Three Color Trilogy: Why Kieślowski’s Arthouse Event Films Continue to Dazzle | The Three Color Trilogy

The first non-English language film I ever saw in the cinema was Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Red when it finally wormed its way into our local art house in Johannesburg, a few months after the critical hype from abroad had died down.

It was perhaps an ambitious venture by my parents, considering I was 11 and neither of us had seen the previous two titles in Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy (which received a 4K re-release in US cinemas this summer). would have. But I was serious about film, and my parents thought, rightly so, that my horizons would then be broadened: an unlikely family trip to the cinema becomes a thoughtful, melancholic study of the simultaneous human need for distance and connection, for sonic voyeurism and ambiguity altruism , of lost dogs and missed chances and mass tragedies, of the jagged stories in Jean-Louis Trintignant’s face and the monetized model freshness of Irene Jacob.

The risk paid off. I was oddly intrigued by the film, although I’m sure I must have missed some of its darker, more kinky adult nuances. However, Kieślowski’s visual storytelling is not. From that lavish formal coup at the very beginning of the film, as we scurry along the cord of a landline phone and dive headfirst into the massed cord and underwater rails connecting it to the other end of the call, I was mesmerized by the picture and sound on used in a way I had never seen or contemplated before, in which each frame could be read for meaning both separately and alongside the words spoken on the screen, in which the basic visual cue of color bat (right there in the title) are identified and interpreted. I might have been a bit taken aback by a coda reminiscent of characters from two films I hadn’t seen, but that was corrected easily enough over the following months: Three Colors: Blue and Three Colors: White captivated me in the same way, who attracts a teenage wannabe cinephile with a cinematic language that more than compensates for a foreign language.

I’ve revisited Kieślowski’s trilogy over the years – last year I finally had a big-screen reunion with Red in the suitably unfamiliar setting of Egypt’s El Gouna film festival – and relived that initial little rush of discovery each time, in a Way I feel like I owe something to my younger self. And that’s despite the fact that films, exquisitely conceived and constructed as they are, are nowhere near as alien or mysterious as I used to think: theirs mise en scene is often impeccably classical, its dramatic turns and inversions clean and sometimes quite literary, its visual imagery – beginning with that tricoleur-referential color code – unapologetically direct.

But underneath all these systems and keys there are stubborn, intangible emotions. Each film in the trilogy cultivates its own pervasive emotional wave: like Kieślowski’s sprawling ’80s Decalogue project, the Three Color films use chapter stories and thematic structure to fictionalize the wayward, erratic ways in which we love, hurt, and understand each other organize , and ourselves.

Blue, centered on Juliette Binoche’s precise, shattered porcelain performance as a young widow, is the most clearly devastating of the three, although her plaintive portrait of grief gradually transforms into a symphonic paean to human cooperation and community – with a vigorous template from Zbigniew Preisner’s all-time score. White, the scathingly funny one, once made me the coolest, although as I got older I recognized the poetry and truth in his relationship arc from revenge to ruin to reconciliation: It’s a romantic comedy sort of thing that doesn’t believe in soulmates but the buddies who do we get. But it’s still Red, if only for first love, that moves me most, his study of the union of loneliness, hope, and hard-won, oddly matched friendship that’s as subtly complicated as its made-up aesthetic is saturated and overt is.

Juliette Binoche in three shades of blue. Photo: Ronald Grant Archives

Perhaps by serendipity, my parents chose an almost textbook introduction to the study of world cinema for the interested but inexperienced viewer: three films that are easy but not easy to read, rewarding multiple viewings and different perspectives. There’s a reason they’ve reappeared as texts in film studies at university and again at film school: I can only assume they still do. Had Kieślowski not died in 1996 at the age of just 54 – exactly a year after Red’s surprise win of Oscar nominations had brought him unprecedented mainstream recognition – he might have created numerous other robust, worthwhile works. (In the 2000s, Tom Tykwer’s Heaven and Danis Tanović’s Hell — both drawn from Kieślowski’s screenplays for a second trilogy he never got to make — hinted at what might have been without the late auteur filmmaker’s clear formal authority.)

But chances are he’d have done anything as canonical as these three or as popular: The three-color films now return to theaters in impeccable restorations, reminiscent of an era when the art house scene still spawned event films the regular ones – franchises even, with common characters and overlapping narratives, a million miles from the Marvel Multiverse. They weren’t even genre-crossover entertainments, but inner, intellectual character studies that broke out of special-interest circles and into the comparatively mid-sized mainstream. It’s hard to imagine a current world cinema venture that approximates Kieślowski’s career-winning triptych, and even harder to imagine that such films are now widely and universally seen in cinemas, where they might surprise an inquisitive young viewer.

Leave a Comment