In which I assess Krzysztof Kieślowski's take on liberty, equality and fraternity.
|Note: This was originally written as part of my coursework for Art Pre-U, a British exam equivalent to A-levels for which I was able to choose any topic I liked. I chose the Trois Couleurs trilogy because the films are beautiful and poignant and, happy with the outcome of my essay, I decided to share it in case anyone else was interested in the films. As a result, I'm happy for anyone to quote small parts of this in their own work if they like, provided they give me credit. Overall, I hope you find it interesting and an enjoyable read. The films really are amazing; I cannot recommend them highly enough.
Kieślowski’s Trois Couleurs and the French Revolutionary ideals
Between 1993 and 1994 the Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski made three films: Bleu, Blanc and Rouge, collectively known as the Trois Couleurs, or Three Colours Trilogy. These colours are the three featured on the French Tricolore flag, and ostensibly each film is supposed to represent one of the three ideals adopted by the French nation after the Revolution of 1789: liberté, égalité and fraternité . This was by no means original; the ideals had been portrayed in art since years before, by artists such as Jacques-Louis David and Eugène Delacroix. These revolutionary paintings were bold and heroic, featuring acts of bravery and sacrifice, and is what one might expect from works produced to celebrate France’s new Republicanism. However, when watching Kieślowski’s strikingly poignant, beautiful films, made exactly 200 years after the Tricolore was adopted by France, he takes a different stance to the triumphant, romanticised depictions of French identity seen earlier, and it’s this personal angle of his that I intend to address.
Bleu, the first of the trilogy, is an intensely tragic film. As Mark Lee remarks, “from the numerous blue objects that appear in Kieślowski’s film to the fading twilight of the evening sky, to the luminous, aqueous hues highlighted in many shots, blue permeates the very fabric of this work.” Kieślowski exploits the colour to its full potential, creating an atmosphere that at its lightest is one of melancholy, and in its deepest moments drops into despair. The film follows Julie, a woman whose husband and daughter are killed in a car accident in a blue mist at the beginning of the film. We watch Julie as she attempts to cut off all links to her former life – her home, her lover, her husband’s music (he is a world-famous composer) and all her friends and family except her senile mother. She smiles as she sells all her possessions, puts her house on the market, throws away her husband’s latest composition, a symphony written to celebrate European identity, and buys a new apartment in Paris. The viewer, however, knows that she is not free. She smiles, but she isn’t happy. It is emotional liberty that Kieślowski is examining here, as Julie tries to cut herself free from all restraints of her past life. However, subtly repeated symbolism in the film shows how Julie is not able to do so, and is haunted by her responsibilities and her past life until she returns.
Music plays a major role in the film. The composer of the film’s score, Zbignew Presner, called the film “a musical, not, of course, in the Hollywood sense.” Although it’s Julie’s husband who is the composer, it is hinted that she wrote the symphony (called the “Unification of Europe” symphony). The composition is grand, sober and invasive, and Kieślowski uses it as the majority of the soundtrack to Bleu. Every time Julie is reminded of her past connections, those she is trying to cut off, the films blacks out for a few seconds and the sonorous, chilling chords blare out, as if she is trying to block them out of her head but they’re catching up with her. For example, when Julie throws the music away, the music haunts her, as when she sleeps with her lover, and finally when she hangs a blue glass mobile in her new apartment, the only possession she kept from her previous life. To add to the effect, she even hears a busker playing the melody on his flute in the street outside her new home. When asked where he got it, he claims to have made it up. Julie is overwhelmed by the music as she is swimming alone in a shimmering blue swimming pool; she tries getting out, then hears the music and drops back into the water to float face down limply.
