By Paul Newall (2005)
Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colours trilogy is a monumental work that blends cinema, philosophy and music in a seamless whole. Its sheer depth poses a host of interpretational difficulties but this paper seeks to unravel a minority of the interwoven themes that form it.
Perhaps the most philosophical of directors (and writers, with his long-time collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz), meanings in Kieślowski's work are elusive and not easy to pin down. He claimed that "knowing is not my business - not knowing is", and this is a sense we find throughout his creations: a lack of answers to questions that are explored rather than resolved. Although he had plans to work on a further trilogy (Heaven, since completed by Tom Tykwer, Hell and Purgatory), his death in 1995 meant that the Three Colours was his final gesture.
When Juliette Binoche first met Kieślowski, they discussed philosophy. This was a recurring trend for him, with Ir ne Jacob"s "audition" for Red consisting solely in a philosophical conversation over coffee. Binoche would turn down Jurassic Park to be Kieślowski"s Julie, remarking that she "would rather play a dinosaur than one of those characters". Reckoned by many to be the finest actress of her generation, she understood that Kieślowski was interested in details and prepared for her role accordingly. Asking to wear her own clothes on the principle that being familiar with costumes is necessary in order to forget them, she studied and was influenced by Annie Duperey's novel L'Ange Noir, which tells of the death of her parents at a very young age. Displaying no visible signs of bereavement, Duperey wrote that she had "suffered enough without having to show it as well."
In Blue Binoche is Julie de Courcy, a woman who loses her composer husband and their daughter Anna in a car crash at the opening of the movie. Fleeing her old life and her lover Olivier, she tries to start over, taking an apartment in a working class area of Paris.
There are several instances of close-ups in Blue, particularly the focus on Julie holding a sugar cube to let her coffee soak into it. Kieślowski was explicit on the importance of these passages:
We are trying to show how the heroine perceives the world. We are trying to show that she focuses on small things, on things which are close to her. She doesn't care about things which are further away from her. She is trying to limit her world, to limit it to herself and her immediate environment.
Kieślowski's intention here was to show Julie concentrating on tiny details "in order to be able to discard other things". He spoke of sending an assistant on a long search for the right sugar cube (one which would dissolve in five seconds – no more, no less), based on his conviction that the viewer would be patient enough to wait for just this long and understand the implication: that she "watches the sugar cube dissolve into the coffee in order to reject an offer she has just received from a man who loves her".
The opening act in Kieślowski's trilogy is ostensibly concerned with liberte, the first of the ideals of the French Revolution. The subtlety in Blue that can easily be missed, however, is that the process Julie goes through is exactly the reverse of what is superficially occurring. Speaking of the part, Binoche said that "when you’ve lost everything, life is nothing"; but what we see made plain throughout the movie is that she has not lost everything. Olivier still loves her unconditionally and although she tries to remove all trace of her past, selling the family's belongings and eating the blue lollies that remind her of Anna, she keeps the mobile from the blue room and puts it up in her new apartment. Even after Lucille touches it and Julie recoils so slightly as to almost be imperceptible, a quite beautiful gesture on the part of an actress having achieved total mastery of her craft, it stays as a perpetual reminder of what she has lost. This is straightforwardly inexplicable of a woman who supposedly views memories as traps and seeks freedom from them, but it immediately makes sense if we understand her behaviour in a similar way to that of Patrick Bateman's in American Psycho.
Thus when we watch Julie trying to block out the music that reminds her of the past by curling up in a natal position in the swimming pool, fingers in her ears (Binoche's idea), and yet returning to an apartment with the blue mobile, just as she destroys her husband's final composition even as she keeps on a scrap of paper in her handbag the motif that would tie it all together, we realise something: she is not free of all ties because life has lost its meaning, but instead wants to be free in order that life – and the past – will have no meaning. She is hiding from her pain inside a false liberty.
During the meeting with Olivier, Julie recognises the music of the busker outside playing a recorder as that of her husband's. When she asks him where he heard it, he replies that he makes up all sorts of things. This is an instance of a theory of Kieślowski's that "different people, in different places, are thinking the same thing but for different reasons". With regard to music in particular, he held what might be characterised as a Platonic view according to which notes pre-exist and are picked out and assembled by people. That these can accord with one another is a sign of what connects people, or so he believed. Indeed, music played a vital role in all of Kieślowski's work, his relationship with Zbigniew Preisner being a unique one wherein the latter (a self-taught composer and graduate of philosophy) wrote the score before the movie, fitting the story to the music rather than the other way around (Kieślowski described it as "the film [being] an illustration of the music").
