence and humanity. He also develops his themes with great complexity, irony and a tone of searching. Blue, the first of the trilogy, centers on Julie Vignon (Juliette Binoche), a Parisian woman who finds liberty when her husband, Patrice (Claude Denton), a famous composer, and daughter Anna are killed in an automobile accident. She frees herself from the past, renouncing worldly goods, her estate and human contact; she shucks off the fame that accompanied her husband’s career. Yet the film also interrogates that concept of liberty, eventually showing liberation in Julie’s case as meaning a break with loneliness and isolation. Does freedom mean having nothing left to lose? Or does freedom come only through being connected with others?

Similarly, White questions the actions of its comic protagonist, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), who returns to Warsaw following divorce and humiliation in Paris. Karol finds economic equality in the blooming Polish capitalism and in getting even with his former wife, but do such achievements bring happiness? The triumphant but Chaplinesque Karol (Karol translates as Charlie) is left crying at the film’s end. Is equality worth the price? Red too challenges its viewers to consider what fraternity might be in the disconnected world of modern Europe. Perhaps it might still be attainable–but it probably wouldn’t look as we might expect it to.

IN ALL three films Kieslowski develops his themes with stunning visuality. He also highlights each film’s respective key color with rare cinematic finesse. Red, set in Geneva, especially captures the eye with red cars, red furniture, red awnings, red jackets, red bowling balls. Red is the color of fashion–the world of its protagonist, the model Valentine (Irene Jacob)–a hot color of jumpiness and disconnection. Yet red can also be warm, as the light so often is in this film after Valentine meets a thoroughly unpleasant retired judge, Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

Exemplifying a central Kieslowski theme that life is made up of accidents, opportunities and chance encounters, Red’s central episode involves Valentine running over Kern’s dog. Upon returning the German Shepherd, she finds the judge to be not only indifferent and withdrawn but also felonious: he’s a devoted eavesdropper, listening to the phone conversations of his neighbors. Nevertheless, her initial sense of disgust slowly changes to understanding and friendship, and she changes him. He turns himself in to the authorities, ceases his eavesdropping and rediscovers his humanity. Together they explore issues of truth and justice. The judge echoes King Lear in his musing about justice; now that he has shed the robes of the jurist, he sees how “deciding what is true and what isn’t now seems … a lack of modesty. Vanity.” Again echoing Lear, he asks at one point, “Do you know who I am?” and seeks to know himself. Suffused in a rosy glow of twilight, Trintignant’s judge discovers a kinder shade of red and offers hope that even the most alienated of humans can find themselves and redemption.

WHILE Red centers on a highly unlikely achievement of fraternity, it also highlights the distances between people in a modern communication culture. It’s a film about messages–phone calls, busy signals indicated by flashing red lights, rushed and distant calls between lovers, silences, eavesdropping, malfunctioning pens, splashy advertising campaigns, hurtful newspaper articles–that show our inability to achieve human connections. The film’s secondary plot underscores the point by tracing the parallel lives of Joseph and Valentine, and Auguste Bruner (Jean-Pierre Lorit), a lawyer studying to be a jurist, and his lover, Karin (Frederique Feder), who delivers “personal weather forecasts” by phone. The two couples don’t know each other, never meet each other, yet, from the omniscient viewpoint of the film, we can see how human lives are intricately connected–their pathways interconnect constantly even though they just miss each other; their lives, seemingly on such separate tracks, parallel each other in eerily similar ways. Auguste, for instance, repeats many events that the judge experienced decades earlier (and could be seen as reliving the judge’s life). Ultimately, the film shows how every action has consequences; the judge’s trial for eavesdropping leads to Karin (one of the judge’s victims) meeting a new man, leaving Auguste alone and despondent. Karin’s optimistic weather forecast leads Valentine to take a ferry to England, resulting in her near-death–and survival in the company of Auguste and protagonists from the other Three Colors films.

