A Second Look: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ‘Three Colors’ trilogy


At the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, fans of Krzysztof Kieslowski found their hearts lifted. And then broken.

The Polish master was on the Riviera with the magnificent “Red,” the final panel in his “Three Colors” triptych and a film widely expected to receive the Palme d’Or, even by Quentin Tarantino, whose “Pulp Fiction” took the honors instead. But for devotees it wasn’t the disappointment of laurels denied that was hard to bear; it was Kieslowski’s announcement that he was retiring from filmmaking.

Although he continued to write scripts, “Red” turned out to be his true valedictory; less than two years after its Cannes premiere, Kieslowski was dead at 54. In a terrible poetic injustice for the creator of deeply felt scenarios, he died during open-heart surgery.


Completed in an astounding nine months, “Three Colors” was only the director’s second venture, after “The Double Life of Veronique,” outside his native Poland. He gave an accomplished international cast — Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, Irène Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant — some of the best roles of their careers, and they deliver indelible work.

One of the most eloquent story cycles ever committed to film (as is the director’s Ten Commandments-inspired “Decalogue”), the trilogy has been packaged in a Criterion Collection set, available Tuesday, that supplements the films with a rich assortment of extras, spanning the decades from one of Kieslowski’s student shorts to one of his final interviews.

Taken together, the films of “Three Colors” are amplified, but each stands alone. Working with his longtime creative collaborators — screenwriting partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz and composer Zbigniew Preisner — Kieslowski used a different cinematographer for each installment, creating disparate visual schemes.

The chromatic motifs are no gimmick but an expression of heightened receptivity, the stories told from within the prisms of their characters’ emotions: the blue crystals of a mobile that once hung in a child’s room; the white of a wedding veil and of the car in which the bride drives away, alone; and the red that courses through characters’ crisscrossing paths in a story of connections, both missed and inescapable.

Piesiewicz and Kieslowski associate each color of the French flag with one of the nation’s revolutionary ideals: liberty (“Blue”), equality (“White”) and fraternity (“Red”). Made in 1992-93, soon after the collapse of communism, the films convey a pan-European hopefulness that’s particularly poignant and charged 20 years later, as the euro zone implodes.

Social concerns are addressed most directly in “White,” but the promise of a continent-wide solidarity is a key element of the Paris-set “Blue,” which imagines a Concert for the Unification of Europe. Priesner’s music, always integral to Kieslowski’s work (developed in preproduction, not after shooting) is a main character in the first film of the trilogy.

In “Blue,” the series’ most internal and most stylized story, Binoche plays the widow of a famous composer, coping with the devastating loss of her husband and daughter by trying to liberate herself from her past. Kieslowski uses blackouts — not to indicate jumps in time but at moments of intense emotion, Priesner’s score surging as the screen goes blank. Such choices enhance the heart-wrenching restraint of Binoche’s often wordless performance.

By contrast, the plot-driven “White” unwinds with comic energy and a lurching tango score, exuberant and melancholy. The film, set mostly in Warsaw, was Kieslowski’s first production there since democratization, and its love-story-gone-wrong is a wry commentary on Poland in transition.

Zbigniew Zamachowski (“Decalogue 10”) stars as the hapless Karol Karol, whose initials might be a nod to the filmmaker but also point to a doomed Old World love, à la Humbert Humbert’s for Lolita. Humiliated but not defeated, Karol is determined to win back his French wife (Delpy). Revenge meets the new entrepreneurialism as he attempts to even the score.

If the first two films suggest that liberty and equality are unattainable, fraternity is an absolute in “Red.” Even as busy signals confound, the camera connects characters before they’ve met, and synchronicities accumulate across time and space. A favorite subject of Kieslowski’s, the twofold nature of life — the simultaneity of youth and old age in each of us, the duality of solitude and engagement — finds its most sublime expression in his final work as a director.

As Geneva residents forging an unlikely friendship, Jacob and Trintignant are profoundly affecting.

“Red” also reflects a healthy wariness of technology, understandable from someone who came of age in an authoritarian country, but prescient as well. As the director says in the documentary “Krzysztof Kieslowski: I’m So-So…,” included in the Criterion set, “The more invisible our tools were, the greater the danger we’d end up, with our cameras and microphones, where we had no right to be.”

Beginning as a documentary filmmaker, Kieslowski eventually found a greater capacity for truth in fiction. The penetrating eye for behavioral detail in his films can recall Bergman, Dreyer or Bresson. But with his key collaborators he fashioned his own language of gesture, light and sound: always resonant, never reductive.

The final close-ups in “Three Colors” are visions of hard-won hope and of an artist’s clear-eyed embrace.