Thursday, 19 March 2020

Trois Couleurs Trilogy

Three Krzysztof Kieslowski films from the 1990's interweaving beautifully to pull off a delightful arthouse treasure, considered here by guest reviewer Ahmed Bebars.

Three Colours: Blue

Blue, the first of the trilogy, takes place in Paris. It stars Juliette Binoche (who can be seen as Hanna in "The English Patient") as Julie, the wife of prominent composer Patrice de Courcy. She finds herself having to deal with an unwanted liberty when an automobile accident claims the lives of her husband and her daughter Anna. Her initial reaction while recovering in the hospital is to kill herself, swallowing a handful of painkillers stolen from the medicine lock-up in the hospital, but she cannot. From that point on, she is devoted to carrying out a 'spiritual suicide', in which she dissociates herself from the memory of her past-- she sells all the furniture and the family home, moves into a small flat in Paris, and destroys her late husband's last musical composition, a piece for the festival of European Unity. Along the way, she befriends Lucille, a prostitute/stripper that lives downstairs from her; falls in love with Olivier, her late husband's aide; and helps Sandrine, the mistress of her late husband who is carrying his child.

It is a slow-paced film, in the typical French atmospheric style-- a textured piece of cinema. It is an excellent example of what is described in "Film Art" by Bordwell and Thompson: "every component functions as part of the overall pattern that is perceived... subject matter and abstract ideas all enter in to the total system of the artwork." Given its name, "Blue", you cannot help but look for that colour in the film's carefully-sculpted scenes. Of course, the trick that Kieslowski has pulled on you is that he is forcing you to pay attention to what is happening on the screen. And because your awareness has been heightened by this trick, you begin to notice the clever tapestry of form and function in this film.

Visually, Kieslowski uses many techniques to convey the sense of loss and the internal conflict in which Julie finds herself. There are many shots from a first-person perspective; extremely tight close-ups of mundane events, such as a sugar cube slowly absorbing coffee, which convey the mind-set of catastrophic loss, where the significance of even minor events is heightened by the introspective mind. Julie is in a trance-like state, trying to shut out the world around her... so that she can break free of the pain she feels.

Blue light, representing her past, creeps in around her at several points throughout the film, accompanied by her husband's music... but she fights it. Another example would be the scene where the old woman who attempts to put a bottle in a recycling bin is virtually ignored by Julie as she is in one of her introspective trances. As you watch the other two films in the trilogy, this event recurs and you will notice how the different characters react to the old woman and reflect on the themes of the films.

The most noticeable visual technique would be the odd fade-out/fade-ins that occur four times in the film. At each of the four points, Julie is in transition, deciding whether or not to push back the memories of her life before the accident, or to acknowledge them-- jumping between a painful reality and an emotionally devoid trance-like state. The first instance occurs when she is recuperating in the hospital, and the blue light is all around her. A reporter then shows up, who wants to interview her about her late husband. Julie turns down the reporter's request, denying the existence of the past.

The second instance occurs when she meets a boy that found a necklace at the crash site. The boy offers to tell Julie about the moments just after the crash, but Julie does not want him to tell her. The third instance occurs when she is making the realisation that her goal of liberty from the past is a hollow one-- she feels remorse having let a cat kill some baby mice that were infesting her apartment-- a necessary act.

The final instance of the fade-out/fade-in would be when Julie decides to meet her late-husband's mistress. At this point, Julie is well on her way to embracing the past and to continue the legacies which she has so far ignored.

In the end, Julie re-establishes the connections with her past, and like the continent upon which she resides, shifts from a state of liberty into a state of union. She gives the family home and name to Sandrine's unborn child and she completes the composition for the celebration of European Unity, she allows herself to love and be loved by Olivier.

Being the first part of a trilogy, Kieslowski attempts to inject intertextuality into films to show linkage between them. The old woman and the recycling bin is one such attempt. For those of you into cinematic Easter eggs, pay particular attention to the scene where Julie is at the courthouse, looking for Sandrine. She looks around and walks into a courtroom where a trial is in session. The audience is briefly given a glimpse of a divorce trial before a court officer kicks Julie out. Of course, this divorce trial is the opening sequence of the second film, "White". Dominique (Julie Delpy) is seen sitting with her lawyer, and Karol Karol's (Zbigniew Zamachowski) voice is heard arguing with the judge about 'equality'. The significance of this odd scene is revealed in "White", where Julie walks in on the trial in the background.

In conclusion, Kieslowski has done a masterful job combining the disparate elements of film-making together to emphasize his thesis-- cinematography, music, lighting, and dialogue. It is a film that can be viewed again and again and interpreted as many ways. Truly representative of 'film as literature'. "Blue" also serves as an excellent showcase for Juliette Binoche and is a good primer for the rest of the trilogy.


