"Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité"
A person's selection of a "favorite film trilogy" reveals much about his or her character. Most people cling to their favorite trilogies because they discovered the movies during times in their lives when formative or memorable events occurred. You have fans of "Star Wars" Episodes 4 thru 6. You have fans of "Indiana Jones". You have fans of "Back to the Future". You have fans of "The Godfather". You also have fans of Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" even though "The Return of the King" is still in the editing stage of its production.
Then there's me. What's my favorite film trilogy? Let me give you a hint--I'm reviewing it as you read this article. Yes, my favorite film trilogy is "Trois Couleurs--Bleu, Blanc, Rouge" ("Three Colors--Blue, White, Red"). Named after the French flag (comprised of vertical slats of the aforementioned colors) and inspired by the "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" ("Liberty, Equality, Fraternity") slogan of the French Revolution, "Trois Couleurs" is the crown jewel of Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski's achievements.
Kieslowski began his career making documentaries. With his eye used to being trained on humanity as a subject matter, he turned to making fictional narratives that examined how people realistically faced challenges in contemporary societies. Kieslowski directed all ten episodes of "The Decalogue", an application of the Ten Commandments to contemporary Poland. He also helmed "The Double Life of Veronique", a movie about two women who share the same name, the same outward appearance, and the same health problems but who live on opposite ends of the European continent. Watching "Veronique" resembles reading those newspaper articles about twins who lead remarkably similar lives despite being separated at birth. By the time that he got to "Trois Couleurs", Kieslowski was ready to focus the life lessons that he learned from making "The Decalogue" and "Veronique" into a powerful thesis about the modern condition.
I first discovered "Trois Couleurs" while in high school right after the trilogy arrived on video. At the time, I was mostly interested in seeing the luminous Juliette Binoche in a movie (that would be "Bleu") that features a behind-the-scenes look at the art of composing music. I got hooked on Kieslowski's ambitious look at life in fin de siècle Europe, so I rented "Blanc" and "Rouge" right after returning "Bleu" to the video store. As soon as the trilogy was available for sale to the general public, I bought the VHS box set. The trilogy spoke to me in a special way. During my tenth and eleventh grades, I was discovering a passion for literature and for writing. Philosophical and political ideas flooded my head, and "Trois Couleurs" showed me the importance of empathy, quite possibly the most profound discovery of my life. If you can relate to your surroundings, then you can accomplish much more than if you choose to live only for yourself.
"Bleu" conceptualizes "liberty" in a very pure, extreme form--that of disengagement. At the beginning of "Bleu", there's a car crash that kills a famous composer and his daughter. His wife, Julie (Juliette Binoche) survives the tragedy and deals with the mourning process by not mourning at all. In fact, she dissociates herself from anything linked to her past.
However, Julie's past continues to haunt her. Public officials and prominent figures in the classical music community hound her to finish her husband's "Concerto for the Unification of Europe". At the local swimming pool, groups of children taking swimming lessons remind her of her daughter. Julie discovers that her husband had a mistress (who's pregnant with his child) even though she thought that she was in a happy marriage. She also comforts a neighbor in her apartment complex, a woman who turns out to be a lonely girl who works as a stripper.
Julie is "free", of course, because she can do whatever she wants given her secure financial situation and sudden lack of responsibilities. She doesn't have to answer to anyone or to anything other than her own desires. Yet, her liberty was dearly bought, and freedom from doing anything makes Julie feel empty. After a while, she feels compelled to re-connect with links to her past. In a sense, Julie has to be tied to something in order for her life to have meaning.
"Bleu" is a stylish, even glamorous, endeavor. Julie's wardrobe can only be described as très chic, and it's not hard to be seduced by the prospect of a clean start in life, especially when you can disentangle yourself from any worries. However, "Bleu" also feels cold and distant, matching psychological associations with the color blue. Of course, to be truly free means to be without ties to anything, and "Bleu" suggests that we must surrender some of our liberty in order to be able to live productively--which leads to the fraternity of "Rouge".
