Reflections on The Three Colours Trilogy

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

Written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz

Starring Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, Zbigniew Zamachowski,

Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

Foreword

Fundamental to each of these three films is the concept of existentialism, or a study of the consequence and effect one life can have on another in terms of action, emotion and influence. It seems to me that each film explores different aspects of existentialism and the ways in which we interact with one another and deal with life and its vagaries.

They were co-written and directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski who applies an artist's skill and talent to the composition of his films. Details contained not just in the script but in the images, colours, camera angles and the very layout of scenes all contribute to what is being communicated and a vast amount of information is incorporated in virtually every scene.

I cannot say I am especially sensitive to this artistic creativity and the following reflections are certainly not intended to be comprehensive or exhaustive, but I wanted to offer my modest and relatively brief take on these excellent and thought-provoking films as a contribution to the discussion and debate they engender.

The reference to the three colours in the titles is generally accepted to allude to the colours of the French flag and the precepts of the French Revolution, liberty, equality and fraternity, and while broad links to these may be found in each film, I find that interpretation largely unsatisfactory.

Given the metaphysical nature of the content of the films, I think Kieslowski's reference to and use of colour rather reflects an exploration of various modes of existence and reaction to events life can throw at us.

Blue may suggest coldness, depression and a desire to cut oneself off from humanity and associated emotion, pain and responsibility. White may represent an openness and an ability to survive, adapt to circumstances and assert oneself, while red may signify life itself, with all its complexities and interconnections, and perhaps a willingness to participate and show compassion for our fellow man.

Three Colours Blue

In each film, we join the action without preamble, prologue or exposition.

Julie loses her husband and her young daughter in a car crash and she gradually withdraws from society, opting to lead a life without attachments, pain and responsibility. She cannot or will not shed tears or grieve as she decides to put the family home up for sale.

There are a few hints at secrets, circumstances and issues in her marriage - she may have contributed to, or indeed have written her composer husband's work, and we see photos of him with another woman.

Before she leaves the family home, she invites Olivier, a friend and colleague, to come round and make love to her. This may be viewed as a sort of goodbye to emotion and attachments.

Julie sets about dismantling her old life and starting afresh in a flat in Paris. She emphasises her independence and her self-sufficiency by only using money from her personal account, reverting to her maiden name and declaring she has no profession. She is thus entirely free from the past and focuses on the present without responsibility, ties and relationships. She has, however, retained a single blue lampshade from her daughter's room in her former residence, a treasured souvenir of the past whose colour corresponds perfectly to her present emotional coldness and detachment.

Gradually, however, life's events start to draw her back to humanity...

Late one night, she becomes aware a passer-by is being beaten in her locality and she avoids involvement though eventually she gives in to human curiosity and steps outside her flat to investigate. There is no sign of the man but she witnesses a young lady, Lucille, from the flat below her discreetly invite a male neighbour into her home. Glances are exchanged but no words are spoken and no action is taken. Despite events continuing to take place around her, Julie clearly wishes to maintain a neutral position of non-involvement.

This policy of non-involvement is underlined when she refuses to sign a petition seeking the eviction of Lucille from the building due to her perceived lack of moral standards. It transpires, rather ironically, that inaction (or voluntary non-involvement) can have the same effect as a positive action since, due to Julie's refusal to get involved, Lucille cannot be evicted. Julie has therefore managed to influence events exactly by not participating, demonstrating the existential precept of influence by mere existence.

Lucille visits Julie to express her gratitude. She is open, honest, intelligent and perceptive. She sees that Julie is holding back but persists in her attempt to show gratitude and befriends her, indicating that while an individual may pursue a particular course, he/she cannot control how another individual will react to him/her. Julie is therefore left with a burgeoning friendship she did little to encourage, yet she will not reject it because she does not wish to cause offence or hurt.

A meeting is arranged between Julie and a young lad who witnessed her car accident. He picked up a necklace that belonged to Julie's daughter at the scene and he wishes to return it to her, but she invites him to keep it as she clearly wishes to maintain her detachment from the past.

There are several scenes in which music seems to overwhelm Julie, whatever she happens to be doing at the time it comes to her. It may be that her gift for writing music is irrepressible and her true nature will come to the fore despite all her efforts and measures to hide away and avoid the past, pain and responsibility. Olivier manages to trace Julie and while his friendship is rejected and she wishes to maintain her isolation, she does show interest in the music her husband had been working on with Olivier.