The music, in a sense, comes to signify Julie’s memory, and is to an extent an indication of her husband and daughter’s presence hanging over her. Lee comments on her position eloquently when he says “there are both positive and negative forms of freedom – where a negative freedom would be an apparently involuntary freedom from something.” We know Julie isn’t free thanks both to the music that haunts her, and through the imagery Kieślowski uses on television screens seen throughout the film. When Julie goes to visit her senile mother at a care home, she watches the television as she says to Julie “They told me you were dead. You seem fine.” Julie, expressionless and scourged by herself of all feeling, sits and looks at the images of bungee jumpers that the screen shows on repeat. The mother says: “I’m fine here. I have the telly. Me, I can see the whole world” as she watches the man in free fall. Symbolically for Julie, she can jump into the void, but she will always be dragged back by the links she cannot escape.
As the film progresses, Julie’s lover becomes more and more persistent, tracking her down and begging her to come back. She meets a girl in her apartment, Lucille, who works as an exotic dancer and relies on Julie for comforting when she sees her estranged father in the front row of one of her stripteases. She also learns that her own husband was having an affair and left his mistress with an unborn child. Julie is more consistently shot in a white light rather than blue as we get closer to the end of the film, and the photography becomes looser, as the camera is further away from Julie and lessens the claustrophobic atmosphere that pervades the early parts of the film; no longer is the view restricted to following her in over-the-shoulder shots and close-ups of Julie’s emotionless, wide eyes as she lies in bed in hospital. In a counterpoint to the plot of the film, the way it’s shot gets freer as Julie gets closer to her old responsibilities and attachments, thus allowing Kieślowski to suggest the true nature of her “freedom”. Finally, she re-embraces her old life, realising that in order to be truly free one needs connections. She takes her old family house off the market and gives it to her husband’s mistress to live in, agrees to finish the score for the Unification of Europe and returns to her lover. In the final montage of the film, Julie is seen weeping quietly in his arms; the first time she does so in the entire film. The shot fades to blue.
Blanc, by contrast, is an entirely different affair. While Bleu and Rouge have been described as anti-tragedy and anti-romance respectively, Blanc could be seen as an anti-comedy . The white of the French flag symbolises égalité, and as Paul Coates notes, by the end of the film “égalité – which means of getting even – has been achieved.” However, this quote is telling of a great paradox in the work – that of whether revenge can really be seen as the same as equality. The film tells the story of a Pole named Karol Karol, whose French wife Dominique is divorcing him on the grounds that he is unable to consummate their marriage. As their relationship turns more and more sour, Karol finds himself cast out onto the streets, largely because he cannot speak French and relies on his wife’s income from the shop she owns. Karol meets a fellow Pole on the Metro called Mikolaj, who helps him return to Poland on the condition that he helps Mikolaj kill himself. Karol fires a blank at Mikolaj in a deserted part of the Metro, then asks if he really wants to die. Mikolaj changes his mind, but pays Karol a fee anyway. Once smuggled back to the stark white of the snow of Poland Karol works his way back up to become a small-time oligarch. He then fakes his own death, creating a will that leaves Dominique his legacy and implicates her in his murder.
Thus we see that at no time is Karol really equal to his wife. While he’s in France, he is treated as inferior as he can’t communicate properly, such as during the divorce hearing when he claims desperately that the court will not hear his case due to the language barrier. After he has Dominique imprisoned, he goes and watches her through the window of her cell as she awaits trial. There are certainly moments of true equality in the film, such as those between Mikolaj and Karol as they share a bottle of Schnapps on the street in Paris, or just after Karol nearly kills Mikolaj when they run out onto a frozen white river in the cold and skid about, laughing and whooping, united in their hopes and struggles, or when Karol returns to his old job hairdressing in Poland, something he can do expertly. Interestingly, here he wears a pristine white overcoat to do this, the first truly white clothing we see since a flashback to his wedding day where Dominique smiles in a floating white wedding dress on the steps of a Paris church in the morning sun. However, the stark reversal of fortunes between Karol and Dominique seems to be out of place in a film about equality, where instead Kieślowski focuses on what could be construed as revenge.
Rouge, finally, is the crowning work of the trilogy. More pensive in mood than the sober, unflinching Bleu or Blanc’s erratic jollity, the film reflects on the ideal of fraternité, brotherhood, but also provides a perspective on fate and the notion of judgement and its morality. The film follows Valentine, a student in Geneva who hits a dog with her car one day. She tracks the dog’s owner down and finds him to be a retired judge, Joseph, who lives alone and spends his time spying on his neighbours’ phone calls. Although initially shocked, Valentine gradually comes to befriend Joseph and inspires him to confess to his neighbours and smash his spying equipment.