Kieslowski’s brilliant handling of color in the trilogy goes beyond formal structure and thematic significance to a supple and flexible symbolism. In Blue, we see Julie visiting her aged mother (Emmanuele Riva). The old woman stares blankly at her television screen, on which an even older man bungee jumps from a tower; the blue screen shows him swimming through the air, paralleling the repeated images we’ve already seen of Julie swimming alone in a blue-lit swimming pool. We see images of liberty in both–humans freed from constraints–but also images of loneliness and struggle, humans flailing through the universe, seeking something they cannot find. Blue is also the color of inspiration. Throughout the film, Julie hears bursts of orchestral music, signaled by brilliant blue screens. Here, too, the symbol is complex, for as Julie resists the pull of her late husband Patrice’s music she also finds solace in it; ecstasy and pain seem joined in these blue visions. The film also teasingly suggests that Julie, perhaps, is the real composer of her famous husband’s work. Do the visions represent the reawakening of her own music or a connection to her husband’s?

Thus while the overwhelming tone of Blue is melancholic, a sad largo, blue takes on many shades, including affirmation. Ultimately, however, Kieslowski’s sober meditation on freedom comes to optimistic conclusions. Despite Julie’s attempts to isolate herself, to envelop herself in a blue world of isolation, she finds herself almost unknowingly drawn to human connections. Julie finds musical collaboration possible with Olivier (Benoit Regent), her husband’s assistant, as they return to Patrice’s unfinished “Song for the Unification of Europe.” She finds friendship with neighbor Lucille (Charlotte Very), a stripper–and a fellow human in need. Finally, in a true act of liberation and fraternity, she befriends and provides for Sandrine (Florence Pernel), her late husband’s lover who carries his child. The film ends with an aria from Patrice’s “Song,” the lyrics (unfortunately not rendered in the subtitles) drawn from 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patience, full of goodness; love tolerates all things, aspires to all things. Love never dies.”

Though white is perhaps the least visually interesting color, White is probably the most appealing and popular of the trilogy films. White is both the purity of a wedding dress and pigeon guano raining down on poor Karol Karol as he enters a Paris courthouse. It’s a white toilet and the white-screen blank-out signifying sexual ecstasy. It’s the stark white walls of a new office for capitalists in downtown Warsaw. Most strikingly, we see shades of gray and white in the frozen Polish landscape and overcast, smoky skies. White appears in a snowy garbage dump in which Karol is discarded by thieves upon his return to Poland–smuggled in a suitcase they’ve stolen–an improbable scene that elicits Karol’s enthusiastic “home at last.” White fills the screen as Karol and his friend Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos) frolic on a frozen Warsaw lake.

White, like its counterparts, centers on a single theme but also illuminates themes in the other films. Karol not only discovers the complexities of equality but also the ambiguities of freedom. Like Julie in Blue, he finds himself alone, his marriage to Dominique (Julie Delpy) cruelly ended. Yet his fall ends comically–he’s befriended by his countryman Mikolaj while playing Polish folk songs on his comb in the Paris metro and sent back to Warsaw in a trunk. It is with Mikolaj that he builds an importing business, discovering the pleasures and pains of economic freedom in Poland. The marketplace has been liberated, but is this cauldron of deals and hustling true equality and liberation? Similarly, prosperity allows him to plot his revenge on Dominique, but, more important, he finds fraternity–friendship and human empathy–with Mikolaj, one of many Kieslowski characters who claim that they want “nothing” from life but discover otherwise. Finally, after entrapping his former wife, he even discovers the love that had previously eluded him, much like Red’s misanthropic judge finally recovers his humanity.

THE Three Colors trilogy rewards close and repeated viewings and gains accumulated power as one discovers the intricate connections. In Blue, for instance, we fleetingly see an old woman struggling to deposit an empty bottle in a trash bin on a Parisian street. Julie stares impassively at her, accentuating the loneliness of liberty underscored throughout the film. In White we see an old man struggling in a similar situation. Within its new context, the image now highlights the themes of social mobility and capitalism that White emphasizes. What are the cultural values in which these old people walk the streets in loneliness? the image now prompts us to ask.

