Monday, January 26, 2009

Three Colors Trilogy

Krzysztof Kieslowksi's Three Colors trilogy is one of the deepest, most rewarding film series I've ever seen. Very loosely related, they nevertheless form one giant film on the basis of their themes. Kieslowski's The Decalogue was based on each of the Ten Commandments, and this trilogy picks, of all things, the French flag as its nucleus, with each film titled after one of its three colors.

Blue starts things off magnificently with a hauntingly metaphysical dissection of grief. Juliette Binoche plays Julie, the wife of a famous composer, who must cope with the sudden deaths of her husband and their daughter in a car accident at the film's start. Her grief is overwhelming yet contained; she does not spend the first half of the film (or even a scene) in hysterics. Instead, she retreats into agony.

Julie does everything she can to rid herself of the pain. She burns her husband's unfinished symphony (a piece celebrating the unity of Europe), sells the house and moves to Paris, hoping the bustle of the city will envelop her. She takes nothing with her save an object of her daughter's made of blue beads, and distances herself completely from her past life. Yet soon she realizes that a rejection of the physical cannot dull her psychological trauma and, despite her attempts to cut herself off from the old Julie, Paris throws several items from her past back into her life.

On the one hand, she reunites with Olivier, her husband Patrice's best friend and a fellow composer. Julie knows Olivier loves her and rejects him at first, then turns to him to feel something. The other major character Julie must contend with is her husband's mistress, who is pregnant with his child. The scenes between the two do not play out as they likely would have in an American film; there are no screams nor catfights, only two women so broken that they recognize each other as kindred spirits in grief.

The tone of the film is certainly blue; these characters struggle through indescribable sorrow. Yet that is not what the title really means. On the French flag, blue stands for liberty, and ultimately Julie's tragedy becomes a means to start anew, free of the baggage of a husband whom she loved but nevertheless had to support. As she becomes more involved with Olivier we learn who really wrote Patrice's music, and the answer might not be who you think. The film ends with a completed version of his planned symphony, booming a message of hope into the story and signifying a new chapter in Julie's life, one in which she can move forward without forcing herself to forget the past.

White, a comparatively straightforward black comedy, seems about as distant in tone as you could get to the ponderous Blue. Karol, a Polish immigrant who speaks halting French, stands in a courtroom for divorce hearings, where (in a painful and painfully funny moment) his wife tells the poor sod she doesn't love him, and he must have it translated for him by a third party.

The divorce leaves Karol penniless and unable to return home to Poland, and eventually he plays songs in the metro station for change. Finally he meets Mikołaj, a fellow Pole who offers Karol a job: a man wants to die but cannot bring himself to commit suicide, so he'll pay Karol to do the deed.

From there the plot balloons; Mikołaj smuggles Karol back to Poland in a suitcase, where he attends to his task, with a number of twists. Eventually he regains his wealth by buying up valuable land on loans and selling them to companies for massive profits. This wealth allows him to pursue the theme of the film (and, of course, the meaning of this section of the flag): equality.

But just as liberty for Julie was not political, equality for Karol is not social. He means to "get even" with his wife Dominique, and plans to use his money to fake his death and implicate her. In these passages Kieslowski uses Karol for a metaphor for his native Poland. Poland has long been at the mercy of various European invaders, but with the fall of the Iron Curtain it at last regained its independence. Yet it was unceremoniously dumped back into the real world with nothing, and it quickly hosted the same sort of ruthless capitalism that hit postwar Japan. Karol personifies this journey: he's cast into the streets after a separation, then accumulates wealth to get his revenge.

The ending is hopeful, though perhaps not entirely earned, and that, combined with its more plot-driven narrative, makes it inferior to its predecessor, and the final chapter. Red, the best of the three (though distinguishing between them is a bit silly), takes the pathos of White's black comedy and meshes it with the spiritual musings of Blue, then adds in character insight that is wholly its own. The theme this time is fraternity, and Kieslowski crafts a film that shows the intertwining nature of man in a way that would make Robert Altman proud.

Red centers on Valentine (Iréne Jacob), a model who states in the beginning that she feels lonely. She has a brother, but he's distant yet possessive of his sister and Valentine finds no comfort in him. Every day she walks past Auguste, a law student studying to become a judge, who lives in her apartment building with his girlfriend Karin, the unofficial weatherperson of the neighborhood.

One night she accidentally runs over a dog and takes it to the address on her collar. She enters the house to find Kern, a retired judge who sits hunched over in his living room, isolated from the world. He says he doesn't care about the dog, so Valentine takes the poor thing to the vet herself. Eventually she and Kern strike up a friendship and, after a fashion, Valentine learns that his hobby is eavesdropping on people.

Kieslowski ever, ever so slowly connects the various threads of the story; establishing relationships between some characters and breaking apart others. It lacks the improvised feel of one of Altman's or Renoir's pieces, but it nevertheless seems to paint a portrait of life. Red bookends the trilogy with another tragedy, though this one offers more immediate hope. In the ending scenes, we see the major pairings of each film standing together, total strangers linked in ways beyond their knowing.

Apart from tackling the themes of the French flag, Kieslowski constantly employs each of the three colors in his shots. In Red, Valentine prepares for her shower by opening her blue blouse to reveal a white bra as she stands by a red shower curtain. In Blue, children in white bathing suits don red floaters and jump into a blue swimming pool. The director also links the films in minor ways: apart from the final moments of Red, Julie's story crosses into Karol and Dominique's when she stumbles into their divorce hearing looking for her husband's mistress. His camera movements, particularly in Red rarely call attention to themselves, and only do so when they're so incredible that I can't stop wondering how he did he could move the camera so fast without losing focus.

All in all, Kieslowski offers up one of the great trilogies in film, one linked not by narrative or franchised characters but by ideas. To steal from Ebert, these films are "metaphysical through example, not theory." Where a Hollywood version of this would have introduced a smarmy friend who'd make wisecracks until the last ten minutes before saying "Julie, life ain't about yo' past, it's about you," at which point I'd punch my own TV screen, Kieslowski lets the characters figure it out for themselves. It never spoon-feeds us the answers and for that we should be exceedingly grateful, although the fact that treating an audience like an adult is seemingly so rare it deserves gratitude is a bit of a sad realization. I have not seen anything else of Kieslowski's work, and I don't like to make bold platitudes, but the strength of these films alone ensure I will seek out his entire filmography, because I've never seen a director like him.

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