As a Polish director, Kieślowski was always highly aware of the changing political nature of his country, and therefore others, most obviously France, as well. The Berlin wall had come down four years prior to the Trois Couleurs, and from 1991 Poland had become capitalist. As Paul Coates notes, this led to a dilemma for ex-Soviet bloc filmmaking: “The question of the direction Polish cinema was to take post-1989 conjugated the question “after politics, what next?” Kieślowski had already dealt with politics in the Decalogue of 1988, and in Bleu and Blanc he incorporates the subject into three works with more emotional and personal narratives. Blanc provides the viewer with the most explicit outlook on politics, and Poland’s new-found capitalism in particular: Karol’s entrepreneurship and ability to make his own way in the world allows him to pull himself out of a rut and get back on equal footing with his wife. However, the film also serves as a warning to those who believe money alone can make them happy. In one scene, Karol sleeps in his new bed, having just made thousands on the land deal, but he cannot get to sleep for thought of Dominique, and his desire for her. Kieślowski explicitly tells us that emotional wellbeing is as important as financial security, if not more so.
In Bleu, the fact that Julie and her husband were composing music to celebrate the “Unification of Europe” is important in making the film more universal. In January 1993, when Bleu was released, the Maastricht Treaty was about to come into effect to establish the European Union. In a trilogy about French national identity, this is very significant. Julie and the other characters celebrate the Union, and Kieślowski takes a positive view on the idea. In the context of the film, this could easily be seen as a sort of analogy for Julie’s attempt to be free by cutting off all links to the rest of her life. One could easily read the Unification of Europe as the director telling us that everyone in Europe needs to support one another, and that we’re better off with each others’ nations there, in fraternité. Instead of cutting off links with other countries, we should bring Europe closer together. In the years directly following the fall of Communism and the Iron Curtain, this seems a logical and optimistic suggestion from Kieślowski.
As with the other two films, Rouge is deeply entwined with its parent colour. One of the moments where this comes to the forefront of the viewer’s attention is when Valentine - itself almost the most “red” name one could have short of perhaps being called Scarlett - has just run over the dog, who survives. She picks her up and puts her in the car, then looks up the owner’s address. As she traces the route on the map with her finger, glistening red with the dog’s blood, she blocks out the “Car-” on the name of Joseph’s district of Geneva, Carrouge, leaving the word “rouge” spelt out for a split second on the screen. The café above which Valentine lives is also called Café Chez Joseph, and its red awnings, visible from the window of her apartment, provide an ever-present reminder of the film’s subject. Most obviously, Valentine comes to feel a kind of brotherhood with Joseph over the course of the film, and at the end they sit in a deserted auditorium with deep crimson seats and walls where he has just come to see her in a fashion show and he tells her he had a dream where she was happy in the future. However, the major subplot of the narrative is related to a law student who lives across the road from Valentine, named Augustine.
