Tag: Krzysztof Kieślowski

Three Colours: Red (1994)

Irène Jacob gives a soulful performance in Kieślowski’s crowning achievement Three Colours: Red

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

Cast: Irène Jacob (Valentine Dussault), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Joseph Kern), Jean-Pierre Lorit (Auguste Bruner), Frederique Feder (Karin), Samuel LeBihan (Photographer), Marion Stalens (Vet), Teco Celio (Barman)

Spoiler warnings: I wouldn’t usually do this for a film that was made over 20 years ago, but discussing this film is almost impossible without covering the entire plot so – be warned! This is a rich viewing experience you should discover for yourself.

Kieślowski’s great trilogy wraps up with Three Colours: Red, a fascinating, moving, intriguing puzzle of a film that opens itself up to countless interpretations. It’s a film that seems to be about a great many things, but wears its intelligence and insight very lightly, never hammering points home or getting too wrapped up in its own smartness. It’s primarily a story and never forgets that. It also pulls together threads and themes from the entire trilogy hugely effectively. It’s a great movie.

Valentine (Irène Jacob) is a student in Geneva, funding her time at university through part-time modelling. After accidentally hitting (but not killing!) a dog with her car, she meets the dog’s owner, retired judge Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Joseph is spending his time in isolation from the world, listening to his neighbours’ phone calls, more out of a judge’s habit of finding out secrets than any truly malicious intent. Valentine challenges this blatant disregard of privacy, and she and Joseph begin to form an increasingly strong bond. 

Red is a beautiful film, wonderfully made and rewards constant analysis. Kieślowski described this as the hardest film of the trilogy to write, and you can see why. Dealing with themes of fraternity, it ties this in closely with love (romantic and otherwise). The entire film shows the strengths of people coming together, specifically Valentine and Joseph who develop a bond that enriches their lives. This is contrasted throughout with Valentine’s domineering boyfriend on the other end of the phone-line, and modern communication in general that builds distance between people. Joseph, a man distanced himself from all others, finds his humanity once he opens himself to considering other people as people.

Kieślowski’s film also plays interesting games with narrative and time. A seemingly minor character, Auguste, a lawyer training to become a judge, is slowly shown to share a huge number of life events with Joseph’s youth. The question that bubbles over the film is, is this a coincidence or are Auguste and Joseph somehow linked? Is Auguste in some way the same person as Joseph – some sort of reincarnation? Is this fate or chance or mere coincidence? Is Joseph, living like some lonely old-testament God in complete isolation, somehow trying to move events to correct errors in the past – to try and find some contentment for Auguste (whose conversations with his girlfriend he has been listening to) so that he avoids the life Joseph has led?

I like this idea. It appeals a lot to me, not least as I started to feel that Joseph was almost some sort of Prospero, using phone taps as his own private Ariel to know everything happening around him and then (more benignly perhaps than Prospero) using this to improve the lives of those close to him. Perhaps. There is even a seemingly magic storm at the end of the film that brings several characters together, not least the leading couples from the previous two films in the trilogy. It’s also a storm that, it is suggested, will bring Valentine and Auguste together.

It’s a romantic flourish at the end of the film that speaks of the possibilities for the future (though typically of this intriguing series, it’s a flourish that comes out of a ferry accident that kills over a thousand people – you can’t get something for nothing in this world, and no romantic story is straight forward). It’s also a natural development of the strong romantic link between Joseph and Valentine. If Joseph and Auguste are (essentially) versions of the same person, it’s a further suggestion that (in another life) Joseph and Valentine would certainly have fallen in love (to match the platonic love that develops between them). This interpretation of love joining people together is seen as well in the lead couples from Blue and White also surviving the accident.

Or is this all coincidence? Kieślowski plays the mystery and depth so lightly – lets these points float out or be lightly stated without tub-thumbing – that it leaves it all gently to the viewer’s imagination. You can make of it what you will: the story works just as effectively if you ignore all the things I just discussed. Joseph as the isolated, austere man who finds a warmth in himself awakened by the generosity and compassion of Valentine. All this stuff could just be the working of chance.

