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Case Number 05797: Small Claims Court

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Three Colors Trilogy

Three Colors: Blue
1993 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Three Colors: Red
1994 // 99 Minutes // Not Rated
Three Colors: White
1994 // 91 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by Miramax
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // December 14th, 2004

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All Rise...

Judge Mike Pinsky sees a full spectrum of cinematic wonders in this trio of classics from Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Editor's Note

Our review of Three Colors Trilogy (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published November 15th, 2011, is also available.

The Charge

"I feel something important is happening around me. And it scares me."—Valentine (Irène Jacob), Red

The Case

Krzysztof Kieslowski died in 1996 at the peak of his powers as a director. Perhaps he knew it was coming, that it was fate. Perhaps he did it simply because he could: He had said enough, and it was time to leave his films to others. That would have been consistent with Kieslowski's humor. A sickly and literate child, he became a filmmaker more to spite those who claimed he was not capable than out of artistic ambition. Disillusioned with politics in Communist Poland steered him toward examining personal experience: documentaries about bleak social conditions; psychological dramas; moral and philosophical explorations. With the fall of the old regime, Kieslowski turned his attention to the connection between the everyday decisions of individuals and the possibility of metaphysical truths. The Decalogue, ten television films loosely based on the Ten Commandments, won him immediate acclaim throughout Europe. The Double Life of Veronique, which explored the vagaries of identity, made him world-famous.

But no one quite anticipated the brilliance of his final work, called Three Colors. Three Colors is cool and calculated perfection, quite easily the last cinematic masterpiece of the 20th century. Each film certainly stands on its own, Kieslowski's camera capturing the intimacy of personal trauma and triumph. But together, Blue, White, and Red create a tapestry of human experience rivaled perhaps only by Balzac's great novelistic cycle.

Kieslowski uses the French flag as the inspiration for the trilogy, with the colors blue, white, and red standing in for the philosophical notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity. But the films are only subtly political, products of a Polish director working across Europe after the collapse of Communism. What do these democratic ideals mean to ordinary people who never concern themselves with the "bigger picture"? Is there really a bigger picture, or is perspective necessarily limited by the boundaries of human experience?

Consider the opening shots of Blue. The camera rides along under a car. A bored child watches light reflected in the rear windscreen. Liquid (oil? brake fluid?) is shown dripping from beneath the car. A hitchhiker pays attention to his toy, as the sound of a car screeching out of control causes him to look up. But the car is already wrecked against a tree, and a beach ball rolls away from it.

What have we just seen? Fragments, given to us from different perspectives, which we assemble into a narrative. As if to remind us of this, our first image after the accident is an extreme close-up of a human eye, and a doctor reflected in that eye. And we realize that Kieslowski's three films are all going to be about the difficulty of perspective and the relationships people form within those boundaries.

So let us consider each film on its own:

• Blue:
In the aftermath of a devastating auto accident, Julie (Juliette Binoche) tries to jettison all reminders of her old life, of her dead husband and daughter. "Now I have only one thing left to do," she tells her senile mother (who keeps mistaking Julie for her sister). "Nothing. I don't want any belongings, any memories. No friends, no love. Those are all traps."

But what Julie cannot escape is the very music of life. Strains of her husband's final musical composition, a concerto for European unification, burst forth in her mind. Her husband's assistant (Benoît Régent), a fellow composer, trails after her, offering renewed love. As Julie discovers new connections to the odd characters in her life, she learns that her freedom comes at the expense of her own identity.

Liberty in this first installment of Kieslowski's trilogy carries a psychological cost. It is blankness, negative space (note his judicious use of blackouts and the lack of dialogue), that which separates individuals from one another. We think of ourselves in Western society as individuals first, fundamentally alone (like Descartes's ego), and members of the whole second. But as Julie learns, we really define ourselves by our relationships to others.

• White:
Hapless Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski). Birds crap on him. His bank account is frozen. He cannot get it up for his temperamental Parisian wife, Dominique (Julie Delpy). When he tries to smuggle himself back to Poland in a suitcase, it is stolen and he is beaten up.

But, all things being equal, Karol's luck can only get better. And Kieslowski's theme here is indeed equality, at least in the form of "getting even," how revenge and power bring everyone to the same level in the new capitalist Poland. Karol begins a complicated plan to vindicate himself and even the score against Dominique, but only in the service of his obsessive love for her.

Thanks to Zamachowski's Chaplinesque performance as Karol Karol, White succeeds as a dark, dry comedy, showing what Julie Delpy calls Kieslowski's "devious sense of humor." The director himself referred to the film as a "lyrical comedy," and indeed, the visual poetry of White is unmistakable. The alabaster bust of a woman, her head tilted coyly, stares beyond Karol as he plots his comeback. Karol and his downtrodden friend Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos) slide across the ice joyfully after Karol tricks his friend into abandoning plans for suicide. Karol's revenge becomes an act of love, as the path to equality takes the shape of mutual humiliation.

• Red:
Exhausted and creatively drained, Kieslowski crafts a film about—at least in part—the burden of storytelling, the eye of the director. Lovely model Valentine (Irène Jacob) is used to being watched, but is not particularly adept at watching. Indeed, she is busy fiddling with her car radio when she hits a dog. The dog's owner is a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) whose pastime is spying on his neighbors. Valentine, at first appalled, plays along, embracing the invisible power of surveillance (note that the judge never reveals his name—he will only give up secrets when he wills it).

