When Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red was nominated for three Oscars in 1995, it seemed to ratify a certain attitude toward the Polish director’s “Three Colors” trilogy about love and loss in the new European Union. “ ‘Rouge’ has been touted as the film that gives weight to this whole trilogy, and it lives up to its promise,” Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times when Red premiered at Cannes, and indeed, while Blue and White were modest art-house successes, it was Red that captured the imagination of American cinema lovers, earning not only Academy recognition but more at the box office than the other two films combined.
Blue, starring Juliette Binoche, was viewed as exquisite but cold. White, set mostly in Poland and featuring an almost-unknown Julie Delpy, was a comic trifle. Red, meanwhile, featuring two European stars—Irène Jacob, who had won best actress at Cannes for Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique, and the French cinema hero Jean-Louis Trintignant—was the trilogy’s, and Kieslowski’s, crowning achievement. Its obsession with themes of fate and happenstance summed up the trilogy as a whole, and its conclusion brought characters from all three films together in a satisfying final flourish. That Kieslowski had kind of, sort of announced his retirement at his Cannes press conference (“But who knows?” he added puckishly) only made the praise more valedictory. When Kieslowski died only two years later, Red’s reputation was cemented in my mind and others’: It was a masterpiece, the capstone to a monumental career.
But the release this week of Criterion’s handsome and well-stuffed edition of the “Three Colors” trilogy provides a chance to reconsider the films. Seventeen years later, it’s White, the forgotten movie in the middle of the trilogy—thought inferior by many even today—that has aged the best. Kieslowski’s most personal film, it’s a sharp-edged comedy of manners—and surprisingly prescient about the struggles facing a united Europe.
That’s not to say that Blue and Red don’t chill and dazzle nearly as much as they once did. But as gorgeous as they are—and they are gorgeous, from their radiant cinematography to their stunning lead actresses—they feel hermetically sealed. In Blue, Kieslowski makes the grief of Julie (Binoche), whose composer husband dies in a car accident (along with their daughter) just before finishing his symphony celebrating Unification, deliberately hard to access. She’s shut tight until the movie’s final shot, but even that moment is ambiguous. Red, meanwhile, stages dozens of near-misses between Valentine (Jacob) and the man who’s seemingly made for her, only to throw them together in a final-shot deus ex machina that felt breathtaking on first viewing but now seems a little crass. (Not to give too much away, but that’s a pretty high body count just to get those crazy kids together, Krzyzstof.) Watching them now, Blue and Red feel like perfect closed circuits. White feels like a live wire.
“This film is about humiliation,” Kieslowski says in an interview in the White disc’s extras, pointing to the movie’s opening sequence, in which hero Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is shat upon by a pigeon on the steps of a Paris courthouse. Karol, a hairdresser recently emigrated from Poland, is at the courthouse because his French wife, Dominique (Delpy), has sued for divorce on the grounds that the marriage has not been consummated. Asked if this is true, a shame-faced Karol admits—in Polish, as he barely understands French—that since the couple moved to Paris, he’s been unable to perform.
Karol’s discomfort outside Poland mirrors Kieslowski’s. The costs of filmmaking pushed the director out of his liberated country; where once state money flowed freely (but with censors restricting what you could do with it), the new economy had little use for art. “We used to have money but no freedom,” he said, “now we’ve got freedom but no money.” In Paris, superproducer Marin Karmitz had money and wasn’t afraid to spend it to help Kieslowski make a trilogy both artful and lavish. (Karmitz humblebrags in an interview on these discs that, during Red, he was taken to the cleaners by a Geneva woman whose apartment was to be the heroine’s; Karmitz put her up in the city’s most expensive hotel, all expenses paid, for two months.)