Valentine and Augustine’s lives seem mysteriously entwined: Augustine’s girlfriend lives across the road from Joseph and so she hears him talking to her on the phone, arranging to go bowling, via Joseph’s spying device while she’s at Joseph’s house. That evening, she is invited to the same bowling lane by her friends, and a couple of lanes apart from each other they spend the night with their friends (in a lovely contrasting scene, Joseph writes a letter denouncing himself at the same time, confessing of his spying to his neighbours). At another point, Valentine listens to a CD in a music shop as Augustine stands facing away from her, listening through headphones too. When she goes to the counter to ask to buy it, the assistant tells her he just sold the last one, and points to Augustine leaving the shop. Most profoundly, both of them experience trouble in their relationships. Valentine’s jealous boyfriend continually calls her and accuses her of being unfaithful, trying to catch her with another man, quite ironically just after she’s met Joseph, and Augustine’s girlfriend leaves him for a man she meets at the courtroom while she and her neighbours are pursuing a civil case against Joseph for spying on them. Despite their proximity, neither ever talks to the other, nor recognises them from their other encounters. Augustine’s life also mirrors the story Joseph tells Valentine about his own youth in the auditorium at the end of the film. Studying to become a judge, his books fall open on the page that happens to come up in the exam question. His girlfriend leaves him for another man, and he cannot understand why. He even abandons his dog at one point (later regretting it and going to pick her up), in exactly the same way Joseph does (he first tells Valentine she can keep the dog, as he doesn’t want her, but then relents). Again, the destinies of Joseph and Augustine are parallel lines, but they never cross during the film. Kieślowski uses contrasting shots, cut directly and abruptly into one another, so give us a comparison of Valentine, Augustine and Joseph. For example, the camera follows a red bowling ball as it rushes down the lane towards the pins, sending them flying as Valentine celebrates in the noisy bowling alley, then the shot cuts straight to Joseph writing in his silent, draughty house. In another scene, we see Augustine get out of his red car outside the cafe and walk into his apartment before the camera pans sideways and pulls one storey up, into Valentine’s apartment. Seeing both protagonists in the same long shot gives an idea of their surprising physical proximity but also the completely separate lives they lead. Therefore we get an unusual impression of the way Kieślowski sees brotherhood, one that tells us that although we may not know it, we all go through thick and thin together.
So it gradually becomes clear after watching all three films that Krzysztof Kieślowski has bucked the trend when depicting the Revolutionary ideals. “These three unusually titled films…turned against themselves in their contents,” says Paulus. However, in order to understand how he breaks from tradition, it is necessary to examine some previous works of art working with a similar vein of French identity. One good example is Liberty Leading the People, painted by Delacroix in the immediate aftermath of the 1830 Revolution. Here is a picture of the strongest patriotism and nationalism; heroic Liberty, personified as a beautiful, graceful yet robust woman of the people, heads the charge of the French populace, who appear to come from all walks of life. Clearly, all three of the principles are here: liberté herself is a figure in the painting, and the characters fighting for égalité against the aristocracy are united by this in fraternité. The expressions of the figures are noble, grim yet determined, and Liberty herself clutches the Tricolore, raising it up to rally her followers. Delacroix has highly romanticised the Revolution in a way perhaps only an artist of the 18th or 19th centuries could. There’s no blood visible on the bodies of the soldiers under the revolutionaries’ feet, nor is there any ostensible attempt to depict the horrific violence that really took place during the Revolution. There is no questioning in this painting of the nature of the Revolutionary ideals, no hinting that the red of fraternité also symbolised the rivers of blood that flowed during the three-year Terror following the 1789 revolution. Similarly, in David’s Death of Marat of 1793, the radical Marat is idolised and shown as a tragic martyr for his cause, picked out by an almost celestial light highlighting his face and Christ-like muscular form. His expression is one of composed sorrow, and the viewer’s attention is directed to one possible cause of his sorrow, the unsent letter he was composing before he died. Here we have no indication of the skin condition that actually caused Marat to have to take his bath, nor are we given an understanding of the hatred of the nobility the man whipped up among the Jacobins. It, too, is idealised and perfected in the same way as Liberty leading the People. As Marat is the embodiment of the Revolution, he is didactically shown to be infallible, completely blameless.
