Back in UK cinemas this month thanks to a 4K restoration, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy stars Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob in three of the most revered pieces of European cinema ever made. Named after the colours of the French flag (Blue, White and Red), the films are loosely based on the three political ideals of the French Republic; Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
These three films became Kieślowski’s first major success in the West and his most acclaimed work since The Decalogue (1989) (ten one hour films based on the Ten Commandments), the interlocking tales of tragedy, comedy and romance perfectly capturing the deep emotional traumas of illness and death with a gentle vein of humour injected to intersperse the misery of everyday life. Sadly, Kieślowski retired shortly after completing Three Colours: Red in 1994 and died two years later, aged only 54.
The trilogy begins with Three Colours: Blue (1993), starring Binoche (in a career-defining performance) as Julie Vignon, a composer’s wife whose life is struck by grief and loss. Julie is a young woman troubled by fears of her husband’s suspected infidelity, however, when she’s involved in a devastating car crash in which she loses her husband and child, her life changes dramatically. The crash itself lacks the explosive drama normally associated with such cinematic depictions of tragedy, instead playing out more like an all too real nightmare. Once recovered, Julie sells everything she owns and retreats to Paris where she lives a solitary life. Plagued by a mixture of anguish and rage, her life is transformed when, despite living behind a false facade to escape her past, she meets her husband’s mistress.
Deep down, Three Colours: Blue is less about liberty but rather concerned with Julie’s failed attempt to avoid her fate. Her spiritual suicide fails to relinquish her from her former self, irresistibly drawn back into the harsh realities of real life. Like delving into a cold cave of human emotion, Three Colours: Blue is the jewel in the crown of Kieślowski’s trilogy – a fascinating examination of freedom, sorrow and identity, and perhaps one of the most necessary films of contemporary French cinema.
The second of Kieślowski’s trilogy dealing with current French society is Three Colours: White (1994), an anti-comedy starring Delpy as Dominique, the wife of Polish immigrant hairdresser Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski). Their relationship worked well enough before their marriage, yet somehow the luxury of their comfortable domestic lives has emasculated him, provoking Dominique to demand a divorce due to her husband’s inability to satisfy her in the bedroom. Dominique is successful, eventually leaving Karol penniless, living on the streets and desperate to return back to Poland so he can become wealthy and get back at his former wife – leading to a thoroughly entertaining attempt by Karol to sneak back into his country of origin.
Three Colours: White brings Kieślowski back to his Polish roots and explores issues of equality through nationality and the fragile dynamic of marriage. Often overlooked due to its more jovial and subtle approach, Three Colours: White is a surprisingly affecting story that whilst not delivering as strong an emotional hammer blow as Three Colours: Blue is just as an important study of French society.
Three Colours: Red harmoniously brings the three films together, creating a meeting point for the trilogy’s character’s emotional traumas to collide. The film successfully opens up numerous narratives crossing both past and present. Arguably the least conventional of the three, Jacob plays Valentine, a student and part time model whose become emotionally repressed by her controlling but distant boyfriend. Her performance recalls Juliette Binoche’s remarkably turn in Three Colours: Blue – indeed, the two could almost be mirror images of each other.
Much like in Three Colours: Blue, the story is thrust into motion after a traffic incident after Valentine accidentally hits a dog. She slowly nurses it back to health before begrudgingly being brought into the world of the cranky, retired Judge who owns this injured hound. This cruel twist of fate may have brought these two together; however, it soon transpires that there’s more which connects them, with the life story of this disenfranchised judge soon showing parallels with Valentine and her emotionally absent lover. Three Colours: Red is the trilogy’s anti-romance, depicting an unconventional love story blossoming against the insurmountable obstacle of age – perhaps the most adventurous and personal of the trilogy, Three Colours: Red remains many critics favourite from these three hugely influential films.
These three remarkable films truly deserve to be restored into high definition and despite the eccentricity behind their conception, they transcend the nationalistic gimmick behind their names to become three individual masterpieces which work perfectly well alone whilst also complimenting each other’s thoroughly immersive examination into the underlying social problems which skulk behind the prosperous facade of modern European society.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble