Saturday Editor’s Pick: Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy (1993-4)

by on August 28, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Sept 2 (Blue at 6:00; White at 8:00; Red at 9:50) & Sat Sept 3 (Blue at 12:00; White at 2:00; Red at 3:50)  at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]


The Film Society’s “Third Time’s a Charm” festival takes a cute concept very seriously.


Their three-day weekend of movie trilogies offers expected popcorn fare like Back to the Future: Parts 1-3 and the Mad Max movies (to Thunderdome and beyond). But the line-up also includes the high-Hollywood epic saga of the Godfather films and the essential art-house fare of Abbas Kiarostami’s deeply personal, widely influential “Kolker trilogy”: Where Is the Friend’s House?, Through the Olive Trees, and And Life Goes On.


Since we saw (and swooned over) the digitally restored Godfather prints not too long ago, we decided to choose the final trifecta in the fest: Krzystof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy, Red, White and Blue. Per the program-notes synopsis: “The greatest European director of his generation [achieved] auteur superstardom with this remarkable trilogy inspired by the three colors of the French flag and their symbolic meanings: liberty, equality and fraternity.”

From the “Fake Criterions” thread at MUBI, a jacket-sleeve triptych by user Colonel Haki:


Salon’s Jonathan Keifer describes their international impact:

Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy was more than just the slickest concept album in the history of European cinema. It was a quantum leap for the medium, a reminder not only of what was possible, but what was necessary. As “Blue,” “White” and “Red” hit theaters, one at a time, moviegoers everywhere began feeling giddy. They knew something very special, and vital, was afoot. For those who’d seen Kieslowski’s “Decalogue” (a serialized tone poem on the Ten Commandments, and also an astonishing masterpiece), the prospect of another segmented, philosophical parable was all too tantalizing. For those who hadn’t, “Three Colors” was like nothing they’d ever experienced. Film didn’t seem like such a youngster among the arts anymore.


The richly textured trilogy capped Kieslowski’s extraordinary career, taking on the deepest and most complex moral subjects with grace and panache, but always at ground level. Ostensibly it was derived from the French Revolution themes of liberty, equality and fraternity, and their corresponding colors in the French flag. But the films are deeply personal and in many ways Polish; they restore those lofty concepts, without diminishing them, to humble human proportions. In temperament they differ significantly but are thematically unified by Kieslowski’s inquisitive, haunted and wryly humane sensibility. His genius is evident not only in the fluency with such varied tones — the inward, meditative drama of “Blue,” the oblique social comedy of “White” and the nimble, all-knowing mystery-romance of “Red” — but the elegant orchestration by which he unites them. Each involves an enormous narrative arc: The characters endure debilitating betrayals and literal or figurative deaths, then respond to the prospect of renewal so generously provided for them by the director. Yet each is lean and swift, clocking in at around an hour and a half. Not bad for so intense a sensual, emotional and spiritual workout.


Dave Kehr in Film Comment (Nov 1994):

The structure of the trilogy follows the traditional pattern of the three-act play: an opening statement of themes and images (Blue), a reversal of those themes (White), and finally a synthesis and resolution (Red) that moves the themes to a different level. In spite of Kieslowski’s declarations**, the three films play best in the sequence in which they were written, filmed, and premiered; they contain an infinite number of inner correspondences, some playful and some quite essential.


In Blue, liberty becomes a tragic notion. Julie is free because she has been violently separated from her past and from her family. With no emotional ties, and wealthy enough to do what she wants, she steps off into a void. Kieslowski returns several times to the tomblike image of a huge, deserted indoor swimming pool, where Julie goes to wear herself out and neutralize her senses. At the same time, there are moments of penetratingly sharp, physical pain, as when Julie, returning from her perfunctory lovemaking session with Olivier, scrapes her knuckles along a wall. Pain is its own escape from pain, intense feeling is the same as no feeling.


The theme of White, then, is equality–as reflected in Karol’s grim determination to become more equal than anyone else. The whiteness of White–snow, subway tiles, sheets, statuary–suggests an emptiness that is also a new beginning, a void that might be filled. And so, the film’s emphasis on mock resurrections: Karol unexpectedly climbing from the coffinlike trunk in which he has been smuggled back into Poland; Mikolaj’s revival in the subway, when he realizes that Karol has shot him with a blank; and the elaborate scheme (including the purchase of a Russian corpse) that produces Karol’s return from the dead for Julie, a resurrection that includes his sexual powers (Dominique’s orgasm is accompanied by a fade to white). And white is finally the color of marriage, which haunts Karol in his flashbacks to his wedding day, and which gracefully recurs at the end of the film, when Karol and Dominique see each other through the bars of the prison where she has been sent, and she signifies, with a gesture of her ring finger, her willingness to remarry the man who has of completely, and so perversely, devoted his life to her.


