Forget Coppola’s The Godfather, Disney Pixar’s Toy Story and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. Forget even the original Star Wars series. Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy is the cinematic triptych par excellence. Released for the first time on separate Blu-rays here in the UK, each individual film offers distinct pleasures and changes of mood whilst at the same time maintaining a quality that never dips below masterpiece grade. As in his groundbreaking TV series The Decalogue (1989), Kieślowski and co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz adopt a formal structure within which to tell their stories.
Each film takes as its theme a word from the French revolutionary motto, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité“. Representing liberté, Blue follows Julie (Juliette Binoche), a woman who survives a car accident in which her husband and daughter die. Freed from her former life in the most horrific way imaginable, she has to deal with overwhelming grief and the horror of a world that continues as if nothing has happened. Her husband’s symphony for the celebration of the European Union lies unfinished but haunts Julie and tempts her to re-enter the world, as does her friendship with a promiscuous neighbour Sandrine (Florence Pernel) and her husband’s colleague Olivier (Benoît Régent).
White begins with hapless Polish hairdresser Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) being literally and metaphorically shat upon. Following divorce from his beautiful wife Dominique (Julie Delpy), due to his impotence, Karol finds himself a penniless immigrant in France. But with the help of a sad-faced compatriot Mikołaj (Janusz Gajos) he returns to Poland and through some shady property speculation rises to become a European entrepreneur, from which position (égalité) he plots his revenge on Dominique. Finally, Red portrays the growing friendship (fraternité) between Valentine Dussaut (Irène Jacob) and Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a retired judge who passes his time eavesdropping on his neighbours.
Each of Kieślowski’s three offerings is a masterclass in filmmaking. The composition of shots is indeed breathtaking at times, without ever being needlessly showy. In Blue, Julie’s focus is on the minutiae of life as she tries to close off the rest of the world and so the camera homes in on a sugar cube absorbing the coffee from a cup. Zbigniew Preisner’s soundtrack is a rich and beautiful thing and in the first of Kieślowski’s trio stands as a character in its own right. The performances are also uniformly excellent, featuring a number of career best turns from a wealth of European talent including Binoche, Delpy and Trintignant.
The writing throughout the trilogy is precise and economic – all of the films come in at roughly ninety minutes – but still retains the power and generosity of a beautifully written novel. After all the grief, the pain, the betrayal and the disappointment, Trintignant’s retired, snooping judge of Red – standing as a symbol of both the audience and the director – wonders if passing judgement over others is not a terrible “lack of modesty”. It’s this humanity that Kieślowski ultimately celebrates as the overarching and commanding principle of his grand European portrait.