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The Essentials: Krzysztof Kieslowski

by Rodrigo Perez
March 13, 2013 5:34 PM
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“Three Colors: Blue” (1993)
Kieslowski’s final troika, the Three Colors trilogy explored the themes of the three colors represented in the French Flag, liberty, equality, and fraternity through three, seemingly unrelated and unconnected individuals (the filmmaker acknowledged the pictures were French because of the funding, but would have been the same under any nationality). For each film, Kieslowski would use a different female protagonist and three different cinematographers to give the films a distinctive look. In his first chapter, “Blue,” arguably the most emotionally devastating of the three, Juliette Binoche stars as Julie, and the sole survivor of a car crash that has killed her daughter and husband, a famous composer. Left to pick up the pieces, Julie initially doesn’t possess the will to go on, but it's strong enough that she can’t even go through a suicide attempt. Attempting to live a dissociative existence and sever ties to her past, Julie begins to discard the possessions of her life in order to be free and begin again save for a chandelier of blue beads owned by her daughter. Yet the past manages to be tricky to elude and a former assistant of her late husband turns up, interested in the condition of an unfinished musical composition, commissioned by the government to celebrate European unity (it's strongly implied throughout that Julie wrote or co-wrote some of this music). Appropriately, “Blue,” is marked by its extraordinary score that often arrives in evocative snatches of orchestral grandeur and the striking sapphire color palate of cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. Sensual, operatic and haunting, “Blue” is a crucial film in this final masterwork.

“Three Colors: White” (1994)
Regarded as (and often unfairly dismissed as) the least essential film in the Three Colors trilogy, due to its lighter and more comedic tone, “White” undeniably does not carry the same emotional weight and sense of mysterious import as the triptych’s bookends, but the picture is still nonetheless, an engaging and unlikely diverting treat from the director. Focusing on the theme of equality (and or the lack thereof in this case; Kieslowski’s thematic riffs were hardly linear and often sarcastic), Kieslowski’s black sheep and second film of his lauded trilogy is a sort of black comedy, centering on Karol, a Polish hairdresser (Zbigniew Zamachowski) whose wife (Julie Delpy) has left him due to his impotency. Humiliated, penniless and left abandoned in Paris without a passport, Karol has to make his way back to Poland and during his pilgrimage, he befriends another Pole, Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos) who wants to pay the hairdresser to kill someone who wants to die, but doesn’t have the courage to commit suicide. When Karol finally returns to Poland, his fortunes turn for the better and he begins amassing considerable wealth of which he then uses to hatch a misguided plot of revenge against his wife. A cynical and mordant examination of marriage, power and the inequalities of wealth, “White” may be the weakest of the trio, but Kieslowski still won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 44th Berlin International Film Festival in 1994.

“Three Colors: Red” (1994)
Described as the “fraternity of strangers,” this key line is perhaps the ultimate connecting throughline and obsession in Kieslowski’s work: how one person on the planet could be thinking the exact time as someone else in another part of the world and never know, but maybe could feel a curious sensation at the time. How deja vu or a ringing in the ears could mean something deeper. How those unknown to us are perhaps not strangers at all. A cynical person at heart, but with a deep curiosity of the human condition, some have suggested the theme of fraternity in “Red” was a self-critique of Kieslowski's own selfishness. Whatever the case may be, the ravishing and sumptuous final conclusion of The Three Colors trilogy is haunting, poignant and unforgettable. Starring his muse Irene Jacob once more (after seeing her in ‘Veronique,’ Tarantino wanted her for Bruce Willis’ French wife in “Pulp Fiction,” but ironically, she was busy filming “Red”), the last chapter in the triumvirate centers on two polar opposite strangers who by chance -- via an injured dog -- become more and more connected and even bonding far beyond they would ever imagine. Part time model Valentine (Jacobs) accidentally runs over a German shepherd and then eventually tracks down the owner, a reclusive and retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) soured by old age and the fates of how his life has turned out. He's a nasty man, who Valentine discovers is abusing his powers and secretly recording his neighbors’ phone calls for entertainment value (and to continue his former vocation in some kind of perverse manner). Though morally disgusted with him, the two find themselves inexorably drawn to one another suggesting a missed connection in some part of time they did not exist in concurrently. Typically mysterious, “Red” is even tentatively optimistic and is a striking, poetic meditation on alienation, connection, kinship and togetherness beyond our basic understanding. Quentin Tarantino himself assumed “Red” would win the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year and when “Pulp Fiction” took the prize instead, the filmmaker was met with some boos and jeers from those that expected Kieslowski’s final film to take the top prize. Still, to this day, it remains of the most controversial choices in the history of the festival. Breaking out of the foreign film category ghetto, "Red" was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Director, and was the filmmaker’s final statement. He retired shortly thereafter and died less than 10 months later during open heart surgery.