If Blue is psychological drama and White is social comedy, Red is something else again–an exchange between two characters that is at once emotional, philosophical, and symbolic. With Red, Kieslowski takes a step toward a thematic abstraction, and a concentration on entirely cinematic means of expression, that occurs no place else in his work. To find anything like it, it’s necessary to go back to Griffith’s Intolerance, with its grand vision of historical synthesis, played out in the pure and beautiful mechanics of montage. Red is the most insistent of Kieslowski’s three colors, the color of blood, danger, embarrassment, violence, and love.


BLUE (1993)


Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

Failing to find the courage to commit suicide after her husband and infant daughter die in a car crash, Julie (Binoche) decides to build a new, anonymous and wholly independent life. Leaving her country mansion for a Paris apartment, she soon finds that freedom is not as easy to achieve as she hoped. Neighbours seek help and friendship, and doubts about her husband’s fidelity inflame jealousy. Most troubling there’s the music: Julia can’t escape the sounds in her head. Kieslowski’s film – the first of three inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution – is an arresting study of notions of individual freedom in the modern world. There’s no facile moralising, simply a lucid examination of a woman’s state of mind. Binoche responds with her best work to date: quiet, strong, stubborn, and deeply aware that the heart holds mysteries neither we nor those close to us will ever understand.


Lee Hill for Senses of Cinema:

Neither a brief description of Blue’s plot or its visual strategy can do justice to the film’s density. Zbigniew Preisner’s score is not only central to establishing the verisimilitude of Julie’s high art background and her late husband’s stature, but reinforces the idea that freedom is a work in progress not an end in itself. Binoche’s performance is remarkable for its lack of sentimentality and economy at expressing the near catatonia many feel after the unexpected death of a family member. There are many other things one can say about Blue’s exploration of grief, but it is important to stress that Kieslowski explores it with his own particular brand of humour and irony. Although the tone of the film is sombre, little vignettes such as Julie’s handling of a mouse infestation or the development of incidental characters like a street musician are handled with unforced wit. That same wit will reach full bloom in the black comedy that dominates much of White and adds the appropriate degree of pathos to the series of coincidences that link the characters in Red.


As with White and Red, the great achievement of Blue is its ability to take a broad and unwieldy theme – what is freedom? – and then explore it through a unique individual’s predicament. Watching the films one can almost imagine Kieslowski joking, “there are a thousand stories in the naked city, but these three, trust me comrade, are the most important”.


WHITE (1993)

Caryn James for the New York Times:

Anyone who has seen the austere “Blue,” the first film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy, will scarcely believe that the witty, deadpan “White” was made by the same man.


Here Mr. Kieslowski takes Karol, an apparently hapless hero, and ships him from Paris home to Poland hidden in a suitcase, only to have the suitcase missing from the baggage claim on the other side. How can Karol’s helpful accomplice explain to the airline that the lost luggage held 165 pounds worth of clothes? Mr. Kieslowski has said that Karol (Charlie in Polish) is a tribute to Chaplin, which is obvious enough. Mr. Zamachowski’s small stature and a gaze that looks baffled but often turns out to be smart adds to the picture. But Karol also echoes Beckett’s heroes, bringing ingenuity and composed acceptance to the absurd conditions of his life.


“White” even looks more subtle than its predecessor, which was overwhelmed by blue shadows. Here the misty beauty of Paris and the snowy Polish countryside are effective but not blinding. Throughout, “White” is filled with exquisite scenes that don’t press too hard — when Karol saves a suicidal friend by offering him a second chance to live — and those moments are all the richer for their understatement. “White” makes it clear that this ambitious trilogy is worth following.


Mark Saint-Cyr for Row Three:

White is very much a narrative-driven film – certainly more so than Blue and Red. This can mainly be allotted to the twisty, constantly evolving nature of Karol’s trajectory. In this respect, the film could be compared to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or any other story in which the hero hoists him or herself out of dire straits using luck, pluck and ambition – these kinds of tales by design usually turn out to be incredibly engrossing, if only because of pure curiosity about where the character will end up next. Plus, it certainly helps when the central character is as fascinating to watch as Karol is. Somewhat resembling Tim Robbins, Zamachowski does a great job of portraying a highly sympathetic character who does not always do sympathetic things. Karol seems to scrape by with a built-in survival instinct, and carries himself with an odd mixture of meekness, shamelessness and charm even when placed in some particularly troubling predicaments. Just as interesting is his relationship with Dominique, the woman he continues to love even after she purposely torments him, even as he goes about preparing his plan against her.


Thus, Kieslowski presents us with a tragicomedy in the purest sense, masterfully balancing humorous moments with serious ones. Composer Zbigniew Preisner departs from the symphonic heights of Blue’s score to provide music that is noticeably lighter and springier, propelling us through Karol’s journey with an upbeat energy. Along the way, there are numerous scenes that openly invite serious considerations of love, life and happiness. If nothing else, White serves as possibly the most outright entertaining entry in the Three Colors trilogy; a fun yet thoughtful yarn that ably continues Kieslowski’s exploration of morality and human connection.


