Released between 1993 and 1994, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy was almost instantly hailed as a high watermark of the European and art-house cinema of the ’90s, and even watched nearly twenty years later it remains a staggering achievement, a monumental work from a visionary filmmaker that retains its heartbreaking and audacious power.
Though the films share a fictional universe – characters who are the focus of one make cameo appearances in others – they are not a trilogy in a narrative sense. Kielowski based each film around a colour of the French flag and used his stories to investigate the French Revolutionary ideal that each colour represented.
In Three Colours Blue, Juliette Binoche plays the wife of a famous composer who dies, along with their young son, in a car crash that serves as the opening of the film. After being released from hospital, Binoche seeks to cut herself off completely from her old life and tries to sever ties with her family, her friends, and starts to sell the house she shared with the deceased. It quickly becomes apparent that, as much as she may want to escape that world and everything it reminds her of, she can’t get away, and she is gradually drawn back into it. Blue is centred around the idea of freedom, though of an emotional, rather than social or political kind, and asks whether it is possible to be completely free of the attachments we form with the world around us.
Three Colours White is markedly different, being closer to a dark comedy than the two meditative dramas that surround it. Zbigniew Zamachowski stars as a Polish man living in Paris who at the beginning of the film is divorced by his wife, played by Julie Delpy, and who winds up humiliated, penniless and homeless. Returning to Poland with the aid of one of his fellow countrymen, he starts to build a new life for himself with the intention of exacting revenge against his wife. Through Zamachowski’s quest for vengeance and a means of regaining some form of equality in his relationship with his wife, Kieslowski examines the very idea of equality, and crafts an allegory for Poland’s position in post-Cold War Europe.
The final film, Three Colours Red, deals with the idea of fraternity by showing how the lives of a disparate group of characters – including a model (Irene Jacob), a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and a young couple whose conversations the judge has been listening to – gradually become entwined as events and circumstances bring them together.
What really sets the Three Colours Trilogy apart from similarly ambitious and epochal works is that they are incredibly accessible (especially when compared to other Kieslowski films like The Double Life of Veronique or The Dekalog, which is arguably his masterpiece but is very imposing). Whilst each of them investigates an idea explicitly related to the French Revolution, the film’s are universal in their themes. Love, death, fate, betrayal, chance, grief, the pull of the past, all of these form the core of the stories, and the resulting works transcend their specificity to become all encompassing commentaries on life itself. Yet despite their weighty themes, the actual films are compelling, intimate dramas full of rich characters with whom it is impossible not to fall in love. It is the tension between the universality of their themes and the small focus of the stories that makes each of the films in the trilogy so captivating.
Each of the films uses the colour of its title as the basis for their colour palette, and the new Blu-ray transfer does justice to the beautiful imagery that Kieslowski captured. The colours are deeper and more sumptuous than they have ever been, presenting the best possible version of the film for anyone revisiting the films or experiencing them for the first time.