Thursday, June 9, 2011

Exploring Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy: Blue (1993)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Country: France/Poland/Switzerland

Until recently, Krzysztof Kieslowski remained one of my biggest blind spots in the gallery of world cinema’s quintessential auteurs. One of those figures who continually lingered in my peripheral vision, the Polish filmmaker bears a reputation that ranks him among the likes of Bergman and Tarkovsky, Almodóvar and Haneke. But besides his prominence in the European arthouse scene, I was intrigued by the nature of his films – deep, mesmerizingly shot considerations of chance, fate and humanity. It wasn’t until after I read Roger Ebert's Great Movies essay on Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy that I learned of the warmth and empathy he was capable of. Basically, he seemed like someone whose perspective I could readily appreciate and even grow fond of, and thus my appetite was properly whetted.

So I took it upon myself to pick up the trilogy and watch it over the course of a few nights. Consisting of Blue (1993), White (1994) and Red (1994), they mark the end of Kieslowski’s directorial career. Shortly after completing Red, he announced his retirement from cinema. Sadly, approximately two years later, he passed away when he had a heart attack during an open-heart surgery operation in March of 1996. Yet he left behind an impressive body of work that concludes with a final run of films that any filmmaker would be proud to go out with.

Here, in order, I will provide my initial impressions of the Three Colors. While the films freely invite different interpretations, they are inspired by the colors that make up the flag of France and their corresponding themes: liberty (blue), equality (white) and fraternity (red). The films have also been referred to as, respectively, an anti-tragedy (Blue), an anti-comedy (White) and an anti-romance (Red). But as the films and various writings on them reveal, these themes aren’t rigidly applied or represented in any way, but rather subtly explored and touched upon through the characters’ experiences and Kieslowski’s playful, mysterious approach to them. The result is a fascinating, refreshingly open cinematic arena for interpretations and ideas that I imagine will vary for each viewer. For what they’re worth, here are some of mine.

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Long before I finally made my way to the Three Colors trilogy, I was aware of Blue’s status as an easy favorite among viewers. Out of the three films, it has earned possibly the most attention and can regularly be found at the top of most people’s personal rankings. This can easily be attributed to the many stand-out draw factors contained in the film: Juliette Binoche’s excellent lead performance, Slawomir Idziak’s sumptuous cinematography, Zbigniew Preisner’s grand score. Putting aside Binoche for a moment, Blue is indeed a film very much defined by its bold strokes of outright style. The opening sequence indicates as much in its visually and sonically intense depiction of a car ride, confronting the viewer with an up-close tire speeding over pavement, a distorted mosaic of lights as seen through a window, the roar of traffic engulfing the vehicle. The rest of the film comes laden with other beautifully executed flourishes, including the hazy, first-person perspective of Binoche’s recovery process following the car accident that kills her composer husband and their child; the odd flashes of blue light that appear at certain moments and the bursts of music that emanate, almost magically, from score pages.

Then, in the centre of it all, there is Binoche, giving what must be one of her most accomplished performances in her illustrious career. As Julie Vignon, sole survivor of the aforementioned crash, she steers her way through the difficult terrain of grief and depression. She first returns to her rural house, then moves into a Paris apartment, all the while carrying herself with a strong-willed and even reckless independence. Whether ridding herself of her family’s former possessions (including the home where they lived together), quietly contemplating the other characters around her or ending conversations with jarring abruptness, she constantly possesses an air of self-imposed distance from the world around her. She is dead-set on handling her own emotions and dealing with the lingering ties to her previous life on her own, and we as viewers are never quite sure which action she will take next. The result is not only a fantastic performance, but also a wonderfully complex and unpredictable character arc brimming with possibilities.

Much of that sense of narrative freedom comes from a large selection of supporting characters who interact with Julie through an almost episodic structure. Her husband’s friend and musical colleague, the young man who found her shortly after the crash, her spirited neighbor who works as a stripper, her husband’s mistress – they and more all occupy different areas of Julie’s life whilst facing their own dilemmas and experiences. That is one of Kieslowski and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz’s great gifts here and in the other two films: a completeness to the characters and their lives that extends far beyond the provided screen time. Throughout the trilogy, this quality is made clear in some particularly marvelous ways, but it comes through in Blue most notably in a stirring sequence near the end that will make you seriously wonder if Richard Kelly didn’t do a bit of shoplifting for an uncannily similar moment in Donnie Darko.

Blue is so cinematically rich that it can be a bit staggering to remember that Kieslowski followed it up with two more works. The film by itself is a clear masterpiece, possessing such artistry and depth that one could be perfectly content to revisit, savor and contemplate it for some time before even thinking of moving on to White. Along with the great acting and style, the world of intertwining stories and emotional trials Blue delves into gives viewers lots to think about in relation to their own lives, along the way presenting Kieslowski as an intriguing, one-of-a-kind philosopher whose lessons he preferred to illustrate through cinema.

Also posted at Row Three.

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