Monday, November 25, 2013

Three Colors on its 20th Birthday

Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colors trilogy is a work that's as mesmerizing today as it was on its initial release 20 years ago. It's ironic that the collection has achieved the timelessness of a true classic, for Three Colors was intended to capture the specific zeitgeist of a unique moment in European history. Conceived - by its financers, at least - as a cinematic way of manifesting the growing clamor for a unified Europe, Kieślowski was commissioned to make three films, each based on ideals symbolized by the colors of the French flag: blue for freedom, white for equality and red for friendship.

Kieślowski, in collaboration with long time writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz, then created scripts that were only tangentially related to these concepts, although a number of reviewers have tied themselves into knots attempting to draw the connections. In truth, the films reduce these doctrines into unrecognizable - but quite practical - applications in service of deeply personal narratives, substituting patriotism's bullhorn with the soft murmurs of quietly desperate souls. The films paint austere portraits of individualism, complete with hidden agendas, conspiratorial secrets and the miracles of personal reinvention, in stark contrast to the technocratic goal of unification.

Not only is the trilogy of a decidedly anti-collectivist mindset, each film offers a rich and rewarding stand-alone cinematic experience. Related only by the slimmest of narrative threads - a thread that actually seems quite jarring once it's finally revealed - Blue,White and Red employ different cinematographers, different actors and take place in a variety of European cities. While each film presents a variation in visual aesthetics, the mournful tones of composer Zbigniew Preisner give the pieces a vital kinship, and provide critical psychological linkage.

1993's Blue sets the benchmark for the entire enterprise, and in terms of feel is the most distinctly "French" offering of the series. Combining the poetic visuals of Godard with the hypnotic pacing of Rohmer, Blue often seems more like a vivid dream than conventional cinema. Juliette Binoche stars as a young woman who is the sole survivor of a road accident that killed her husband and daughter. The underpinnings of her life suddenly wiped away, the film's early reels create a dizzying sense of disorientation and confusion. As Binoche begins to slowly recover and rebuild, it becomes clear that her life is comprised of a number of mysterious complexities, and her meandering quest for resolution - or to avoid resolution, to be more precise - drives the rest of the film.

Blue is, among a number of things, an analysis of willing subjugation. Kieślowski cleverly celebrates the idea of freedom with a case study of a woman who has freedom thrust upon her, unleashing a series of complications and challenges. The film was tremendously well received in Europe, where it essentially ran the table at Venice, and it cemented Juliette Binoche's bona-fides as a burgeoning international star. Binoche's performance here is commanding and compelling, made all the stronger for her flourishes of introversion and vulnerability. But the supporting work of actor Benoit Regent as Olivier, an old family friend, is yet another of Blue's intriguing and delightful nuggets.

Regent would die a year later at the age of 41. While there are few details available on his death, his tragically short filmography includes some of the most interesting French productions of the 1980s and early 90s, and his screen time to haunting moment ratio is through the roof. In Tavernier's 'Round Midnight (1986), he supplied convincing real world context as Dexter Gordon's psychologist/confessor, and he practically carried Garrel's I Can no Longer Hear the Guitar (1991) on his back, delivering a poignantly riveting  performance that survived the film's awkward lurches.

1994's White is the most conventionally constructed cinema of the set, with plot driven twists and turns that evoke Hitchcock and, by extension, Chabrol. A cherub-faced Polish immigrant named Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) finds his life in Paris has gone totally off the rails when he is sued for divorce by his pretty bride Dominique (Julie Delphy); a scheming social climber who has branded Karol a loser. The drunken, penniless Karol seeks refuge in the Metro, where a chance meeting with a mysterious countryman (Janusz Gajos) sparks a complex blueprint for revenge.