But either way, the film is about fraternity: people coming together, and communication and compassion making us human. Irène Jacob is wonderful as the endearing, romantic and empathetic Valentine, her brightness and humanity shining through. Jean-Louis Trintignant is superb as the judge, whose careful veneer of distance and coldness is punctured throughout the film. The scenes these two share are beautifully done: conversations that throb with emotion under the surface. Kieślowski again directs these scenes with a masterful minimalism, using differing heights and levels (they are very rarely on the same level, usually one sits or stands above the other) to show the dynamics subtly change between the two. These height differentials – with Valentine often kneeling at Joseph’s feet – also suggest a growing intimacy between the two characters. 

Technically the film is a marvel. It is lusciously filmed by Piotr Sobociński. The presence of red throughout is very well done and adds a poetic brilliance to the images. Kieślowski in particular shoots sunrises and sunsets with an astounding beauty, and uses light to add a huge emotional depth and beauty to private conversations. Zbigniew Preisner’s score is marvellous, a lyrical, beautiful series of compositions that rewards constant re-listening.

Red is a marvellous, thought-provoking and humane film crammed with wonderful and involving ideas, and brilliantly gives you loads to think about both narratively and thematically. It’s a warm and moving story, with darker elements that make those parts seem richer. With two marvellous performances at its centre, it’s brilliantly directed by Kieślowski (who tragically died shortly after the film’s release), with grace, poetry and passion. It looks wonderful, it sounds marvellous and it always make you think. It’s a masterpiece.

Three Colours: White (1994)

Zbigniew Zamachowski confronts the problems of revenge in Kieślowski’s Three Colours: White

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

Cast: Zbigniew Zamachowski (Karol Karol), Julie Delpy (Dominique Vidal), Janusz Gajos (Mikolaj), Jerzy Stuhr (Jurek), Aleksander Bardini (Lawyer), Grzegorz Warchol (Elegant man), Cezary Harasimowicz (Inspector), Jerzy Nowak (Old farmer), Jerzy Trela (Monsieur Bronek)

The second film in Kieślowski’s ambitious thematic trilogy probably couldn’t be much more different from the first. Whereas Blue was a romantic tragedy, this is a sort of bitter comedy, a kind of anti-farce if you like. Here, the themes of equality are much more about getting even rather than all men being equal. Just as Blue looked at the negativities of liberty, this looks at the dark side of equality, and the blinkered tunnel vision we follow in order to get ourselves even.

Polish hairdresser Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is divorced in Paris by his French wife Dominique (Julie Delpy). In quick succession, Dominique strips him of his home, access to their bank account, his passport and his share of the business, and takes another lover. Reduced to homeless penury on the streets of Paris, Karol finally finds a way to get home to Warsaw by befriending sad-sack successful businessman Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), a fellow Pole, on the Métro. With Mikolaj’s help, Karol finds himself back home and soon in a position to start scheming his revenge.

White is, let’s be honest, a lot less of a triumph than Blue. That was a film that combined stunning visuals, directorial invention, profound depth and emotion. It was a story that looked at universal themes from a fascinating series of new angles. White,however, is more of a shaggy dog story. It feels like it’s aiming for some sort of Chaucerian fable, but it never really goes anywhere in particular, and it never really engages as much as it should while it tries to get there. While it’s not unentertaining film, it’s at best a good one rather than a great one.

My main problem is that Dominique’s character just never clicks. Why does she do the things she does? No idea. We are never given any insight into her character – she remains a cipher, bordering on a trope of the wicked beautiful seducer. Why does she jilt Karol? Surely it can’t be because of his (rather obvious) impotence ever since he arrived in France, and felt isolated in his new home? Why does she take such a delight in persecuting him, even down to audibly having sex with her lover when he calls her (“Perfect timing” she says before getting frisky)?

It’s hard not to get the sense of a film which has a slight suspicion of women. I don’t imagine that this a suspicion Kieślowski  in any way shares – sensitive and humane portrayals of women are central to his films (not least Blue) – but when the only female character in this is the distant and unknowable Dominique it’s not good. Without any sense of why she has done the things she does, it’s hard to feel comfortable with the semi-comic destruction of her Karol plans.

