A car accident causes the death of a well-known composer and his young daughter. Julie, the composer’s wife and the girl’s mother, survives the crash but withdraws into isolation and silence. She is slowly brought back to a social existence by small claims on her attention in her immediate proximity, and then by the revelation that a child will be born out of the dead husband’s affair with another woman. She finally returns to composing music.
A humiliating divorce from a French hairdresser forces the emigrant Karol to sneak from Paris back home to Poland, impoverished and crushed. Having eventually hustled his way up the economic ladder, he stages his own death as a trap to lure his ex-wife to Poland, jail, and sweet revenge.
Valentine, a student and occasional model, is distracted from her fretful daily life in Geneva by a chance encounter with a reclusive, charismatic, judge. Their acquaintance deepens in the course of a series of minor, seemingly unrelated events and conversations: Valentine’s attempts to curb the old man’s intrusive behaviour toward his morally suspect neighbours; her criss-crossing of paths with a law student and future judge in her neighbourhood; the young man’s discovery of a girlfriend’s deceit; Valentine’s chagrin at her brother’s descent into drug dependency; the old judge’s confession of a traumatic end of a love affair in England. As Valentine travels to England to visit her distant boyfriend, her ferry capsizes but she is one of the few survivors; another one is the law student, coincidentally on the same ship.
The place of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy in film history can be anchored by a two-part proposition: that, in the wake of the post-1989 folding of the Iron Curtain, this loosely connected series provides a unique and ingenious cinematic embodiment of the encounter of ‘East’ with ‘West’, and that it at the same time represents the culmination of a major auteur’s oeuvre, the final work produced before his untimely death in 1996 – work that has prompted, and lives on, in a substantial body of critical and theoretical writing.
When in 1992 the fabled French producer Marin Karmitz announced the production of the three films that make up the Trilogy, he was delivering a trifecta of the best the contemporary ‘European’ cinema had to offer: 1) a powerful authorial name underwritten by nearly three decades of original, courageous and politically committed filmmaking; 2) the promise of a relevant and intellectually responsible set of stories addressing the convulsive political and social changes the continent was undergoing in the wake of the recent opening of the Iron Curtain, 3) made not only palatable but positively irresistible by a distinct visual style, refracted in all three films through a luminous (and French) female star whose inward-outward beauty could well compete with the brassier sex appeal of global Hollywood. These promises were delivered in quick succession between 1993 and 1994, making The Colors Trilogy, as it came to be known, mandatory viewing on the world film fest circuit as well as a serial winner of dozens of international and national awards. Then, in early 1996, its director Kieslowski died unexpectedly – from overwork, it was hinted: almost exactly like Weronika, the Polish heroine of one of his earlier films, his heart appeared to have burst in a transcendent sprint to heed a creative vision. The Trilogy thus became a kind of headstone, securing Kieslowski a place in the pantheon of Europe’s benchmark authors, an equal now of an Antonioni, a Bergman, a Tarkovsky.1
While the trilogy came to be celebrated as Kieslowski’s summa, it was at the time of its release also understood as a triumphant career upgrade. Starting in the late 1960s as a near-solo documentarian, Kieslowski developed during his feature-making years a unique collaborative style, becoming, together with Krzysztof Zanussi, the acting head of the fabled TOR production group, the studio that became synonymous with ‘cinema of moral anxiety’, Polish culture’s ethical compass during the darkest years of post-Solidarity repression in the People’s Republic.2 With the totalitarian regime’s dissolution in early 1989, that lifelong stance of social responsibility led Kieslowski to search for a new production model in a film industry that overnight lost both the protection of a state-buffered economy and the constraints of the State censor’s heavy political hand. How, then, to reorganise a national film industry that would at once reconnect the Polish nation to its European roots, whatever they might be (for that was the political master narrative of the post-1989 ‘Wende’, ‘return’, as the Berlin Wall was being dismantled, and the many fault-lines and scars of Europe’s pre-1948 histories were being revisited)? How to do this even while updating it, instantly, for the global capitalist economy, criss-crossed now by the cables of new media and the noise of pervasive communication systems? This Gordian knot of intertwined temporalities, the national desire to get through the difficult present by coordinating its distant past with the urgently pressing future – that was the real challenge the Trilogy needed to resolve in the new production circumstances; indeed this temporal compression was, in the view of the English critic Emma Wilson, also one of the trilogy’s major themes.3
This is not to say that Kieslowski’s challenge was unique: more than in any of the East European countries, co-productions accounted for up to 50 per cent of all the films made in Poland in the immediate post-socialist period.4 And France, long Poland’s principal historical filiation in Europe, and long its staunchest ally against the pincers of two enemy neighbours, Germany and Russia, was also the main manager of the EurImages funds, parlaying its long history of co-productions into a role as the principal dispatcher agency for ‘new Europe’s’ cinemas.5 The tricolour motif was thus at once France’s triumphant flag rising – some said – over the Polish red-and-white, and at the same time a claim-staking for the emergent cinema of the European Union. Beyond simply celebrating the abstract ideals of the Enlightenment – fraternity, equality, brotherhood – symbolised by the three colours (as the press releases relentlessly offered), the plot of each of the three films was centred on, and discreetly allegorised, the conditions of creative labour in Europe’s new transnational economy.