Julie visits her mother on a couple of occasions. Her mother suffers from dementia and Julie sees the effect of oblivion and detachment, albeit enforced in the case of her poor mother. From these visits, Julie may start to appreciate the importance of living for the present, but also the value of the past, attachments, love and relationships.

She receives an urgent and distressed phone call from Lucille and Julie goes to her place of work, a lowly exotic dance club. Lucille had spotted her father in the audience and asked her friend to help her. When Julie asks Lucille why she works there, she replies that she cannot live without love and affection. Extreme though it may be, this experience may serve to remind Julie of that whole aspect of existence, an aspect she has done her best to abandon.

While at the club, Julie sees a few seconds of a TV programme about her husband. In it she sees photos of him with another woman, the same one we saw previously, and there is an interview with Olivier in which he suggests he may try to complete the musical work on which her husband was working when he died. This news provokes a response in Julie and she goes to considerable lengths to see Olivier to discuss the matter. Clearly, she considers that this is as much her work as anyone else’s and her desire to contribute and participate in the creation of music, but also, perhaps, in life itself, is being rekindled. Perhaps the thought of her input and effort being repudiated may also be reviving a sense of pride and self-respect, traits largely fostered by social interaction. Olivier is convinced he is capable of completing the work alone. He may love Julie but he will not place her above his own self-respect and aspirations. The situation remains unresolved, though she understands and approves of his ambition.

Julie sets out to meet Sandrine, her husband's lover, and she discovers that Sandrine is pregnant with her husband's child. This appears to be the final push she needed to re-join humanity and society. Influenced, no doubt, by Lucille's love of life, friendship and love itself, combined with her gradual rediscovery of purpose and creation in terms of her music and the understanding through her mother that everything is ephemeral, Julie appears to be willing, once again, to invest in life and love, no matter the source.

Sandrine and her child will live in her unsold home and in the final shot of Julie we see her doing what she could not or would not do at the beginning of the film - she cries. Perhaps seeing a way forward has allowed her to come to terms with the past and her loss, and she feels able to grieve.

Three Colours White

We join Polish immigrant Karol as he attends court proceedings regarding his divorce from Dominique. We learn that Karol has been unable to consummate their marriage and Dominique offers this as the principal reason for the divorce.

During these proceedings and in a meeting shortly afterward, Dominique shows herself to be decisive, determined and dominant while Karol is rather meek and subservient to the point of effective emasculation.

Dominique makes it clear she wants nothing more to do with him and Karol is left penniless and without prospects. As a result of a chance encounter with a fellow Polish national, Karol manages to return to Poland but is stripped of all belongings and dignity so he is forced to take on menial jobs to ensure his survival.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention and the same might be said of desperation and initiative.

Up to this point Karol has been a nice guy, playing by the rules, doing the right thing and he has been taken advantage of by all and sundry, but now he spots an opportunity to make some money, though it means doing the dirty on some associates. He overhears plans to buy up tracts of land that are about to increase in value due to a proposed development and he gathers enough money to buy a few areas that are essential, forcing his associates to pay over the odds if they want to see their plans through.

This is a painful process but he is utterly determined to see it through and success gives him the confidence to invest his new-found wealth in deals which may not be illegal but are perhaps dubious and require nerve and assertiveness, qualities he has developed as a result of seeing where he ended up as a principled and respectful nobody.

Karol has gone from a toady to a somebody by fighting for himself, developing ambition and showing less consideration for the appeasement of others. He has become bold and forceful as a result of taking control of his circumstances and deciding to participate in life rather than simply observing it and trying to please others.

In a sense, the friend who arranged Karol's return to Poland has gone through the same process. Tired of life and seeing no positive way forward, Mikolaj invites Karol to kill him and Karol fires a blank bullet at him, forcing him to recognise the value of life and its possibilities, if you are willing and able to partake of them.

The sight of a funeral cortege inspires Karol, and it is eventually revealed that Karol has formulated an elaborate plan to avenge himself on Dominique, his ex-wife. He intends to fake his own death and frame her for murder, having left her a substantial sum in his will.