Those wary of minimal, European style character studies will likely find White the most entertaining of the series, as the unfolding of Karol's plan features plenty of comic relief and exploits Zamachowski's endearing nebbishness to the fullest. Equally impressive is Gajos as the dodgy mentor, whose student eventually outshines him in deviousness. Janusz Gajos is a superb talent, and is considered acting royalty in his native Poland, but remains underappreciated in the rest of the world. This reviewer highly recommends 2002's Tam i z powrotem, readily available in North America on DVD, for a further taste of his charismatic prowess.

The theme of equality does indeed figure prominently in White's surprising conclusion but, in typical Kieślowski fashion, the concept is presented as a stripped-bare deconstruction. Karol's scheme for revenge may work as planned, but whether it's successful is subject to debate. Kieślowski suggests that true equality is unachievable, indeed contrary to human nature. Even in the most perfect utopia - or snowy Warsaw for that matter- some folks are always more equal than others.

Kieślowski saves his best for last with Red (1994), a voyeuristic immersion into the lives of an eclectic group of Geneva residents. The film recalls Hitchcock’s Rear Window while presenting its own deeply personal evocations of alternate reality. Red is distinct in the series for an undercurrent of time shifting, in essence adding an additional dimension to its narrative and forging a trail through territory unexplored by the previous offerings. Irene Jacob, Kieślowski’s leading lady from the equally mystical The Double Life of Veronique (1991), stars as a fashion model of such ethereal beauty she seems to float through the air. A chance encounter with a runaway dog leads her to the door of a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who spends his leisurely days listening to his neighbors’ conversations via an illegal wiretap.

Trintignant’s pursuit of God-like omniscience evolves to direct manipulation of Jacob’s unsatisfying romantic life, while the judge eventually offers himself for persecution in an act of self-sacrifice. Part prophet, part yenta, Trintignant’s character is packed with mystical layers, complete with allusions to Christianity, Navajo witchcraft and Hindu notions of transmigration. Jacob’s character completes the analogy, her angelic beauty forming a willing, if not totally aware, vessel for Trintignant’s web spinning and lever pulling, as he subtly engineers the invisible fabric of human events. The thematic payoff to the entire series is included in Red’s dénouement, and while it may seem anti-climactic at first glance, the trilogy’s conclusion raises important and intriguing questions, including speculation of the judge’s unseen involvement in the previous installments.

Nominated for three Oscars, Red was the best received of the series in North America and, with the director finally achieving the international recognition he deserved, Kieślowski’s future appeared bright and limitless. But shockingly, shortly after Red’s release, Kieślowski announced his retirement from filmmaking and retreated to a quiet life in Poland with his wife and daughter. Two years later, Kieślowski would die on the operating table during open heart surgery at the age of 54.

Denied another 20 years or so of the director’s output, Kieslowski’s early demise was a tragedy for lovers of artistic cinema. But his passing had the most profound effect on the career of Irene Jacob. While Binoche and - to a lesser degree - Delphy have gone on to artistic triumphs in other endeavors, Jacob has yet to find another collaborator with such recondite understanding of her unique gossamer. As evidenced by Red and The Double Life of Veronique, Jacob and Kieślowski formed one of the great director – muse partnerships, equal to Godard and Karina, or Scorsese and DeNiro. Sadly, Jacob’s post-Red filmography consists mainly of supporting roles in rather insignificant productions, but it’s no coincidence. To Kieślowski, the shimmering Jacob was a vital building material in his construction of worlds driven by memory and remorse. No one else, apparently, has any idea what to do with her.

It’s fair to say that Three Colors revived interest in Art House cinema at a time when established European directors were consumed with nostalgia and romance. Within the trilogy framework, Kieślowski managed to create three distinctly personal and thematically diverse films that neither depend nor intrude on each other. Yet, the works share enough commonalties of spirit to be forever linked in ways that seem infinitely organic and honest. While Kieślowski was taken from us way too soon, Three Colors serves as a fitting legacy that film lovers will never forget.


Retro Hound said...

I've heard quite a bit about these over at letterboxd, but have yet to dive in. I admit, I'm intimidated.

Deborah said...

As ever, a masterly overview. Really enjoyed reading this.

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