But then that is part of the film’s point: Karol is obsessed (without even really knowing it) with his wife. Not even so much with revenge for that matter – just getting the chance to take on his wife in a one-sided struggle makes him feel closer to her. The only possession he takes home from Paris is a bust that reminds him of his wife (and which he painstakingly repairs after it is smashed to pieces). Much as tries to build a new life, it’s a monofocus – he only gets what he gets in order to use the resources against his ex-wife. 

So equality is in Kieślowski’s design, not a good thing. Shy, sweet Karol basically ends up entrapping himself and his wife in equally frustrating positions: she in prison, he faking his own death without a penny. What was the point for Karol? No wonder he looks up at her in prison with tears rolling down his face – he’s still in love and he’s got nothing to really show for his equality, other than their joint misery.

All of this sits alongside Kieślowski’s brilliant understanding of post-Cold-war Poland, a bustling land of opportunity to make a quick buck, where simple peasant farmers can be bamboozled out of their land by smarter guys who know businesses from the West are just dying to buy up properties. Karol shares this understanding of Poland. No wonder he’s all at sea in the rest. The instant he arrives back he’s delighted, relaxed and more confident – “I’m home!” he cries joyfully, even when his first view on arriving in Poland is a mass rubbish dump. 

Moments like that show Kieślowski’s dry comedy. There are plenty of other moments, helped by Zamachowski’s pretty lovable performance of the naïve-but-growing-in-confidence Karol. Karol and Mikolaj (an excellent Janusz Gajos) put together quite an excellent double bill of bromance laced with darker themes of depression (it’s no real surprise who Mikolaj is talking about when he tells Karol that he will help him if Karol can help his “friend” who wants to die but can’t kill himself). Karol’s hapless fate in Paris raises a few smiles, as does his surreal escape stuffed in a suitcase.

But there aren’t quite enough of them. Too much of the film either doesn’t connect or hold together. I could have certainly done without Karol’s sexual prowess returning once he is confident and rich in Poland (yawn!). Dominique’s non-character remains a serious problem, and there just isn’t enough meat on the bones here. Compared to the richness of the first entry in the series, this feels remarkably empty. It’s also a lot less visually arresting and imaginatively done than the first film: I’m already struggling to remember any of the visuals.

Kieślowski may well have wanted a sort of anti-comedy to be the pivot of his trilogy, but it doesn’t really work here. He ends up with something that feels so slight and underdeveloped that it doesn’t stick with the viewer, and doesn’t engage them either. While it has moments, as you would expect from a great director, and some very good actors, it doesn’t have nearly enough of them.

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

Juliette Binoche seeks liberty from grief in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s masterpiece Three Colours: Blue

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

Cast: Juliette Binoche (Julie de Courcy/Vignon), Benoît Régent (Olivier Benôit), Emmanuelle Riva (Madame Vignon), Florence Pernel (Sandrine), Guillaume de Tonquédec (Serge), Charlotte Véry (Lucille), Yann Trégouët (Antoine), Hélène Vincent (La journaliste), Zbigniew Zamachowski (Karol Karol), Julie Delpy (Dominique)

There are few foreign language films that have cemented themselves in film’s cultural history more than Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy. These three inter-linked films – made with French and Polish money – looked (individually) at themes of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, while using a colour palate and design that reflected one colour of the French flag each. The first film in this interlinking trilogy is Blue, a sombre, intriguing, intimate drama that perhaps wears its intelligence a little heavily on its sleeve.

Julie de Courcy (Juliette Binoche) is the only survivor of a car crash that kills her husband, a famous composer, and her daughter. Lost in grief, Julie decides that she will separate herself from the world and live entirely independently. She rents out her home, distances herself from friends, takes back her maiden name and destroys what she believes to be the only copy of her husband’s final composition – a concert for the unification of Europe. But Julie finds that liberating herself from all worldly connections is not as easy as she hoped.