Three Colours: White

White is a very important component to the trilogy. Now it's certainly the weakest of the three, but it is still a great film that works extremely well, giving the audience context and a greater understanding of what Kieslowski was trying to say with the trilogy.

Towards the beginning of the film, we are shown that Blue takes place during Karol's court hearing. This is extremely important because we understand that these films are taking place at the same time and in the same universe. This also helps to set up the ending of Red, in which we are shown the possible conclusion of White as well.

In my opinion this is Kieslowski's most personal film. It takes place shortly after the collapse of the USSR and Poland joining the European Union. Kieslowski was heavily influenced by these events and it really shows in the film. However you don't need to be Polish to enjoy this movie, it's a great transitional piece for Blue and Red and it does exactly what Kieslowski intended.

I personally think that White is looked down upon a little because it is a good film in a trilogy with two other masterpieces in it. It doesn't have the stylistic elements of Blue or the stirring performances and striking cinematography of Red but this is Kieslowski and he knows how to make an emotionally resonant film whilst trying to send a message to his audience.

His concept of equality is wonderfully studied through an allegory of a broken relationship but the photography and performances are just not as strong as they are in the other films. I really adore Julie Delpy but she doesn't have much room to shine in this film and whilst Zamachowski plays his part well, the character isn't as engaging or iconic as the lead roles in Red and Blue.

I also enjoyed the bits of humour in this movie, and I liked the revenge plot line throughout the film. It's definitely the least visually striking of the three, but it still has some absolutely beautiful moments, like when Karol and Mikolaj skate around on the frozen lake. I enjoyed the fact that, after how dark Blue was, White served as sort of an emotional palate cleanser.


Three Colours: Red

The final installment of Kieslowski's master trilogy does not disappoint. We follow Valentine, a fashion model with a few bits of baggage. She sets a chain of events in motion as she tries to return a dog she ran over with her car, this being the third value of ''fraternity''.

The first 40 minutes of the film are somewhat puzzling as there seems to be a few unexplained events, characters and sub-plots blended with massive red symbolism. There's barely a scene in the film in which an inanimate red object is not thrust in the viewer's face. But what comes after is just mesmerising. Kieslowski manages to rope you into a beautiful story, essentially about love but one that almost borders on the sc-fi genre at times, and climaxes in a wholly satisfying last scene that neatly and brilliantly ties in the whole trilogy. The message seems to be that love and belief will conquer all, and again as we see the 7 characters at the end, the theme of fraternity and togetherness is on show. There are strong hints of religion and fate. Recurring themes like broken glass, communication, and windows will probably make more sense with repeat viewings.

My takeaway was how fragile human interactions are and that small choices to engage a little more, or a little less, will have an enormous impact on people. If Valentine were like most people, she'd be nice enough to have given the dog medical treatment and returned to its owner, but instead she also probed into the life of this odd, bitter, lonely man (the judge). Yet when she wanted to do something about the drug-dealer family next door to him, she stopped short when realising their daughter would overhear, choosing to abstain from digging deeper into their lives.

The subtext to the story's double-lives and supernatural elements is murkier (to me, at least). I think regret is at the heart of it, or at least that was the motivation for the characters' actions. In the case of the judge, it's pretty obvious he regrets his past abuse of power and feels the need to atone for it. He's bitter and lonely; and does nothing to prevent Valentine exposing his eavesdropping and silently accepts the abuse hurled at him from the neighbourhood. Valentine seems like she preemptively regrets events that have not happened yet or that she doesn't know about. For example, she senses that at some point her boyfriend will cheat on her. She hates that there are people who enable her drug-addict brother, although we don't know enough about that story to say what she might have done about it.

In the end, there are two things that meaningfully changed but at vastly different costs. The judge is able to leave his house and reconnect with the world because a nice woman showed him some kindness and made the effort to connect with him. And Valentine breaks out of a relationship cycle that was doomed to repeat that of the judge and the young-doppelganger judge, but it took hundreds dying on a ferry to do it.

Red is visually stunning and the best of the three in terms of cinematography, in my opinion. Blue is more subtle in its use of colour but some of the shots here are just so vividly red, and in contrast with the brown and grey city, they make for some stunning scenes.

I have trouble splitting Red and Blue in terms of ranking. They are both fantastic. White is probably one for the Kieslowski purists. If I had to, I'd go: 1-Red 2-Blue 3-White

But that's probably because Red is fresher in my mind. Juliette Binoche's performance in Blue is one of the greatest performances I think I've ever seen on screen. And let's not forget Irene Jacob's portrayal of Valentine, which was fantastic.

Overall, it's probably not a stretch to claim that Red is one of the greatest European films ever made, and that the 'Colors' trilogy is one of the greatest ever trilogies.

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