Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on June 15, 2014
Screening this week as part of the TCM Imports lineup is Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s (1941 – 1996) Three Colors trilogy. As a film exhibitor I have very fond memories of showcasing Kieslowski’s work. Both The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and the aforementioned operatic triptych made Kieslowski a huge arthouse hit who would pack the joint every time. Proof of this was to be found in The Decalogue (1988), a collection of 10 one-hour films made for Polish television. Nowadays when anyone can order up the package on a DVD box set it might not seem such a big deal, but back in the ’90s when I screened all of these on 35mm it was a rarity, and people came out in droves to watch them all. Let that sink in for a moment; a 500 seat auditorium was getting packed by people coming out to watch Polish television.
Blue, White, and Red were shot successively over a nine-month period and then given a staggered release between 1993 – 1994. The obligatory boilerplate that always gets trotted out when mentioning Kieslowski’s trilogy is that the films were based on the French flag and the themes of the French republic; Blue related to liberty (liberte!), White delved into issues of equality (egalite!), and Red tied things together with fraternity (fraternite!). It’s a nice way to package the three films in such a way as to make the French investors happy, so why not? Kieslowski had already dabbled with Europudding financing with The Double Life of Veronique, casting Irene Jacob in the titular role as both a Polish and French woman. For his next and far more ambitious project I doubt he would have gotten his French investors behind it had he come in saying “Hey, I’m going to make a movie based on your flag that is all about death (le décès!), impotence (L’impuissance!), and voyeurism (Le voyeurisme!), whaddya say?”
That last snipe, while accurate, is unfairly reductive, of course. Kieslowski tackles a lot of big issues that relate to both political and individual boundaries in the European community, a myriad of moral choices, a penetrating look at grief, the complexities of love, and a number of concerns, all of which end in tears. My informal impression from the crowds and critical reviews of the time was that everyone revered Red as the best of the lot, with Blue coming in a close second place, leaving White a distant third. Blue usually gets singled out as the most visually sumptuous of the three, but Red has many layers, ties some things together, and gets points for showing Kieslowski at his most humanist.
Showing myself to be completely out of step with both customers and most film critics I have to confess that White remains my personal favorite. This story about an immigrant Polish hairdresser who gets divorced by his French wife has both an edge and surprising humor. Karol, the main character played by Zbigniew Zamachowski, purposefully taps into the scrappy mythos of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp (it’s not a coincidence that Karol translated into English is Charlie). The setup has our immigrant protagonist lose everything he has, perform for change, and then endure a series of misadventures stowed away in oversized luggage as he tries to get back to Poland.
As his fortunes shift gears, so does the tone of the film and we see capitalism unfold in black markets that help feed unbridled opportunism. Our Polish hairdresser gets his revenge, but at what cost? I think too many people dismiss the gravity of what White brings to the table simply based on this idea that if something is a comedy, a dark-comedy, or even a satire, then it can’t possibly rub shoulders with its more serious brethren. Which is seriously silly, as Julie Delpy would surely agree.
Delpy auditioned for The Double Life of Veronique and didn’t get that role. Kieslowski remembered her and wanted her to come back for Blue, but the material was pretty harrowing and now it was Delpy’s turn to take a pass (that role went to Juliette Binoche). The script for White, on the other hand, which was clearly lighter in tone, was much more to Delpy’s liking and helped put her opposite Zamachowski in the role of a rather cruel wife who humiliates her husband in front of a judge for his inability to perform in bed.
One final telling note in regards to Kieslowski’s go-to composer, Zbigniew Preisner: my soundtrack collection does not contain the scores for either Red or Blue, but it does have White. That’s not to say the other scores aren’t also great, but for some reason the music for White stuck with me enough that I bothered to seek out and buy the French CD. Back then seeking required some legwork, nowadays you can go right to Preisner’s official website to see what he’s up to (www.preisner.com) – which includes a performance last month in Turkey with the Istanbul Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance.
In the spirit of equality (egalite!) I’ll give the last image to Blue. Or, at least, one of the reels of Blue, which was recently featured in a Huffington Post piece about how colorful and different the film stock itself can be, from one movie to the next.
For more images, go to: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/09/reiner-riedler_n_5434229.html
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