In Red Valentine also sees a woman struggling to deposit a bottle. Valentine, however, stops to help her, showing the “fraternity” that the film addresses and once again recontextualizing the previous images we’ve seen. Through such images Kieslowski stresses the unity and common humanity of people. “It doesn’t matter who you are or who I am; if your tooth aches or mine, it’s still the same pain. Feelings are what link people together,” Kieslowski has said.

Other intriguing connections reveal themselves in the trilogy just as the music of fictional Dutch composer Van den Budenmayer (actually the work of Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner) floats through them all. In Blue, as Julie enters a court building, we hear an unidentified voice shouting “Where’s my equality? Is my not speaking French a reason for the court to refuse to hear my case?” It’s just a voice, a nameless person in the wrong room. But in White we learn that the speaker is protagonist Karol Karol, facing the humiliation of a divorce proceeding initiated by his wife, Dominique. The recognition chides us into realizing what individual stories of pain or triumph might lie behind our fellow citizens whom we so easily pass in the street. Red also blatantly connects the trilogy by drawing together characters from the three films through another intrusion of destiny at the film’s end.

All three films touch on issues that face the new Europe. In Blue, set in Paris, Julie’s late husband’s “Song for the Unification of Europe” was to be played simultaneously in 12 European cities. Julie questions whether such an event can occur or unify a world that has lost meaning for her. White, in shifting from Paris to Warsaw, highlights issues of Eastern European democratization and capitalism: the new world of Poland, neatly symbolized by the neon sign at the Karol brothers’ hair salon, is a world of the hustle, of changing values, a world where anything–including a Russian corpse–can be bought. Is this a desirable change, an improvement over the old drab days? Red calls attention to unification through communication–instantaneous connections via phones and television as Valentine in Geneva talks to her boyfriend Michel in England and hears about his car getting stolen in Poland. Yet it also calls attention to the abiding lack of communication–their phone calls are lifeless, fraught with misunderstanding and tension–in the new techno-Europe.

The making and reception of the Three Colors films also reveal larger truths about commerce, cinema and capitalism. Red, for instance, was denied consideration as best foreign film because the American Academy of Film Arts determined it wasn’t “Swiss enough”–it was truly a collaborative European effort and thus beyond the ken of cinema politics. Kieslowski has also spoken about the mixed effects of economic “freedom” on filmmaking in Poland: he found it easier to make films under political censorship in Poland than “under the economic censorship here in the West. Economic censorship means censorship imposed by people who think that they know what the audience wants.” Just as Karol found equality to be of various shades in White, Kieslowski recognized that freedom and prosperity have exacted prices in his own work. Filmmakers can say what they want now in Poland, but audiences have stopped caring as much.

Kieslowski’s directorial vision isn’t flawless. At times, most notably in Blue, what he terms a “subjective” camera can become ponderous and his intentions obscure. Less sympathetic viewers than I have called this film “pretentious” art-film fare. At times, Kieslowski’s metaphysical streak brings him close to the brink of unintelligibility. In Red, for instance, he not only traces the parallels between the judge’s and Auguste’s lives but asks, “Is it possible to repeat somebody’s life after some time?” The film seems to float the possibility that the judge has gained a godlike power to relive his life through another man or to control the fate of other humans.

Some viewers might object to Kieslowski’s self-described pessimism; others might reject his philosophy that “it’s in everybody’s nature to be good.” Yet I believe that Three Colors as a whole presents a coherent vision both morally and artistically. What might seem artistically weak in Blue gains new meaning through the palettes of White and Red. What might seem a problematic philosophy is minimized in a cinematic world that presents fascinating characters and demands that viewers question the meanings of liberty, equality and fraternity in the context of moral actions.

