A Symphony of Inner Lives


He was (and remains) a titan in the arthouse world. One of his masterpieces was made for television and this year finally got a Blu-ray release (Dekalog, 1988), but it was The Double Life of Veronique (1991) that launched his international career and paved the way for the Three Colors – a trilogy of films that accomplished the rather stunning feat of premiering at three different major festivals within months of each other. At Venice, Blue (1993) screened in September, followed five months later by a February screening at Berlin of White (1994), and then three months later in May – the one that wrapped it all up – Red (1994), had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. This Herculean feat was made possible in part by the director’s habit of shooting one film while simultaneously editing the preceding film.

BLUE (1993)

Polish director Krzystof Kieślowski (1941 – 1996) first wanted to get involved in theater but lacked the necessary bachelor’s degree. He then gave the Łódź Film School a shot and persevered despite two rejections, finally getting accepted on his third try in 1964. He enjoyed his four years at the film school, and shortly before graduating in 1968 developed an interest in politics. This dovetailed with a time in Poland when documentaries were popular due to the realities they expressed as opposed to the usual Party propaganda bullshit. Throughout the ’70s Kieślowski made several documentaries, many of which had a common theme that pit the working people against State institutions.

Shifting politics and regime changes meant some of Kieślowski’s documentaries were censored, re-edited, unreleased for years, or – even worse – almost used as evidence in a criminal case (as was the case with some footage from his Railway Station, aka: Dworzec, 1980). These experiences with authoritarian regime nonsense, along with a disillusionment with politics in general, added to his discomfort at invading people’s privacy and would help shift Kieślowski away from documentaries. It was time to focus instead on feature films. Kieslowski wanted access to the inner workings of human beings without actually hurting any human beings, and fiction became his life-line for deeper examinations of said human condition. Presumably the thought was that when you make a documentary about a person in a certain country living under a certain government, viewers abroad could easily brush off such stories as events happening to “those people” who are “over there.” Why not bring the story closer to any and all viewers by way of a clear narrative using professional actors?

Two long time regular collaborators each deserve a big shout out for helping influence the masterworks to come: screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz and composer Zbigniew Preisner. The former would be instrumental in suggesting to Kieślowski the Ten Commandments themes for the Dekalog, as well as the themes found within the French flag for liberty, equality, and fraternity. The latter would help mold the perfect sonic background for every shifting mood, and do so with great range and nuance.

Blue is for liberty, aka: Freedom – Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose.

Blue is the color on one side of an opened wrapping foil held in the hand of a child who plays with it in the wind outside of her car seat before it’s blown away. The wrapper was used for a lollipop, its blue color the same as is coded for blue skies and freedom, but also for the blues of melancholy and pain. Wrapped within this particular package there is certainly some sweetness, but only if you unwrap it.

Julie is in a car being driven by her husband, Patrice, with daughter Anna in back. Due to a problem with their Alpha Romeo’s brakes, the car smashes into a tree and kills Patrice and Anna. Julie contemplates suicide but, ultimately, tries to escape her pain by becoming free of the past, free of possessions, memory, all relations, all connections. However, as Jeff Goldblum keeps reminding us, “life, uh… finds a way.” In the case of Blue, it’s love, passion and kindness that ultimately finds a way to release Julie from the prison she was building while trying to shut out all other life.

Blue is known for tackling a mother’s ultimate grief with great complexity, for Juliette Binoche’s fearless performance, and for its multi-layered approach to music (Julie and her husband are both composers, so music gets visualized in many different ways). Preisner’s score soars and melts as required.


White is for equality, aka: Love – It Hurts.

White is the color of the pigeon droppings that splash our protagonist’s jacket in an early scene. Bad luck, on the face of it, but good luck if you believe in what might be an old Greek thought that posits such a mark as a sign from heaven of impending riches. This, it turns out, is exactly what will happen – albeit with many twists along the way.

Karol, a Polish hairdresser, attends a divorce hearing at a Paris courtroom where his French wife seeks separation based on it being unconsummated. Erectile dysfunction or performance anxiety? It doesn’t matter, Viagra was four years away from being invented and our protagonist feels he’s not on even ground given his inability to speak fluent French. He is kicked to the curb and experiences all manner of indignities before finding himself back in Poland, where fate reverses his fortunes.

White is known as the most whimsical of the Three Color trilogy. Where Blue invoked all the powers behind the Greek mask of tragedy, White turns that frown upside down with dark comedy. But I’ll dispute the notion that whimsy here means it is less serious than what is offered in either Blue or Red, as I think White has a unique poignancy to it that anyone who has ever suffered a broken heart can attest to. Also: it has my favorite Preisner score of all the trilogies.


Red is for Fraternity, aka: Humanity – Come Together.

Red is the color of Valentine’s boyfriend’s jacket, which she uses to keep warm while in his absence. She tells him as much as they talk on the phone. It’s a long-distance relationship that is preceded by a montage showing flashing red lights relating to cables facilitating long-distance communications. This sets the stage for themes about communication between individuals with new technologies. According to Kieślowski, Red was his “most personal film,” in part because it got “closer to literature than one might imagine.” (BFI Modern Classics, The “Three Colours” Trilogy, Geoff Andrews).

Red follows Valentine (played by Irène Jacob) as her life gets intertwined with that of Joseph (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a retired judge who passes the time eavesdropping on his neighbors’ private phone conversations. We learn more about both as the story progresses, and chance encounters and chance moments continue (as they have all along) to play a big role in bringing people together (and tearing them apart). With Red, there is a unifying moment at the end that brings together all the characters in Kieślowski’s trilogy.

Red is generally considered the “icing on the cake” and most accomplished film of Kieślowski’s trilogy, be it for story, craftsmanship, music, performances, or all the above. And, yes, it’s brilliant. But so are Blue and White. And The Dekalog. But we like to rate things, and, so, yes, go ahead, put a gun to my head and tell me to only choose two as you banish me to a desert island with (hopefully?) some electricity and a Blu-ray player. I’d select The Dekalog: Six (Thou shalt not covet) – which was also made into an extended 86-minute feature titled A Short Film About Love, and White.

Pablo Kjolseth

2 Responses A Symphony of Inner Lives
Posted By kingrat : November 29, 2016 12:49 pm

Thank you for writing about this great filmmaker. I look forward to seeing THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE and THE DECALOGUE. BLUE is my favorite of the trilogy, with the imaginative shooting of the opening scene and Juliette Binoche’s great performance. I’m glad to see you advocate for WHITE; my only problem with it is that we have to believe a fox like Julie Delpy would spend two seconds with the poor schlub she’s married to. (I think of this as Steven Bochco Syndrome, like Dennis Franz being married to a woman twenty years younger and a hundred times more attractive on HILL STREET BLUES.)

WHITE is also the answer to the trivia question “In what film does IKEA play an important role?”

Posted By kjolseth : November 29, 2016 3:57 pm

Thanks for the feedback, and I agree that Julie Delpy was a bit out of Karol’s league. But he does have a winning personality.

Also: I forgot to mention that FilmStruck offers various “extras”. I read of one coming up on camera movement in Kieslowski’s films, which should be of interest to viewers.

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