After his funeral, his new-found confidence, sense of self-worth and assertiveness allow him to confront Dominique and it appears she finds these qualities admirable and appealing as they make love and she rediscovers genuine feelings for Karol.

Dominique is arrested on suspicion of murder and Karol positions himself in the prison courtyard so they can see one another. Dominique is strangely serene and mouths and gesticulates to the effect she loves him and wishes to marry him while Karol sheds a tear and wears a wry smile.

This is open to a couple of interpretations. Maybe he is happy his plan has worked and he derives great satisfaction from the fact his ex-wife has now lost everything, including her freedom, as a result of devastating his life, yet she has ironically rediscovered her feelings for him. Or, maybe he thinks that all his pain, tribulations and effort were worth it if Dominique has regained her love for him and now, as the schemer and manipulator he has become, he will work to gain her release so they can be together...

While I prefer the existential interpretation of an appeaser being rejected, hitting rock bottom and learning to adapt, assert himself and make his way in the world to be admired and appreciated by society, there is, I suppose, another less philosophical interpretation. Poland tried for years to appeal to and appease the EU in order to gain membership and I have no doubt that, after decades of Soviet dominance, many were keen to exercise freedom and develop strength and independence without being tied to yet another group and this may be viewed as an expression of that desire.

I can't help but feel this is the weakest of the three films. For me, the storyline is somewhat unconvincing and unappealing even if I appreciate the points it makes. It is necessarily the least introspective, given the fact it is about a man who learns to impose his will on others. Consequently, again for me, it fosters less empathy and engagement than the others though it remains intriguing and thought-provoking.

Three Colours Red

Just as in the first two films, we join the characters as they live their lives and there is no preamble or exposition.

At first the direction of the film is unclear as we observe, without fully understanding, numerous threads of the characters' lives which, rather like the telephone wires at the beginning of the film, may run parallel to one another but will not necessarily cross without interference or influence despite proximity and opportunity.

There is a huge amount of detail to take on board, nearly all of which will become pertinent as the story unfolds and existential connections are made.

Valentine, a young student and model, accidentally hits a dog, Rita, with her car and seeks to return her to her owner. She receives a fairly frosty reception from the elderly owner, Joseph Kern, who appears to be leading an almost hermit-like existence and who wishes to recognise no attachments or relationships.

Valentine is a thoughtful and responsible girl who sees to it that the dog receives treatment and she consequently receives much more than enough money to cover it from Kern. Being honest and considerate, she returns to the old man’s home and she eventually discovers he is listening in to his neighbours' private phone calls.

Kern sees that she is horrified and disgusted at this invasion of privacy and invites Valentine to inform on him. He even directs her to the right house. However, Valentine learns it is not so easy to reveal truth as this may have repercussions for the neighbour, his wife, his daughter, the neighbour's interlocutor and of course for Kern himself, and Valentine is not ready to take that responsibility. That said, she learns how tempting it is to judge others when you have personal interest or knowledge as Kern points out another neighbour he suspects is responsible for dealing in drugs and, presumably because of her brother's involvement in drug-taking, she passes on a vaguely threatening message to him by phone.

She has a number of conversations with Kern and we learn more about him, along with Valentine. He claims to have invaded people's privacy all his life, but this may be a reference to the fact he is a retired judge. It was his job to listen to cases and arrive at a judgment of others' actions and it appears he has not managed to break the habit of listening. Perhaps listening to and understanding others came to surpass his duty to judge according to the law - we all seek knowledge and understanding and this human trait is being exercised by our very own Valentine as she questions Kern about his actions and his motives.

He recounts the story of one man he knew to be guilty under the law but because he understood the reasons for his desperate actions, he acquitted him and the man went on to lead a good and useful life. Valentine is impressed and praises him but Kern points out that this understanding undermined the validity and purpose of his position and he asks if he shouldn't have done the same for many others.

He felt his objectivity and therefore his sense of justice may have been compromised when he found against a man who wronged him personally in the past, even though this man's actions had cost lives, so he sought early retirement. Now, in retirement, he continues to gather information and understanding but he refuses to judge, indeed he appears to have embraced an emotional detachment and avoids responsibility.

