I arrived at the Three Colours Trilogy late. For years it had adorned my watchlist and been the gaping hole in my small smug cabinet of European art house. Trilogies are often the result of a more cynical, franchising side of cinema, so for cinephiles disgruntled with this fact emphasis is often put on spiritual successors where marketing isn’t as easy as it would be for Lord of the Rings of The Matrix. You may have the marvelous Cornetto Trilogy, but they speak English in that, so top prize for me, an intellectual was Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours.
Three Colours: Blue (1993), White (1994), and Red (1994) are based around the ideals of the French Revolution in a post-Cold War Europe. But the catch is that these high ideals are invested in smaller personal relationships and reflections on individual identity. Liberty isn’t as much about freedom of speech, but freedom to move on from one’s own past, and dynamically, equality is made about the power relationship between two ex-lovers. Typical of Kieslowski’s work, the place of high politics is melted into the expression of feeling in everyday life.
“you’d be mistaken to think Kieślowski’s trilogy is a celebration of the tricolore“
This is in the same decade that French filmmakers were making pictures like La Haine which – to quote Sartre on Fanon – ‘in the cool heat of rage’ lambasted the lack of equality, freedom or fraternity in 90s France.
But you’d be mistaken to think Kieślowski’s trilogy is a celebration of the tricolore (Kieślowski was actually mistaken to believe the three colours of the French flag directly stood for the three ideals of the French republic). Admitted by Kieślowski himself, the trilogy’s title only took on the supposed themes of France because the money financing them was French. In truth, the themes are ones which one would read into the film and probably not infer without prior warning.
The word ‘equality’ is uttered only once in White, but one can still see the theme present. Rather than a celebration of egalitarianism, White is more a thought on inequality and what comes with it: inferiority, humiliation, and then the quest for revenge. The fraternity of Red is invested in an unlikely bond between a young open-minded model and an old retired curmudgeon – this is a trope that has been repeated again and again but rarely so naturally and unforced as here.
Kieślowski’s trilogy isn’t a study of French values (which one could quite easily argue have never actually been characteristic of the French state) but an excuse to take theoretical thoughts which we seem to hold in such esteem and see what can be traced of them in our personal lives.
That all being said, the films managed to connect themselves with a new post-Cold War Europe. In the first of the trilogy, Blue, we are constantly reminded of the new unified state of Europe, to the point where Julie’s (Juliette Binoche) composer husband made music in honour of the unification. But both he and their daughter die at the start, so as the world is moving forward, she is stuck in grief. The music her husband composed haunts her throughout the film: the frustration that she can’t move on, when everything else is.
“Typical of Kieslowski’s work, the place of high politics is melted into the expression of feeling in everyday life“
In White (1994) we see an immediately post-communist Poland emerge with a macho and hateful form of capitalism; meanwhile, the well-known fact that Eastern Europeans in modern Europe are often treated with disdain is teased when Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) complains about a French judge’s bias against him in a court proceeding.
Something the first two films feature are central characters going about to reinvent their identity, just as Europe at the time was doing. After losing their possessions, relationships, and really themselves – or at least their image of who they are – they seek to destroy in order to rebuild. Karol discards his diploma certificates on the Paris metro, just as Julie rips up her husband’s musical magnum opus.
The final film, Red, is more reconciliatory. The central character Valentine (Irene Jacob) isn’t as solipsistic as the series’ other protagonists. She’s more kind and altruistic. This may be because, unlike Julie in Blue and Karol in White, she doesn’t spend the whole film in a constant state of despair. But it would be a long stretch to describe her as ‘happy’. In Red Valentine hasn’t gone through any recent heartbreak, but she’s still lonely, and over the course of the film discovers the compassion she craves. Red embraces its kinder and gentler place among the trilogy by writing certain wrongs of the previous films and offering direct answers to the ambiguous endings of Blue and White.
“It is set in a world which seems just that iota too fanciful and dramatic“
Kieślowski deals with abstractions but bases them very much in feelings we know, which places the trilogy in some uncanny area which feels uncomfortably honest – past a point of rationality. It is set in a world which seems just that iota too fanciful and dramatic. The emotions feel relatable through the way the actors inhabit their melancholy. The reason the fraternity between the young Valentine and the old ‘bastard’ in Red feels so natural is because Kieślowski makes his films to follow his characters through certain events, and not to make a plot for characters to react to.
So what is the trilogy about? I’m sorry to Robespierre, but unlike the title suggests, very little is to do with the French state or political theorising. The trilogy is about identity (like most things are) as characters struggle to know themselves and know what they want.
But more than that, Three Colours is about compassion. The films are genuine empathetic attempts to understand the lives of the characters which inhabit the trilogy’s fanciful world. Kieślowski affords all his characters the right and ability to feel so much. Supporting characters have their own complex issues and he even puts out to make Julie Delphy’s selfish and vain Veronique from White relatable and tragic. The world of Three Colours feels uncomfortably like our own. The things that happen to characters don’t feel like plot points, but simply the flow of life; what matters most to them, in that point, is how they feel.