"Blanc" is the most accessible entry in the trilogy because it has the most straightforward narrative and has a comic tone that makes it easier to watch than the somber "Bleu" and the enigmatic "Rouge". In "Blanc", Dominique (Julie Delpy) divorces her husband, Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) because he's been impotent since their marriage day. Humiliated and dispossessed of everything by French law, Karol returns to his native Poland. At first, he resumes his old job of cutting hair in his brother's beauty salon, but then he becomes involved in various "easy money" schemes that make him a very wealthy businessman (Kieslowski's commentary on the fact that everything is for sale in a newly democratic Poland--which isn't necessarily a good thing since players can take advantage of people unaware of shifts in the economic climate). Soon, Karol has a business that has hands in numerous trades, and he begins to think about luring Dominique to Poland so that she can get her just desserts for throwing away their marriage.
"Blanc" unfolds with the old saying "everyone's equal, but some are more equal" very much in mind. Yes, every individual has the same basic rights, but not every person has access to the same kinds of opportunities. Therefore, no matter how equitable a society may try to be, someone is always getting the shaft.
In order to be "more equal", Karol plays a game of one-upmanship against his ex-wife. However, by exacting revenge on Dominique, he actually risks losing her rather than re-gaining her love. Karol and Dominique will never be happy together if they try to gain any advantage over each other. In order to be happy, they must be equals. In order to be truly equal, they must make concessions to one another--they must surrender some of their liberty (shades of "Bleu") and also embrace the fraternity of their relationship (shades of "Rouge").
"Rouge" begins with a fast-forward montage of a bunch of phone lines, and the montage ends with a blinking light and a beeping tone indicating a busy signal. Someone has failed to make a connection. However, the rest of the movie finds Valentine (Irene Jacob), a Swiss miss, making a connection with an old retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who sits at home eavesdropping on his neighbors' phone calls. Long ago, the old judge stopped caring about the world. Valentine's persistent appearance in his life re-kindles his desire to live. Meanwhile, Kieslowski also teases us with images of a young judge who lives across the street from Valentine. The young judge and Valentine seem to be unaware of each other's existence, and the young judge and the old judge seem to be equally unaware of one another as well. Yet, as the young judge's life unfolds before our eyes, we see that he's re-living key events that happened in the old judge's life.
Of the movies in the "Trois Couleurs" trilogy, "Rouge" is the most technically accomplished. By the time that he got to "Rouge", Kieslowski had already completed "Bleu" and "Blanc", so his mission was crystal clear to him and his collaborators. One of the most obvious displays of camera genius occurs in the film's final act, during a scene in which the camera makes a sudden, breathtaking plunge from a seat high in a theatre down to the orchestra pit. There's also an expert use of sound as seen in a music store, when the sound design samples different pieces of music as the camera drifts from one listener to another (some music from "Blanc" drifts into the moment). "Rouge" (and by extension, the trilogy) was so well-received in Hollywood that the film received three Oscar nominations--for Director, for Original Screenplay, and for Cinematography.
Given its title, it seems a given that "Rouge" would be the warmest film in the trilogy. Yet, that warmth is also a thematic one, not just a color-coded strategy. "Bleu" and "Blanc" involve isolationism and antagonism; "Rouge" breaks through those barriers (the old judge's crusty exterior) in order to find the emotions that are buried within each one of us. The "we are not islands" message may seem corny, but it's also very cozy.
For years, "Bleu" was my favorite because of its focus on creating music. (Mostly, I listen to classical music, and I used to play the piano and the violin.) However, now I see that all the roads in "Trois Couleurs" lead to "Rouge" and that the brotherhood of man is the trilogy's main theme. "Rouge" is the culmination of both "Trois Couleurs" and a great artist's work, and it is my new favorite of the three films.
--The Trilogy as a Whole--
If film is the ultimate collaborative art form, then "Trois Couleurs" is the masterpiece conceived by Krzysztof Kieslowski, co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, production designer Claude Lenoir, editor Jacques Witta, sound designer Jean-Claude Laureux, and music composer Zbigniew Preisner. The unity of purpose is actually rather intimidating. It's remarkable that a group of people was able to create films about grand themes like liberty, equality, and fraternity without affect or preachiness. Instead, "Trois Couleurs" thoughtfully observes the rhythms that govern our existence.
Kieslowski and his cinematographers (different ones lensed different films) made sure that the colors of the French flag dominated their respective film. This exercise is most apparent in "Rouge". For example, in "Rouge", a bottle of pear brandy given as a gift is wrapped in red wrapping paper. Red symbolizes fraternity in Kieslowski's scheme, and a gift symbolizes one person connecting with another--ergo, the gift has to be red. There's also the red Jeep driven by the young judge--he's the younger version of the old judge, and he's the right man for Valentine, the one who will "fraternize" with her.