Julie's mother has Alzheimer's and represents the ultimate end of any attempt to be free of memories, being unable to recall most details of her life. We notice, however, that when Julie discovers her rat infestation she goes to her mother to ask if she was afraid of rodents as a child. This scene again draws our attention to the inconsistency – or tension – between Julie's apparent desire to forget her past while at the same time needing it to make sense of her present. That she would turn to the one person who really is losing the power of retention is not so much ironic as tragic, demonstrating the absurdity of her predicament.
There are four instances of the fade to blue accompanied by de Courcey's motif for the Concert for European Unity: at the hospital on the visit of the journalist; on the stairs when Julie locks herself out of her apartment; in the swimming pool; and when she learns of Patrice's affair and is asked by Olivier "what do you want to do?" When we realise that these notes are those left by her husband to complete the concert, his last work, they become symbolic of the ties that remain even though she has tried to make a clean break. Only when she finally accepts that she cannot run away from the love that endures does she cry, letting go and beginning again with hope – truly free at last.
The second feature in the trilogy, White is concerned with equality. Many commentators have viewed it as the weakest of the films, passing over it in their haste to get to Red and describing it only as a black comedy. There is no doubt that it is funny, but unfortunately this misses the key points that Kieślowski was stressing and also its importance in making sense of the whole. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that White adds another dimension without which the overall effect would be considerably lessened.
White is the story of Karol Karol, a Polish hairdresser (named by Kieślowski as a tribute to Charlie Chaplin) living in Paris and married to Dominique Vidal, a French coiffure. She leaves him because of his failure to consummate their union. The movie begins with a number of humiliations, as Karol loses his marriage, his finances and his dignity through the divorce hearing and his (now ex-) wife immediately taking a lover. On the steps of the courtroom Karol is the target of a pigeon with a good aim, so that moments after taking a small pleasure in the bird's flight he is "humiliated through his naivety in the face of nature", as Kieślowski put it. This sets the scene for what is to follow, a point on which Kieślowski insisted:
Humiliation is the subject of the film. People aren't and don't want to be equal.
In a continuation of the motif from Blue, Karol grins at an old man struggling to use a bottle bank, taking a perverse pleasure in someone apparently being worse off than him. However, he salvages something from his humiliation, demanding the return of his two franc piece (which he subsequently keeps with him) and finding beauty in the bust he notices in a shop window and carefully restores in Poland.
There are two instances of foreshadowing in White. In the opening credits we watch as a bulky suitcase makes it way around an airport carousel, without knowing what this means as yet. Only later do we understand that it contained Karol, on his way home by being smuggled as part of Mikolaj's luggage. Later Karol spins his two franc piece as we watch Dominique enter a hotel room, looking exhausted. This, we discover, is where she will meet the "reborn" Karol after his funeral.
The subplot involving Mikolaj, a Pole who Karol meets in the Paris Metro and helps get him back to Poland, is itself one of rebirth or resurrection. Wanting to kill himself but being unable to do so, Mikolaj offers Karol money to help him. At the fateful moment, Karol shoots him in the chest with a blank before telling him that the next one is real and asking "are you sure?" Mikolaj is not and the two men trade the idea for running onto a frozen lake like children. For Mikolaj now, "everything is possible".
The remainder of the movie follows Karol's rise to prosperity in a Poland opened up to capitalism. Reaching a point of financial security, he is able to fake his own death having first changed his will to make it seem that his ex-wife was involved in the handsome settlement she receives, resulting in her being jailed. Karol is thus able to erase his humiliation and attain equality with Dominique, but it comes at a cost of its own that neither can afford.
Indeed, Kieślowski's real point in White is that the maxim "these days, you can buy anything" is false: love cannot be bought and cannot be described in terms of equality. Moreover, it is much more than consummation, which is hinted at by Dominique early in the film when she tells Karol "you don't understand that I want you. You don't understand that I need you." Only at his funeral does Karol realises that something is wrong with his attempts to achieve parity when he observes that Dominique is genuinely upset. Delpy herself noted that the result of his machinations was that "both characters are locked up in their own prisons – his because people think he is dead. They still love each other, though, and hence there is hope."
There is thus in White a critique of viewing equality in economic terms - or as a matter of power - as both Karol and Dominique come to appreciate that neither have dominion over love, just as Julie learned that she could not free herself from it in Blue.