Blue is a heartfelt, gentle film that throbs with emotional intensity, much of it coming from Binoche’s searing performance of a woman consumed with a mixture of grief and survivor guilt, who sees complete isolation and “liberty” from all connections as the only chance for sanity. Kieślowski’s direction is masterful – patient, stable, quiet and with a brilliant eye for small details. The film is crammed with small moments that speak of peace and quiet reflection – from watching a lump of sugar being soaked in tea, to lingering studies of everything from rooms to streets. 

The opening sequences of the film convey this masterful confidence from Kieślowski. The camera is a still observer, alternating between subtle POV shots and gentle, perfectly placed observation of Julie. Every moment of the shocking discovery of Julie’s loss is wonderfully assembled – from the stumbling news from the doctor, to the crackling mini-TV on which she watches her family’s funeral being broadcast. Quietly we see Julie return to her own home – and Binoche bottles up emotion with a resolve that suggests as much her determination not to engage with the pain as it does self-control. No wonder her housekeeper bursts into tears at the fact that Julie isn’t crying.

This all ties in very interestingly with the film’s theme of liberty. Conventionally, we would have had Julie escaping from something to find her own life. Kieślowski’s film more interestingly explores the positive and negative of liberty. Julie chooses freedom from all of life’s connections – but this is shown constantly to be not only impossible, but also less than healthy. Her surface liberty is instead crushing her under the pressure of isolation.

At the same time, the film is partly about Julie learning to free herself from her survivor guilt. Cutting herself off from the world denies her a genuine emotional connection with her husband’s friend Olivier (a puppy doggish Benoît Régent). In the first months of her guilt she sleeps with Olivier, hoping it will get her a bit of peace (it doesn’t). Inevitably, as Julie finds out more about her husband’s life – and as we find out that his music output was heavily reliant on Julie’s secret collaboration – the film becomes a question of whether Julie will allow herself the liberty from her past to continue living.

Because in a way this is an anti-tragedy: it starts with a trauma and is about the survivor learning to continue her life. Kieślowski peppers the film with moments of falling, from items to bungee jumpers on the TV. Slowly, these images of falling progress to include being caught, or shots of the bungee cords snapping the person back from oblivion. It’s a neat, subtle continual reference to Julie’s unconscious search for support.

Particularly as it’s made clear that Julie’s entire personality is all about giving, about loving and supporting people. From her silent collaboration with her husband, to her patient caring for her mother suffering from increasing dementia (another perverse form of liberty), to her forming a reluctant friendship with an exotic dancer in her block of flats (who the rest of the tenants are trying to drive out), it’s clear that Julie’s attempt to distance herself is never going to truly work. A character late on even tells her that her husband had always described her as kind and forgiving – qualities Julie learns to re-embrace. 

The wider world that Julie is trying to escape is represented brilliantly throughout by the score of her husband’s (her?) music for Europe. This score – a richly exuberant piece of music by Zbigniew Priesner – constantly intrudes into the action, accompanied by moments where Kieślowski seems to suggest time has stopped as Julie becomes lost in her reflections. Kieślowski uses colour changes and slow zooms to suggest throughout these beats where Julie temporarily becomes lost in the past and memories. The continual presence of the music is perfectly done.

The one element I was less keen on was the over use of blue. From filters on the camera, to backlighting, to objects present in every frame, there is a lot of blue in this movie – every shot has something blue in it. Although this is clever, and clearly thematically intentional for the whole trilogy – I’ve got to be honest spotting this stuff probably took me out of the film at moments. I imagine on a second viewing this will be dramatically reduced – but it’s one of those curses of a trilogy of films that have been so hyped up on the arts circuit, that you are aware of some of its subtle tricks so much that they cease to be subtle.

But Three Colours: Blue is still a masterful, quiet study of grief, loss and yearning, that avoids the obvious and explores different types of liberty and freedom. Binoche is brilliant in the lead role, and Kieślowski sears the brains with images (I still wince remembering a sequence where Julie deliberately scrapes her knuckles over a wall she walks past) and his direction is impeccably sensitive and unshowy, letting the film speak for itself. I can’t wait to watch the other two films in the trilogy – and see how this might affect my views on this first one.