Also recommended: Kino's "The Krzysztof Kieslowski Collection" which includes the earlier films, including “The Scar” (1976), “Camera Buff” (1979, starring Jerzy Stuhr, who would reappear in several projects down the line), 1981’s “Blind Chance” (a sort of precursor to “Sliding Doors” that showed three outcomes to one man’s life based on luck and chance) and the aforementioned ‘Dekalog’ extended films, “A Short Film About Love,” and “A Short Film About Killing.” With over two dozen shorts and documentaries to his name (shot well before his feature-length dramatic career), one could argue an Eclipse set from Criterion would also be nice, but at this point, we’ll take what we can get. 

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  • Overseer | March 14, 2013 6:01 PMReply

    If there is an overrated trilogy it's gotta be the colors trilogy. "Red" is just bad. It really is. Check how clumsy and stunted the direction is. KK has always been one of these "untouchable" directors. But dawggonit I calling the colors trilogy out as being lammee. The only decent one is "White" really. Blue and Red is are really not good. (Red being the worst). It's so obvious in it's chance themes. Come onnn. Anyone with me???

  • Cameron | May 27, 2013 7:22 PM

    You're not on your own - I agree. Halfway through "Red" I was suffering serious visual-symbolism-fatigue. The 'culminating event' meant to tie things together was excessive and rather callous. And the theme of fate or serendipity didn't resonate in a thought-provoking way afterwards or me; it simply felt confined to the events of the movie.

    Finally, it's clear that we who find the trilogy overrated think the best entry is the one fans like LEAST: the great, darkly comic "White."

  • tyrannosaurus max | March 20, 2013 10:58 AM

    You're on your own.

  • Framesz | March 17, 2013 11:07 AM

    Holy shit, just shoot your self, Overseer. xo

  • David | March 17, 2013 10:30 AM

    Blue is not really good? Blue is brilliant. One literally feels the pain from Binoche, the quiet, and the music. One of the best films I've ever seen.

  • MDL | March 13, 2013 11:20 PMReply

    I guess I don't consider him underrated? But shortness of career and few films made in only two decades does probably put him into a pocket of directors who could be forgotten in the future.

  • Arch | March 13, 2013 6:27 PMReply

    The opening sentence is spot on: he is still "underrated" somehow. Actually it's an opinion I frequently have these days about many other directors. Weird times.

    Although it will probably raise issues like any list it's still a nice reminder of how beautiful these movies were, thanks for that (special shout-out to Blue and Red which really moved me back then).

  • Anon-ee-Miss | March 13, 2013 5:58 PMReply

    Leaving Camera Buff off of this list is positively egregious. Are you just dismissing every film he made before 1985? This seems careless.

  • Rodrigo | March 13, 2013 10:15 PM

    What? No. I love Camera Buff and Blind Chance and No End (though not as much). It's a Playlist Essentials which is where we usually tackle 5 films. The Essentials: half the idea being the best, half the idea being the most digestible for the aud that might not know it. Are we dismissing every film before 1985? How'd you add that up? Even Alan wouldn't be so silly.

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