The final movie he completed before his death, Red is acknowledged as Kieślowski's masterpiece. Its meaning is so elusive that overinterpretation is a constant danger. A good example is the name of the heroine, Valentine, which has been the subject of much speculation. Kieślowski recounted, however, that he had simply asked Ir ne Jacob what she would like to be called, which she responded to by selecting her favourite name as a child. Jacob herself noted that Kieślowski was "distrustful of any message, of a moral", but this is not to imply that interpretation is unlimited.
The most obvious aspect of the film is its daring use of colour. In contrast to the muted greys of Gen ve, anything of any significance it saturated with or marked in red – from the ribbon on Valentine's telephone to Auguste's jeep. When Valentine stops at a traffic light in front of an empty billboard framed in red, then, moments before Auguste crosses the same road and drops his books (the elastic having broken), we are aware that some kind of foreshadowing is taking place.
The subject of Red is fraternity, at least on the surface, but Kieślowski himself stated that "the essential question the film asked is: is it possible to repair a mistake which was committed somewhere high above?" The meaning of this apparently cryptic allusion becomes clearer as the movie progresses, particularly if we pay attention to the many pointers scattered throughout. When we notice the camera lingering over a picture of a ballet dancer in Auguste's apartment, for instance, and then watch Valentine struggling to hold the very same pose at her class shortly thereafter, the room dripping in reds, we expect to find a connection between them. Nevertheless, they seem to keep missing each other, such as when Auguste moves to the window when Valentine's car alarm is sounding, only for his girlfriend to appear and distract his attention.
When she knocks down his dog Rita, Valentine finds herself at the home of Joseph Kern, a retired judge who appears only under this description in the credits. Ostensibly indifferent to Rita's accident, he dismisses Valentine and yet comes to the window to look at her again. He then sends her money to pay the veterinarian's bill – far too much, as it happens, and apparently quite deliberately. Although this scene passes quickly and our attention is focused on Valentine's winning on the fruit machine – red cherries – and her understanding it as relating to her brother’s appearance in the newspaper, the question neither asked nor answered is how the judge was able to post any form of payment without knowing who Valentine is or where she lives…
In any case, the plain implication is that Kern paid too much in order to draw Valentine to him again, and revisit she does. He lacks the correct change for her when she gives back the overpayment, so he disappears inside and fails to come back. Valentine, of course, follows her curiosity and seeks him out, discovering the eavesdropping on his neighbours. Before we come to this strand, however, we notice that the judge points to the thirty francs rather than passing them to Valentine. When she picks them up, we see that they were resting on what seems to be a picture. This is actually a record sleeve, the artist being van den Budenmayer. (The composer was a fictional creation of Kieślowski's and Preisner's, used in La Double Vie de Veronique, although it was taken seriously by some music critics.) Again the camera lingers and we have another example of foreshadowing: later we see Valentine listening to a CD which we recognise by the cover as van den Budenmayer, her interest having been piqued by seeing it at Kern's house. Next to her are Auguste and his girlfriend Karin who buy the last copy, as though the judge had arranged for their paths to cross again.
For Kieślowski, the dialogue involving Valentine and the judge was between "experience which can know disappointment and youth which has yet to face it". Faced with her disgust at his behaviour, Kern challenges Valentine to fix the problems he listens in on and asks her if she acts to help others or instead just to make herself feel better. Rising to the bait, she visits the home of one neighbour only to find the daughter already listening in on her father's conversation with his lover while his wife is cheerfully oblivious. Much as we learned from many of the shorter pieces in the Decalogue, situations like these are too complex for easy answers. No such attempt to help is involved when Valentine learns that another resident controls much of the Genevan heroin trade and wishes death upon him, her brother firmly in her thoughts.
Some commentators have suggested that the judge is – or represents – God. He asks Valentine to stay, telling her "the light is beautiful" just as he is bathed in it. They listen to Auguste's conversation in which he tosses a coin to decide between bowling or studying penal code and Kern does likewise beforehand, resulting in tails and still another lingering close-up. Somehow we know that Auguste will obtain the same result, and – more foreshadowing – that is where Valentine will end up, too. Again and again we find Auguste and Valentine passing one another without meeting, as though the judge is contriving to make it happen. Indeed, he tells her that Auguste has not yet met the right woman; and when she asks how he knows this, he replies "I watch them from my window". This in itself engenders the realisation that much of the movie involves glass, usually as a barrier between a spectator such as Kern and the world outside.