While such visually effective films are best seen on large-screen cinema, the small-screen form in which most American audiences will experience them allows for the careful, repeated viewing (and rewinding) that Kieslowski’s work deserves. Viewed and reviewed in the sequence of their creation, Blue, White, Red attain a cumulative effect like few other recent films. Despite Kieslowski’s own protestations, cinema can be “equivocal” and “intelligent” enough–like literature–to “capture what lies within us.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Kieslowski: Polish roots, European vision

KRZYSZTOF KIESLOWSKI stands with Andrzej Wajda as the most important of modern Polish film directors. Both are closely identified with the rise of Polish independence in the 1970s and ’80s and with the “cinema of moral anxiety,” and are a part of a loose confederation of Polish directors (including Agnieszka Holland, Wojtek Marczewski, Krzysztof Zanussi, Edek Zebrowski and Feliks Falk) devoted to exploring the moral dimensions of politics and social issues. Kieslowski’s great last films, though rooted in the Polish freedom movement, became less politically charged and more preoccupied with individuals’ moral decisions. Three Colors, set variously in Paris, Geneva and Warsaw, spans modern Europe. Similarly, recent film criticism has recognized Kieslowski as one of the great European art film directors, often linking him with Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.

Kieslowski was born in Warsaw in 1941. His application rejected twice, he finally entered the Lodz Film Academy in 1964. His early work was mainly for television, most of it documentary. The best known of these films are Workers ’71 (Robotnicy ’71; 1972), about the Polish labor strikes in December 1970; First Love (Pierwsza milosc; 1974), which won the Golden Dragon Prize at the International Festival of Short Films in Krakow; and Curriculum Vitae (Zyciorys; 1975), which attempts to understand a local Party Board of Control. Kieslowski has described his task in these documentaries as describing the world, since “the communist world had described how it should be and not how it really was.”

After working for WFD, the State Documentary Film Studios, early in his career, Kieslowski joined the Tor production house. He became Tor’s director in 1984. He was deputy chairman of the Polish Filmmaker Association from 1979 to 1981. While Kieslowski characterizes his films as being neither autobiographical nor political, his musings about his work (in Kieslowski on Kieslowski) reveal an artist affected very much by the material conditions of his environment.

His first feature film, Personnel (Personel; 1975), was made for television. His first cinematic feature, The Scar (Blizna; 1976), centers on the disillusionment of an earnest party functionary charged with constructing a massive chemical plant. Camera Buff (Amator; 1979) centers on a factory worker who discovers the power, pleasure and dangers of filmmaking. Blind Chance (Przypadek; 1981) presents three possible versions of an incident in a young man’s life, a “what if” consideration of chance, fate and politics. Created during the rise of Solidarity but banned after the declaration of martial law in December 1981, Blind Chance was finally released in 1987. These early films focus relentlessly on the price of living in a totalitarian system but also persistently highlight individual relationships and decisions.

Kieslowski’s most significant collaboration, next to Tor, has been with the writer and Warsaw attorney Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a prominent opponent of the martial law imposed in 1981. Their first collaboration, No End (Bez konca; 1984), managed to offend the Polish authorities, the Catholic Church and many members of the opposition. Piesiewicz and Kieslowski next collaborated on the monumental The Decalogue (Dekalog; 1988), a series of 50-minute films meditating upon the Ten Commandments, made for Polish television. The fifth and sixth segments of the series were later re-edited and released as the feature films A Short Film About Love (Krotki film o milosci; 1988) and A Short Film About Killing (Krotki film o zabijaniu; 1988).

Kieslowski and Piesiewicz continued to collaborate on The Double Life of Veronica (La Double Vie de Veronique; Podwojne zycie Weroniki; 1991), turning now to Paris as a center of operations and the setting for the film. The trilogy Three Colors (Trois Couleurs; Trzy kolory): Blue (Bleu; Niebieski; 1993), White (Blanc, Biali; 1994) and Red (Rouge, Czerwony; 1994) has been Kieslowski’s greatest commercial success, achieving wide distribution and critical notice in the U.S. and Europe. All three films are available on video cassette.

COPYRIGHT 1996 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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