Film Review: Director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Color Bind — Restored
Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s marvel universe explored in Three Colors.
By Peter Keough
The most recent Sight & Sound poll of the 250 greatest films ever made did not include any films by Krzysztof Kieślowski, whose magnum opus, the Three Colors trilogy, was recently re-released in a restored version by the Criterion Collection.
In the 1992 poll (it is conducted every 10 years) The Decalogue (1989-1990), 10 short films based on the Ten Commandments made for Polish TV, was tied at #41. In 2002 The Decalogue returns at #69 and the trilogy films Three Colors: Blue (1993), Three Colors: White (1994), and Three Colors: Red (1994) make their first appearance at #122, #123, and #124, respectively. In 2012 The Decalogue had disappeared, Blue had dropped to #137, Red to #250, and White was gone, but The Double Life of Véronique (1991) had crept in at #248.
Now, nothing. Perhaps Kieślowski, who died in 1996 at 54, will make a Sight & Sound comeback in 2032. Ars longa, etc.
No doubt the dour Polish auteur would regard the matter with profound indifference. Not that he did not value a work of art. Blue concerns, among other themes, the preservation and restoration of a masterpiece — in this case the Song for the Unification of Europe, a concerto left unfinished when the composer was killed in a car crash. His young daughter also died, but his wife Julie (Juliette Binoche), survives. While recuperating from her injuries in a hospital she attempts suicide but cannot go through with it (a scenario similar to that in Kieślowski’s 1985 film No End). Instead she decides to take the tragedy as an opportunity to renounce all connections with the past, all relationships, and all possessions (except, of course, enough resources to live comfortably for the rest of her life).
In effect, she wants to achieve total liberty — one of the three principles of the French Revolution, along with equality and fraternity, which the trilogy, inspired by the colors of the French flag, is exploring. But Julie, who might have had a hand in composing her husband’s music, has trouble relinquishing this part of her past. She visits the archive where the score is held and tosses it into a garbage truck. But not before a passage from the piece surges into her consciousness and onto the soundtrack, one of what the director describes in the book Kieślowski on Kieślowski as “four fade-outs which bring us back to exactly the same moment.” The color blue fills the screen, the music swells, then the scene resumes — these moments are more like passing out than fading out. Julie cannot resist the call, nor can the viewer.
White also features an artist — Karol Karol [sic] (Zbigniew Zamachowski), an award-winning Polish hair stylist who has hit hard times since moving to Paris to marry his French bride Dominique (Julie Delpy). A foreigner in France (like Kieślowski was at the time of the filming, as Three Colors producer Marin Karmitz points out in an interview supplement in the Criterion box set), he feels slighted and humiliated and consequently suffers from impotence. The merciless, frustrated Dominique drags him into a court of law for a divorce hearing. There the color white appears when a pigeon shits on Karol’s suit and a flashback to Dominique in her wedding veil intrudes. Empowered by the court, Dominique deprives Karol of all his belongings (liberty!) except a battered trunk. She sets fire to his salon and frames him for arson.
But music saves the day. Penniless, busking in the metro, Karol plays an old Polish tune on his comb, drawing the attention of a fellow Pole who recognizes it. Bonding over a bottle, the two strike a Faustian bargain and hatch a scheme by which Karol returns to Warsaw and takes advantage of the chaotic and criminal economic opportunities left by the collapse of Communism to become a wealthy man. All to achieve equality — in this case the word is a synonym for revenge because he is setting a trap for his ex. Love being what it is, his plot backfires.
Each of the films opens with an enigmatic prelude of sorts which demonstrates the behind-the-scenes workings and shortcomings of the modern world’s means of interconnection, transportation, and communication. Blue begins under the chassis of the fatal car before it collides with a single desolate tree; it is a long close-up revealing a leaking brake line. White’s recurring prelude follows a trunk rolling along an airport luggage carousel, contents unknown. Red, the final film, traces a phone call from London through a fiber optic cable system, a sequence that unfolds like the climactic, slit-scan sequence in 2001 (1968), a POV shot flowing into cables submerged in the English Channel and finally ringing a phone in Geneva, Switzerland. A light on the phone flashes red. It is answered too late. It is the first of many missed and crossed connections.
The phone belongs to Valentine (Irène Jacob), a young student and part-time model. As it turns out, she hasn’t missed much because the guy on the other end is an asshole and has dragged her into an abusive relationship, which she is just starting to figure out. Meanwhile, distracted by interference on her car radio (it is playing a piece by Van den Budenmajer, the fictitious 18th-century musician invented by Kieślowski and his composer Zbigniew Preisner for the soundtrack of The Decalogue, The Double Life of Véronique, as well as the Three Colors trilogy — and you thought the MCU was complicated), she runs over Rita, a German Shepherd. Finding an address on Rita’s collar, Valentine drives to the home of her owner, a bitter, cynical, retired judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. He’s an asshole in his own right and sends her away with the dog. Like Julie in Blue, he wants nothing, only liberty. Or death.
But he, too, hears the siren call of a kind of art, and it is an art form very similar to that of the filmmaker. He had renounced his profession because he felt he could not take responsibility for judging others, for determining their fate. Now he just listens in on them, tapping the phone calls of his neighbors. He, like the director, is an observer of others, impassive and amused.
Valentine is disgusted. She tells him to stop, to turn himself in. And he does so, but the good deed has unexpected consequences, one of which indirectly allows the judge — through the life of another, à la Véronique — to redeem himself and the young woman he has befriended.
It takes [spoiler] the 1400 deaths in a ferry disaster to pull off not just this but the seemingly happy resolutions to the dilemmas presented in the previous two films. But if Steven Spielberg can sacrifice half the human race to reunite the estranged Yankee fan-father and the Red Sox loving-son in War of the Worlds (2005) then I suppose Kieślowski is within his rights. They’re fictitious anyway, right? Dealing with real lives was the reason Kieślowski got out of making documentaries, his initial calling. In Poland in the ’80s he found that the people he observed with his camera might come to the attention of the police.
But he also noted that sometimes the stories he made up seemed to stir uncanny echoes in real life. He told me in an interview in 1994 how at the same time he was shooting a scene involving an autopsy in his film Blind Chance (completed 1981, released 1987) he learned that his mother had been undergoing an autopsy after being killed in a car crash. He made A Short Film About Killing, a harrowing denunciation of the death penalty, in 1988, not knowing that the Polish government would pass a moratorium on that practice shortly afterwards. And a few months after the release of Three Colors — with its climactic catastrophe — the ferry MS Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea with the loss of 852 lives, the deadliest peacetime nautical disaster in European history.
Kieślowski announced his retirement from filmmaking after Red. There’s no evidence that the spooky coincidences that sometimes surrounded his films had anything to do with it. Instead he claimed that he was just tired — making three movies in three years not long after making a dozen in two, as he did with The Decalogue and its two spin-offs, can do that. Nor was his health the best; he was a lifetime chain smoker and soon after retiring he died undergoing heart surgery in a Warsaw hospital. Though he always claimed that he had taken up the wrong profession, an anecdote in Kieślowski on Kieślowski suggests otherwise. A 15-year-old girl told him that after seeing The Double Life of Véronique she was convinced that the soul does exist.
“It was worth making Véronique for that girl,” Kieślowski says in the book. “It was worth working for a year, sacrificing all that money, energy, time, patience, torturing yourself, killing yourself, taking thousands of decisions, so that one young girl in Paris should realize that there is such a thing as a soul.”
Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).