The second discussion between Valentine and Kern takes place after he has turned himself in. He did this, he says, to see what Valentine would do. He mentions that he had to write to his neighbours using a pencil since the pen he had used all his life would not work, while the previous scene had involved Auguste being given a very similar one as a gift. Even so, he remarks that Valentine may have been very close to Auguste when she went bowling, which piques her interest. She notices that he seems happy about the couple breaking up and demands to know if he provoked it; and indirectly, of course, he did.
It is at this point that we witness the development in both characters. Valentine wants to help her brother but has come to realise that there are no easy answers. When she asks the judge if there is anything she can do, he replies "be". Asking for clarification, he repeats himself: "just that: be". Kern then admits that he had made judgements in the past that he now believes to have been wrong, acquitting a guilty man – a sailor – who had since led a good life. Valentine tells him that he had therefore been saved, but Kern wonders about how many others he might have judged differently, even others who were guilty. "Deciding what is true and what isn’t", he says, "now seems to me a lack of modesty." This passage is key to understanding the trilogy and Kieślowski’s oeuvre as a whole: all judgements are too soon and everyone can be saved by the smallest of gestures. This lesson applies particularly to Kern, whose liberation from the confines of his objectivity is symbolised by the breaking of the glass we see him trapped behind on many occasions. After the fashion show he places his hand on the window of his car, a gesture she reciprocates which indicates that their connection has transcended the boundary between them.
Standing at his window, however, Kern states that the difference between him and those he judged is only contingent. In reply, Valentine asks him if there is someone he loves. Jacob herself was clear on the meaning of her character's question:
You can do anything you want, but if you don't have love, it's pointless. And you can try to help everyone, but if you're not there, it's pointless.
Here, of course, we come full circle to the Concert for the Unification of Europe from Blue and its chorus drawn from 1 Corinthians 13.
The final dialogue occurs after the fashion show, to which Valentine invites the judge. She asks him to tell her again about the dream he described, involving her waking up happy beside someone. When she asks if this is what will happen, he is unequivocal. As though the realisation is unfolding slowly at that moment, she inquires of him, "what else do you know? Who are you?" and states that she feels something important is happening around her. We appreciate what this something is when the judge recounts his experience of visiting the fashion show years earlier and dropping one of his books from his balcony seat when the elastic binding them broke (captured in a beautiful sweeping shot by Piotr Sobocinski), falling to the ground open on a particular page. Just as we had seen for Auguste in the present day, the passage indicated by this "accident" was the one that came up in the subsequent test. As if this were not enough, he then remarks that he had to recharge his car battery.
What we learn, then, is that Auguste is somehow living the judge's life over again, with more than a hint of implication that Kern is directing it. There have been numerous chances for Valentine and Auguste to meet without doing so, but this time the judge will ensure it happens. The details are identical, down to Kern's description of his lover, her betrayal and following the couple across the English Channel. He calls Valentine the woman he never met and explains that his last judgement was on a case involving Hugo Holbling, the man who had taken his only love from him. This was his last act, taking early retirement. There follows the joining of hands and Valentine's noticing an old lady struggling at a bottle bank, the same motif we have found in each element of the trilogy. She helps her, completing the cycle and saving the world in a moment.
It remains only to note the breathtaking close of Red, in which the threads of all the movies are drawn together by the tragedy of the ferry sinking in a storm that also claims a yacht – one we understand to contain Hugo Holbling from the pictures he had shown Karin and the closing of her weather service in order to travel across the Channel. The only survivors are Julie and Olivier from Blue, Karol and Dominique from White (these pairings indicating that both couples remain together and also, by the use of his name, that Karol has given up his pretence of being dead), Valentine and Auguste from Red, along with a barman. (There is no mention of this character, Steven Killian, at any point in the trilogy, which may imply a final lesson from Kieślowski against overinterpretation, leaving a detail that cannot be explained.) This is the moment at which Valentine is captured in exactly the pose of her billboard advertisement, a stroke of genius by Sobocinski that can only be experienced since words fail to convey the sheer power of the shot. The camera then cuts to the judge gazing through a broken window, smiling quietly. Kieślowski has answered his own question, the mistake rewritten and absolved by the love that never fails.
Finis vitae sed non amore
1 Corinthians 13
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;
Does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;
Does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;
Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part.
But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.