With the unfortunate passing of filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, cinema lost a great storyteller but he left behind an enduring legacy, most significantly Three Colors, a trilogy of films named after the colors of the French flag: Blue (1993), White (1993), and Red (1994). Each film explores the ideas that came out of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity. Kieslowski was not concerned about them as political concepts but rather how they pertained to the protagonists of all three films. Incredibly, he wrote, shot and edited them all in under three years and they were released at the prestigious film festivals in Venice, Berlin and Cannes to much critical acclaim. Previously released in a box set by Miramax, the Criterion Collection has produced their own edition with newly remastered transfers of each film and several new extras, giving Kieslowski’s films their trademark deluxe treatment.
When her husband and daughter are killed in an automobile accident, which she survives, Julie (Juliette Binoche) is understandably devastated. She shuts herself off emotionally, never wanting to feel anything again after such a traumatic experience. In the opening scenes of Blue, actress Juliette Binoche displays an incredible range of emotions as her character tries to comprehend her world, which has been shattered. She ends up suppressing raw emotion with detachment.
Over the course of Blue, Julie experiences a series of epiphanies as symbolized by bursts of the color blue and a loud swell of classical music, which acts as an emotional Greek chorus. Music is her voice, channeling the emotion she keeps in check most of the time. As the film progresses, she finds a way to free herself from her past and from the revelations about her husband’s life. She puts herself through a series of exercises to test her feelings – is she ready to face the world without emotion? Julie has shut herself off from the world but eventually learns how to become a part of it again. Kieslowski draws us into this world so that we become invested in its inhabitants, in particular, Julie who endures unimaginable tragedy and must find a way to continue.
If Blue is ostensibly a tragedy, then White is a darkly comic revenge story. Karol Karol (Zhigniew Zamachowski) is a Polish hairdresser who lives with his beautiful young bride Dominique (Julie Delpy) in Paris but she divorces him early on in the film for failing to consummate their marriage. She takes him to court and coldly tells him that she doesn’t love him anymore. Karol soon finds out that his bank account has been frozen and he becomes homeless, which leaves him wondering if he has the strength to go on. Dominique has completely destroyed him and so he goes back to his native Poland where he rebuilds his life and plans an elaborate revenge plot.
Actor Zhigniew Zamachowski has an incredibly expressive face that he uses to make Karol instantly sympathetic but it isn’t too hard after all the horrible things Dominique does to him. Your heart really goes out to Karol just as Julie Delpy’s cold, cruel character really makes you hate her and hope that she gets her well-deserved comeuppance, but as with Kieslowski’s films, it’s never that simple and the ending is surprisingly hopeful.
The first third of White is utterly heartbreaking as poor Karol deals with one soul-crushing injustice after another. In the second third, he rebuilds his life in Warsaw in an inspirational turn of events as he is employed as a bodyguard for a local criminal while cutting hair for his brother on the side. Karol is a quiet, unassuming guy. As a result, people, like his wife and the local crooks, underestimate him. They don’t realize just how clever he is and this is used to his advantage. Finally, the last third of the film is Karol’s payback on those who wronged him. In White, the traditional roles are reversed as Karol is the ingénue while Dominique is led by her sexual drive. Over the course of the film, we see him reassert his own identity while refusing to lose his optimism or romantic nature.
Red concludes the Three Colors trilogy with a moving examination of the notions of fate and chance as a beautiful runway model named Valentine (Irene Jacob) crosses paths with Joseph (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a bitter retired judge, when she accidentally hits his dog with her car. She lives in Geneva and maintains a long distance relationship with her irrationally jealous boyfriend over the phone. There is also subplot concerning a young man studying to be a judge and who is also having relationship problems.
Joseph spends his time eavesdropping on his neighbors’ phone calls, an odd hobby for a retired judge. Valentine is struck by his honesty and fascinated with his outlook on life, shaped by years of his profession. Now, he is a voyeur, listening to other people’s conversations while he has no life of his own. She believes that people are basically good while he believes the opposite, which was no doubt cultivated over years of seeing the worst of humanity paraded in front of him. Valentine inspires Joseph to reconnect with humanity while he inspires her to be more independent and proactive in her relationships.
Initially, Valentine comes across as a ditzy model with no common sense (especially in regards to the dog) but Irene Jacob’s soulful performance suggests that there is more to her character and this becomes apparent over the course of the film. Like Julie in Blue, Joseph is emotionally disconnected from others and seems not to care about Valentine hitting his dog with her car. Jean-Louis Trintignant is excellent as the jaded ex-judge and it is fascinating to watch his character go from an indifferent observer to someone that can reconnect with the rest of humanity. Trintignant has wonderful chemistry with Jacob and it is fascinating to see the relationship develop between their characters during the course of the film. With Red, Kieslowski reminds us of the importance of being connected with others and with humanity. By that extension, the entire trilogy is an epic treatise on the strengths and weaknesses of humanity.