When one compares this to Kieślowski’s more ambiguous depictions of each of the ideals in Bleu, Blanc and Rouge, a different concept emerges immediately. The paradoxical nature of the trilogy becomes clear, and one can see how in all three of the films there is something a world away from the way one might expect a typically nationalistic film to show the ideals. Luckily for the viewer, Kieślowski is more subtle than the Revolutionary paintings of David and Delacroix. In Bleu, for example, the major paradox is the fact that Julie needs to have connections to her family and friends and work in order to be truly free of the haunting memory of her husband, daughter and music. She cannot escape by simply cutting everything off, and the alternative is shown to give true emotional freedom. In Blanc the intentional contradictions are more numerous, with Karol’s relationship to Dominique being the most obvious one. Although he loves her, he cannot manage to make love to her. Despite all she does to him, he still wants to be with her (this is clear when he returns to Poland and tries to throw a 2 franc coin that has come to symbolise his love for Dominique into the river, but cannot, as it sticks to his hand in the cold. He looks at it and pockets it again). Financial success only makes Karol marginally happy – he really wants to be back with Dominique, shown when he cries as he looks through the bars of her prison cell in the moving last scene of the film. Another interesting juxtaposition is how Mikolaj asks Karol to kills him. Karol has nothing to live for; Mikolaj has money, a family, and a home, yet wants to die. None of these examples from Blanc obey the traditional ideas of égalité. Finally, in Rouge, the simple paradox of how Valentine and Joseph never meet Augustine despite their lives being so closely intertwined and related goes against a traditional concept of fraternité, in which one would expect to know one’s brothers and sisters.
These counterpoints to the traditional ideals of liberté, égalité and fraternité run through the whole trilogy, and Kieślowski deliberately links them up by repeated motifs running through all three films, in a sense making them into one big work. For example, in each of the three films the protagonist watches an elderly figure trying to reach a recycling bank to recycle glass bottles. In Bleu, Julie hardly notices the figure, reflecting her freedom. In Blanc, Karol sees the figure and grins, in the spirit of brotherhood, and in Rouge, Valentine helps the old woman, to show her concern for her fellow humans. There is also a moment in Bleu in which Julie peeks into a court hearing accidentally, and is ushered out by the guard. This moment is visible for a moment in Blanc, where the viewer discovers that the hearing is Karol and Dominique’s divorce procedure. In Rouge, Valentine’s boyfriend tell her how all his possessions and car were stolen in Poland, something similar to what happens to the hapless Karol in the middle film. Finally, at the very end of the last film, the characters are all united by a disaster; a ferry crossing the Channel capsizes in extreme weather, and as Joseph watches it all unfold on his television it is revealed that there are only seven survivors: Julie, her lover, Karol, Dominique, Valentine and Auguste (who seem to finally notice each other for the first time) and an English bartender. Each film ends with a shot of someone crying: Julie, Karol and Joseph in each of their respective films.
All of these links and similar paradoxes seem to draw the films together into one work, and indeed one could see the trilogy as a whole four-and-a-half-hour epic split into three. This has the added effect of uniting them all in their agenda. Kieślowski looks to show how in the modern age, one can no longer rely on any set of absolute values or ideals. Nor can we uphold the values of nationalistic ages gone by. Instead of a trio of straightforward principles, liberté, égalité and fraternité are complicated, morally ambiguous and compromised by reality. Can one ever have true emotional liberty without any responsibilities? Is getting even truly a form of equality? Do we have to meet someone to feel a sense of brotherhood for them? Kieślowski certainly doesn’t think so, and he acknowledges the difficulty of marrying modern life with antiquated ideals in these three poignantly beautiful films.
Mark D. Lee, “Learning to Let Go: Kieślowski’s “Bleu””, The French Review, Vol. 76, No. I (October, 2002)
Irena Paulus, “Music in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Film “Three Colours: Blue”. A Rhapsody in Shades of Blue: The Reflections of a Musician”, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 3, No. I (June, 1999)
Roger Ebert, “Three Colours Trilogy: Blue, White, Red” Web, 2nd October 2011 <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20030309/REVIEWS08/303090308/1023>
Paul Coates, “The Sense of an Ending: Reflections on Kieślowski’s Trilogy”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. II (Winter, 1996-1997)
“Trois Couleurs: Bleu”, Dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993 (DVD, Artificial Eye, 2004)
“Trois Couleurs: Blanc”, Dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993 (DVD, Artificial Eye, 2004)
“Trois Couleurs: Rouge”, Dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993 (DVD, Artificial Eye, 2004)
Paul Coates, “Kieślowski and the Antipolitics of Color: A Reading of the "Three Colors" Trilogy”, Cinema Journal, Vol. 41, No. II (Winter, 2002)
Tom Barrie, 2011