Each film ends with a shot of someone with tears rolling down his or her face. However, each character has a different reason for shedding tears. In "Bleu", Julie cries because she finally learns to grieve. Paradoxically, by embracing her past, she liberates herself from her catatonic shell. In "Blanc" (which is also about humiliation as much as it is about equality), Karol cries because he has to humiliate Dominique in order for her to realize how much he suffered due to her cruelty. In a sense, in order for humanity to attain equality, some people will see their conditions deteriorate while others see improvement--it's not possible simply to raise the "have nots" to the level of the "haves". In "Rouge", the old judge cries because he is relieved to know that the first friend that he made in years will be around to keep him company. His fraternity with Valentine comforts him, for he gets to see a young woman blossom into the realization of a good human being.
I'd like to take a moment to mention the brilliant music composed by Zbigniew Preisner. His scores for these films are powerful, eloquent, witty, playful, romantic, flirtatious, and well-suited to Kieslowski's themes. In "Bleu", the ponderous "Concerto for the Unification of Europe" made me think of enslaved people struggling to break free of their chains. The soft pitter-patter of sly notes in "Blanc" suggests that mischief is afoot. In "Rouge", the dominant bolero theme sounds like two people having the time of their lives while dancing. The soundtrack CDs provide hours of listening bliss independent of the movies.
Every great filmmaker finds an idea to weave into every work. For example, the two primary motifs in Steven Spielberg's movies are "the little boy lost" and "the chase". With "Rouge", Kieslowski returns to the theme of doubling that dominated "The Double Life of Veronique". Not only is there a younger version of the judge (who might become Valentine's boyfriend), but Irene Jacob, who plays the two Veroniques in "Veronique", plays the lead in "Rouge". A freeze frame of Jacob's face at the end of the film looks almost exactly like an advertising poster that features her face. In "Blanc", Karol's name is Karol Karol (literally, Charlie Charlie, implying a Chaplin-esque quality in the character). In "Bleu", both Julie and her husband's mistress lose the same lover, and their recovery process involves helping each other (again, leading to "Rouge").
If you watch the movies in one sitting, you may find yourself thinking of them as one epic motion picture. Events in each film resonate in the other installments because Kieslowski signposts his way through the trilogy. For example, in "Bleu", Julie finds herself faced with the task of finishing her husband's "Concerto for the Unification of Europe". Later, "Rouge", which is about fraternity, manages to bring together French, Polish, and Swiss citizens. Then, there is the recurring image of a stooped elderly person trying to insert a bottle into one of those recycling receptacles common throughout Western Europe. In "Bleu", Julie's eyes are closed, so she doesn't see the person and fails to offer help (since she has the "liberty" to neglect "fraternity"). In "Blanc", Karol sees the person and chuckles because he sees that he's better off than the hunchback (he resents his lack of "equality" in a French court of law, so he withholds his "fraternity"). Finally, in "Rouge", Valentine helps the stooped individual push the bottle into the recycling bin. She helps her fellow human beings, so she, with her "fraternity", is the one who carries the hopes and dreams that Kieslowski has for mankind.
"Trois Couleurs" functions as a conceptual trilogy. Its makers were more interested in ideas than in narrative threads, so the movies don't relate a connected string of stories per se. You can understand and appreciate any of the movies singularly, and you can watch them in any order. However, watching all three (especially in one sitting) makes you realize that, in a way, "Trois Couleurs" IS a trilogy about one story--the human story. We're all part of an organic whole, even if we don't personally know everyone else in the world. Some of the movies' principal characters appear in installments in which they are not the focus, but these are not merely cutesy cameos. Rather, Kieslowski simply wants us to take notice of the people passing through our lives. After all, you and I may have already met.
Presented as 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers, the movies look very good on DVD. The rich colors do justice to the cinematographers' visions. The reds in "Rouge" benefit the most from the sharpness of the DVD format, despite the fact that reds are the most difficult shades to adapt to video. However, the transfers are a bit soft at times, and the source prints aren't free of debris. Also, some shots in "Blanc" are excessively grainy. The video quality could have easily been a "10" had someone bothered to get rid of the blemishes that found their way onto the prints.