Those of you who own the Miramax box set might want to hold onto it as not all of the extras have been carried over to the Criterion Collection edition. For example, the audio commentaries film scholar Annette Insdorf did for each film have not been included. Also omitted are the selected scene commentaries that actresses Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob did for White and Red respectively. While some of Kieslowski’s student films have been included on this new set, Concert of Wishes, Trolley, and The Office have been omitted. Completists will want to hold onto the Miramax edition.
New to this set is “On Blue,” a video essay by film studies professor Annette Insdorf where she gives a brief background to the Three Colors trilogy before examining the themes explored in Blue. She also analyzes the film’s striking style as well as the moving classical score.
“Kieslowski’s Cinema Lesson” sees the filmmaker discussing a specific scene from Blue and the importance of close-ups in the film.
Also included is a selected scenes commentary by actress Juliette Binoche. She talks about meeting Kieslowski for the first time and how they talked about philosophy. She turned down a role in Jurassic Park (1993) to do Blue. The actress gives her impression of the director and what it was like to work with him.
There is a new interview with composer Zbigniew Preisner. He had worked with Kieslowski on several films, including the Three Colors trilogy. By the time they did Blue together the two men had a very familiar shorthand and knew what the wanted. Preisner recalls first working with Kieslowski and talks about his working methods.
“Reflections on Blue” takes a retrospective look at the film with critics and historians talking about the production and offering analysis. They point out that Kieslowski avoided making an overt political statement with these films by focusing on the personal: the tragic life of a woman. The film’s cinematographer, editor and Binoche also offer their thoughts on the film.
Another new extra is “On White,” a video essay by film scholar Tony Rayns. He provides backstory to the film. It was the first film Kieslowski had made since The Decalogue (1989). Rayns also provides details on the socio-political conditions in Poland at the time. In White, Kieslowski confronted the changes to the country since the fall of Communism.
“Kieslowski’s Cinema Lesson” features the director’s views and he talks about the opening scene of the film. He also explains why he included shots of the suitcase and how it ties in with the opening scenes of the other two films.
There are new interviews with actors Zbigniew Zamachowski and Julie Delpy. They talk about how they met Kieslowski and were cast in White. They both talk about working with the director and how he was very exact in his methods with no improvisation.
Another new extra is an interview with co-writer Krzystof Piesiewicz where he talks about working with Kieslowski. They first met in 1982 and Piesiewicz noticed that the director was lost in life having gone through some personal ordeals. They became friends and worked together over 15 years on 17 films.
“The Making of White” features some excellent behind the scenes footage of Kieslowski making the film in Poland. He describes White as a “lyrical comedy” and also a “sad comedy.”
Yet another new extra is “On Red,” a video essay by film critic Dennis Lim. He discusses the film’s themes, chief among them the notion of isolation. He also analyzes Red’s style, in particular, the use of color.
“Kieslowski’s Cinema Lesson” features the director discussing a scene with Valentine and the dog she accidentally hit with her car. He says that it is the film’s first critical moment. The ever eloquent director explains his intentions with this scene and why it was shot the way it was.
There is a new interview with actress Irene Jacob and she talks about her experiences working with Kieslowski on Red. She also discusses her first meeting with him and how that led to her being cast in The Double Life of Veronique (1991). Jacob talks about working with her Red co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant and comes across as a smart and engaging person.
Producer Marin Karmitz talks about the making of Red and tells a story about an elaborate shot that was achieved and the difficult logistics involved. He also recounts a story of how the film received three Academy Award nominations as an American film!
Editor Jacques Witta talks about why certain scenes in Red were cut and his impressions of working with Kieslowski. There are excerpts of this footage which are quite interesting but one can see why they were removed.
“Kieslowski Cannes 1994” is a short documentary about Red’s world premiere at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival where the director famously announced his retirement. There are interviews with the two lead actors who came to the festival to help promote the film. This is a nice snapshot of Red’s debut.
“Kieslowski: The Early Years” takes a look at the director’s early life with interview soundbites from film scholars and collaborators. He moved around a lot as a child and didn’t dream of being a filmmaker but rather fell into it. This featurette provides insight into what motivated Kieslowski to become a filmmaker and how it shaped his later films.
Also included are two student films, The Tram (1966), about a boy flirting with a pretty girl, and The Face (1966), where he played a tormented artist.
There are two short documentaries, Seven Women of Different Ages (1978), which looks at several ballet dancers, each one on a different day of the week, and Talking Heads (1980), a fascinating film where 40 different people of various ages are asked the three same questions.
Also included are trailers for all three films.
“Behind the Scenes of Red” features footage of Kieslowski directing the film juxtaposed with the actual scene as it appeared in the film. This featurette provides some insight into how he worked.
Finally, a new addition to this set is “Krzysztof Kieslowski: I’m So-So,” a 55-minute documentary made in 1995 shortly after he retired from filmmaking. He talks about his life and films. As always, Kieslowski speaks eloquently and thoughtfully about a variety of topics in this fascinating portrait.