One of the subjects of the judge's invisible eye is Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), a young doppelganger for the judge himself: newly elevated to the bench, heartbroken from a failed love affair, always traveling the periphery of Valentine's world without ever encountering her directly. The theme of Kieslowski's third episode in the trilogy is fraternity. Characters communicate by telephone, listen to weather reports on the radio, cross paths only seconds removed. Yet, fate, or chance, stubbornly refuses to allow them to connect. Only in the film's final moments—as a ferry accident brings all six couples in Three Colors together—do we see the possibility of reconciliation, a community in spirit if not in politics.

Here too, as in Kieslowski's Decalogue, does Red address the problem of judgment, how we make choices about the other. The judge watches, as all judges must see everything in order to put things in their proper places. But if we are to shape our judgments by what we see, how can we fairly judge our own sight, clouded as it is by the limits of perspective? How can we tell the real from the figments of desire? Kieslowski's camera is more assertive in this final film of the trilogy, moving more conspicuously (with frequent crane shots), as if to remind us that we are watching too. The tension between image and the real comes full circle; scenes take place in a theater, on television, everywhere that artifice might be present.

But this is not a film that embraces the cool indifference of postmodernism. According to co-writer Piesiewicz, Red is in fact a film "against indifference." The telling moment comes in a key scene that connects each of the three films. A hunched, shriveled woman tries to push a bottle into a recycling bin. Julie cannot see her, wrapped up in her own solipsism. Karol merely smiles devilishly. Only Valentine goes to help, her ethical gesture redeeming the lot of these wounded misfits. This suggests that, although each film in the trilogy is an independent story, rarely crossing over (Julie stumbles into the courtroom where Karol and Dominique are getting divorced, the ferry accident at the climax of Red), the films of Three Colors should be watched together. Just as the episodes of The Decalogue form a larger pattern, as Veronique's lives must both be examined, the even tenuous surface connections between the three colors create a network of signifiers. They are like patterns in a fractal image, each reflecting the other as iterations of a greater structure.

Thus, it is time that Three Colors, previously available individually on DVD, now comes in a boxed set. Miramax has done a remarkable job packaging these three discs together with a wealth of extras at a preposterously low price (under $40, even cheaper online). All three have excellent commentary tracks by Kieslowski biographer Annette Insdorf, who offers consistently clear analysis of the motifs in each film. Each film is accompanied by a featurette presenting film critics, performers, and crewmembers discussing the production and giving further analysis on the themes. No filler here.

There is a two-part featurette covering Kieslowski's career, from his early documentaries to his triumphant collaborations with co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz (including Three Colors), multiple interviews and scene commentaries with each of the film's female leads, and interviews and scene commentaries with producer Marin Karmitz and editor Jacques Witta (Kieslowski stressed editing as a means of shaping his final vision of each film). We are treated to Kieslowski's own analysis in three "cinema lessons" shot for French television, in which he picks apart details from each film. There are behind-the-scenes home movies and four "student films" from 1966-67 that show Kieslowski's early attempts to grapple with the frustration of lonely individuals trying to communicate to the outside world. Each disc is so packed that it is a wonder Miramax had room to include anamorphic prints of the features themselves.

But at the heart of Three Colors, there are the bittersweet lives of these characters, thrown by the winds of fate (or chance—certainly the tension between those two is a prime theme in Kieslowski's work). Yet, these films also offer enough puzzles, enough sheer craftsmanship, to make them worth revisiting. Filled with poetry and symbol, yet completely accessible to mainstream film audiences, Kieslowski's trio of masterpieces constitutes that rarest of cinematic creations. These are art films for the people. After all, it was always people that Kieslowski concerned himself with, and how film could communicate truth and be understood. His humanism, even to the end, was never in doubt. As he put it toward the end of his luminous career, "I don't trust movies, only the audience."

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• Drama
• Foreign

Scales of Justice, Three Colors: Blue

Judgment: 100

Perp Profile, Three Colors: Blue

Studio: Miramax
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Polish)
• English
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Three Colors: Blue

• Commentary Track by Kieslowski Biographer Annette Insdorf
• Featurette: "Reflections on Bleu"
• Featurette: "A Discussion of Kieslowski's Early Years"
• Featurette: "A Discussion of Kieslowski's Later Years"
• Interviews with Actors Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, and Irène Jacob, Producer Marin Karmitz, and Editor Jacques Witta
• Featurette: "Krzysztof Kieslowski's Cinema Lessons"
• Student Films: "Concert of Wishes," "Trolley," "The Face," "The Office"
• Kieslowski Filmography

Scales of Justice, Three Colors: Red

Judgment: 100

Perp Profile, Three Colors: Red

Studio: Miramax
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Polish)
• English
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Three Colors: Red

• Commentary Track by Kieslowski Biographer Annette Insdorf
• Featurette: "Insights into Rouge"
• Red at Cannes 1994

Scales of Justice, Three Colors: White

Judgment: 100

Perp Profile, Three Colors: White

Studio: Miramax
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Polish)
• English
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Three Colors: White

• Commentary Track by Kieslowski Biographer Annette Insdorf
• Featurette: "A Look at Blanc"


• IMDb: Blue
• IMDb: White
• IMDb: Red

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