The DVDs include only one primary audio track each, encoded in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround. (French is the primary language, though most of "Blanc" is in Polish.) These audio tracks are quite powerful as far as DD 2.0 surround tracks are concerned. The music, which is key to the films' success, fills the room completely. Delicate sounds like flute solos come through clearly, and there is a surprising amount of low end response when the soundtracks call upon the use of a full orchestra. Dialogue is always intelligible. The only real fault exhibited by these audio tracks is the lack of directionality effects, but they are neither necessary nor appropriate anyway.
Each disc offers two optional English subtitle streams. The first one only has translations of dialogue, while the second one adds captions of other sounds. There are also optional English closed captions on the DVDs.
Although I've been waiting for "Trois Couleurs" to appear on DVD since the format's inception in 1997 (I can finally retire my VHS box set to the memorabilia shelf), in a sense, I'm glad that Buena Vista took the time to collect bonuses to supplement the movies. The extras on the discs furthered my understanding of Kieslowski's approach to filmmaking, and the audio commentaries by film scholar Annette Insdorf directed my attention to things that I had not noticed during previous viewings. Most of the interviews and featurettes are retrospective in nature--which I think are preferable to "made right after we wrapped shooting" materials since the participants, rather than trying to sell the movies, share substantive thoughts about their participation in the creation of three of the best films ever made.
Since the extras are fairly self-explanatory, I'll simply list them. Collectively, they merit a 9 out of 10. I would've rated the extras a "10", but the lack of bonuses devoted to the wonderful music by Zbigniew Preisner is a glaring omission that deserves a penalization.
*Audio commentary by Annette Insdorf
*"Reflections on ‘Bleu'" ("making-of" featurette)
*"A Discussion of Kieslowski's Early Years"
*"A Conversation with Juliette Binoche on Kieslowski"
*"Krzysztof Kieslowski's Cinema Lesson"
*"Marin Karmitz Interview With Selected Scenes Commentary"
*"Juliette Binoche Selected Scenes Commentary" (Binoche reveals that she almost played the Veroniques in "The Double Life of Veronique", a situation that would've had a real life parallel because she has a cousin in Poland who resembles her!)
*"Jacques Witta Interview/Commentary"
*Kieslowski Student Film: "Concert of Wishes"
*Audio commentary by Annette Insdorf
*"A Look at ‘Blanc'"
*"A Discussion of Kieslowski's Later Years"
*"A Discussion on Working With Kieslowski"
*"Krzysztof Kieslowski's Cinema Lesson"
*"Marin Karmitz Interview"
*"Julie Delpy Selected Scenes Commentary/Interview"
*"Behind the Scenes of ‘White' With Krzysztof Kieslowski"
*Kieslowski's Student Films: "Trolley", "The Face", "The Office"
*Audio commentary by Annette Insdorf
*"Insights into ‘Trois Couleurs--Rouge'"
*"A Conversation With Irene Jacob on Kieslowski"
*"Krzysztof Kielowski's Cinema Lesson"
*"Marin Karmitz Interview"
*"Irene Jacob Selected Scenes Commentary"
*"Behind the Scenes of ‘Red' With Krzysztof Kieslowski"
*"Jacques Witta Interview/Commentary"
*"‘Red' at Cannes 1994" (There is footage from the press conference for "Red", during which Kieslowski states that he's retiring from filmmaking. Soon after, he began working on another trio of scripts--"Heaven", "Hell", and "Purgatory". Alas, Kieslowski died before he could direct any of the films.)
Each disc has previews for the other two DVDs as well as for "Heaven", a film with a Kieslowski script that was directed by Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run"). Each disc also has a Kieslowski Filmography. Glossy inserts inside the keep cases provide chapter listings.
Aside from the fact that the rights owners should've cleaned the movies' source prints (admittedly in great but visibly less-than-perfect shape), I think that the appearance of "Trois Couleurs" on DVD is a cause for celebration. The trilogy is a thought-provoking discussion of profound concepts. There is real weight in the material; you can feel the pressure of Kieslowski's themes bearing down on you. Of course, since "Bleu", "Blanc", and "Rouge" are films and not books, they are more than just a collection of ideas. They offer memorable performances (particularly by the films' primary protagonists), three of the best film music scores of all time, and stunning cinematography keyed to each film's color motif. When it comes to trilogies, "Trois Couleurs" is a real must-own.
Cette trilogie--c'est magnifique!