Kern reveals that he came to the conclusion that judging others amounts to a form of vanity, suggesting that understanding and empathy cloud the ability to make objective or fair adjudications. Kern even states that in all probability he would have acted in the same way as many of those he had to judge if he had shared their circumstances and experience. Indeed, if subjective understanding is so overwhelming, doubt is cast on the very existence of a single, objective truth and the right to judge.

Kern and Valentine share confidences and develop a friendship which evolves into a closeness. In fact, at one point he even suggests she may be the woman of his dreams he never met. Valentine asks Kern to cease his eavesdropping activities and that evening Kern denounces himself to the police and his neighbours, prompting a court case.

As part of his spying activities, he has observed a young lawyer, Auguste, a neighbour of Valentine, and his girlfriend Karin who is one of his own neighbours, and he suggests that Karin is not right for him. It transpires there are many similarities between Kern and Auguste. Indeed, they seem to be leading more or less the same life, though separated by a number of years, and Kern, having observed others' lives and witnessed life's repetitions and patterns, is aware of this and explains, with reference to personal experience, why he thinks that Karin is wrong for Auguste.

All of this may explain why Kern takes the unexpected and unnecessary step of handing himself in to the police and provoking a court case. As witnesses gather outside the court, Karin meets and flirts with a young man and one thing leads to another... When Auguste discovers their relationship, he is devastated and decides to take a ferry to England for a few days. The direction of a life can be altered by chance encounters and Kern may have manipulated events in the hope of bringing about this outcome.

A recurring element is Valentine's relationship with her absent but highly manipulative, selfish and insensitive boyfriend. This is clearly an unhealthy relationship but because Valentine is considerate, caring and understanding, she compromises and arranges to meet him in London, crossing the Channel by ferry.

Valentine and Auguste come close to meeting by chance but they are almost literally thrown together by a tragic turn of events when, due to awful weather, the ferry is capsized and only a handful of passengers survive. This whole episode may, perhaps, be viewed as an allegory for our journey through life, a journey that can be ended or diverted by nature, incidents or chance encounters. Our input consists of how we react to these events and those we meet on our journey.

It must also be mentioned that other survivors of the ferry disaster include Julie and Olivier from "Blue" and Karol and his ex-wife Dominique from "White". Their inclusion allows us to assign feelings of positivity and hope to their stories. As with several other occasions in the films, it is left to the viewer to ascribe motive and intention, but presumably Julie has decided to work with Olivier on their music, confirming her return to a life of participation, while Karol appears to have arranged the release of Dominique and they are making a life together.

Toward the end of the film, we see Kern staring through a broken window pane (representing, perhaps, his ageing and damaged viewpoint) wearing a slight smile of satisfaction after he has seen TV news coverage of this event which, while tragic for so many, gives him hope for Valentine and Auguste.

Just as Kern may have influenced the lives of Valentine and Auguste, Valentine has certainly transformed Kern's life, and all through her caring and considerate response to a random event when she hurt Kern's dog. Kern was detached, uncaring and without hope when Valentine came into his life and her charitable and compassionate efforts to communicate and reason with him rekindled an interest and humanity in him. At one point Kern advises Valentine that the best way to help her drug-addicted brother is simply to be - to be herself and do what comes naturally to her, offering positive influence and acts of kindness and consideration.

Far from wanting nothing to do with his dog Rita, at the end of the film he is caressing and caring for one of her pups and he is able to see television coverage of the ferry disaster and Valentine and Auguste's rescue only because Valentine had organised the gift of her brother's spare television set. Once again, this demonstrates the ripple effect and consequences of the crossing of people's lives.

I would suggest that the colour red, of which considerable use is made throughout the film, represents life, love, affection and a willingness to get involved in the lives of others while showing respect and consideration. The film ends with a shot of Valentine before an overwhelmingly red background, mirroring almost exactly the image used for her chewing gum advert on which the text reads "La fraicheur de vivre", translated in the subtitles as "The breath of life". This cannot be mere coincidence.

There are, of course, very many images, situations and lines of dialogue that I have not discussed here. Kieslowski was, as I said at the beginning, an artist and it would take a much longer work than this to do justice to his work, but I hope I have encouraged you to watch and enjoy this trio of insightful, thoughtful and highly engaging films.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie ( stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk)

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