RED (1994)

Jonathan Dawson for Senses of Cinema:

In making Red, the final part of his Three Colours trilogy, Krzysztof Kieslowski completed as near a perfect cycle of movies as late Western cinema has seen, as well as writing his own perhaps not completely unforeseen epitaph with the same irony that informed the rest of his highly self-aware oeuvre. Red’s brilliant opening sequence establishes this theme at once, so quickly one could almost miss it. Someone punches a phone number into a keypad. The electronic code rushes along the flex to the wall and falls into the great system of optical fibres. Now we hear a mounting babble of voices gather and mix as the cables dive into the water, rush along the seabed to emerge and whiz through subterranean tunnels until… we hear an engaged signal! Bad luck or bad timing? An old man listens in on his neighbours’ phone conversations. Down the road, in the city of Geneva, a young woman gets ready for a modelling job while across the road a young lawyer senses his lover slipping away from him. That’s the set up for Red but from these crisp snapshots emerges a rich and complex philosophical narrative of loss and, perhaps, by the end, redeeming love.


What fully brings together the themes of the trilogy is, of course, the last scene, where the storm that has been building throughout Red sweeps into the Channel, causing a series of disasters, some linked more than is at first apparent and also, in the much debated (and often decried) climacteric, unites the key characters from Blue, White and Red in an astonishingly daring piece of narrative rule-breaking. It is a climax, however, that makes absolute emotional sense in the light of Kieslowski’s obsessions with chance, luck and destiny.In Red, subtext is all. Not just through the insistent use of colour codes but the interlocking, barely glimpsed way in which all the characters are linked either in the filmic present or the imaginary possible futures that Kieslowski sketches. All contribute to a sense of fate rumbling along beneath the cinematic story’s surface. Here is certainly a film that allows very little space for the play of free-will, while also hinting that destiny is a game player too. This also makes Red one of those rich, playful films that demand a second – or many – later viewings.


Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

A film of mystical correspondences, Red triumphantly concludes and summarizes Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy by contriving to tell us three stories about three separate characters all at once; yet it does this with such effortless musical grace that we may not even be aware of it at first. With so many different instances of chance, telepathy, and prophecy in Red, one’s credulity is constantly being challenged, but not to the point where the film itself ever threatens to crumble. The coexistence of the real and the everyday on the one hand, the mysterious and the miraculous on the other, is one of the movie’s givens, and much of what is beautiful in Kieslowski’s style stems from its moment-by-moment charting of that charmed coexistence as he cuts or pans or tracks or cranes between his three characters, interweaving and dovetailing their separate lives and daily movements.


What emerges is not a “realistic” world in any ordinary sense, yet it is a fully and densely realized one, and one that has more insight into the world we all live in than conventional Hollywood wish fulfillments, which are no less fanciful in their details. Even the recurring uses of the color red — which seems to be found rather than planted in the various Geneva locations — impress us less as fantasy or invention than as one person’s way of seeing the world, alert to all the feelings and conditions that are generally associated with that color in human interactions: passion, jealousy, pain, injury, fear, embarrassment, love.


Even after three viewings, Red remains an exquisitely mysterious object to me — one that has grown in beauty and density each time I’ve seen it, without ever convincing me for a minute that I’ve perceived all of its meanings and riches. The same could be said for “Three Colors” as a whole.


The most beautifulest Julei Delpy discusses her departing appearance in the films:


Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

In the trilogy, “Blue” is the anti-tragedy, “White” is the anti-comedy, and “Red” is the anti-romance. All three films hook us with immediate narrative interest. They are metaphysical through example, not theory: Kieslowski tells the parable but doesn’t preach the lesson. It’s the same with his “Decalogue,” where each film is based on one of the Ten Commandments, but it is not always possible to say which commandment, or precisely what the film is saying about it.


I connect strongly with Kieslowski because I sometimes seek a whiff of transcendence by revisiting places from earlier years. I am thinking now of a cafe in Venice, a low cliff overlooking the sea near Donegal, a bookstore in Cape Town and Sir John Soane’s breakfast room in London. I am drawn to them in the spirit of pilgrimage. No one else can see the shadows of my former and future visits there, or know how they are the touchstones of my mortality, but if some day as I approach the cafe, I see myself just getting up to leave, I will not be surprised to have missed myself by so little.


Kieslowski would have understood. A link between all three films in the trilogy is provided by a brief shot of an old lady trying to deposit a bottle in a street trash-recycling bin. The slot is a little too high for her to reach. In “Red,” Valentine tries to help her. The first two movies are set in Paris. What is the old lady doing in Geneva? Exactly.




  • dennis reldoff

    Good info thanks for sharing with us.Nice information, valuable and excellent, as share good stuff with good ideas and  great information and inspiration
    Apartment in Paris

    • Oh, how wonderful all this for Kieslowski’s eternal fans, eternally looking for answers and inspiration in this master trilogy of his.

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