The EU is thus the political entity whose triumph is being awkwardly feted (and whose flag is occasionally glimpsed) in the musical backstory of Blue, in the form of an anthem commissioned, at great expense, from Juliette’s cheating composer husband before he meets his untimely end in the opening scene. Similarly, the plot of White could be paraphrased as a comic tale of a bumbling Polish leisure-industry employee trying to set up shop inside Fortress Europe, in Paris, on the strength of a modest previous success at an international festival in an East European backwater, and who then makes it his mission to raise enough domestic capital to frame, trap and neutralise the sexy French expert-competitor in his line of work (Julie Delpy) inside a bleak Polish public institution – aka jail – and who finally succeeds by making her smile for the camera at the prospect of a future collaboration. Red in turn can be said to allegorise its production circumstances by literally rescuing its greatest filmic asset, an exquisite and soulful model, from a mass grave and anonymous demise in the icy waters of shallow commerce (an empty bubble coming out of her mouth on a soft drink billboard her biggest accomplishment) inside a narrative driven – if only barely – by a quest for ethics, moral decency, and emotional authenticity.
A different reading of Kieslowski’s strategies for balancing ‘the Polish’ inside ‘the French’ has been proposed by Emma Wilson, who parses the complex temporalities in Kieslowski’s ‘French films’ along Deleuzian time-image lines, tracking the trilogy’s reliance on and deployment of icons from the French New Wave (Emmanuelle Riva in Blue, Brigitte Bardot in White, and Jean-Louis Trintignant in Red) to claim that this strategy has much to teach us about ‘how national cinemas are always open to infiltration and identificatory mechanisms where what is alien is absorbed, repeated and reproduced’, concluding that Kieslowski may be ‘mak[ing] films abroad, but stays resolutely at home’. 6 Such critical (and later academic) appreciation on the part of ‘Western’ scholars wasn’t necessarily shared by critics in Poland. Having supported Kieslowski during the lean decades of totalitarianism, and celebrated his subtle elaboration of the ‘cinema of moral anxiety’ in his features Camera Buff, Blind Chance, No End, and especially Decalogue, in the newly opened post-1989 atmosphere many saw the Trilogy as a sellout to the glossy values of the marketplace, and claimed it to be kitschy, maudlin, and bargain-basement metaphysical, not to mention sexist.7
In either case, however, the famously luxuriant look of Trilogy is the most marked difference against Kieslowski’s earlier work, much of it documentary and austere, an uncompromising (in the sense of market-indifferent) investigation of the ethical consequences of a camera turning its prying gaze on a singular, unique, human being. If nothing else, this wholesale stylistic upgrade (already mobilised in The Double Life of Véronique) was one obvious way of securing the attention of a world cinema audience accustomed to sample its ethical quandaries in the framework of entertainment (commonly referred to by the oxymoron ‘art film genre’).8 For all their shared audiovisual bravura, the three films were shot by three different cinematographers (Idziak, Sobocin´ski, Kłosin´ski), each of whom had previously worked on a Kieslowski project in Poland. Interviews record not just the unusually active participation of the cameramen as well as other production team members in the filmmaking process, but also the efforts on Kieslowski’s part to inflect the labour division customary in the heavily unionised French system in favour of a more collectivist mode of work. Such difference in modes of production signals that the emblematic concept of authorship, long an export hallmark of ‘European cinema’, might deserve a geopolitical revision informed by the sub-field of ‘production studies’ emerging in particular in the new ‘post-East European’ film historiography.9
Formally, all three films build their distinct mood and structure by a dramaturgical focus on a single and inward human being working her or his way through a trauma of some kind. This protagonist is a listener and observer more than she or he is a speaker or, so it appears, a doer. In Blue, Julie survives the loss of her family by practicing a kind of worldly ascesis, withdrawing into silence and looking to cut contact with as many living creatures as possible. In White, after suffering public humiliation on every imaginable front, the protagonist Karol appears to be recovering, enjoying a somewhat comical and unexpectedly stellar rise in Poland’s sprouting capitalist economy, yet the real plot, his working-through of his initial Parisian dejection by capturing his former tormentor (and wife), is planned tacitly and off-screen, without anyone’s knowledge, so that the final turn surprises the viewer as much as it does Karol’s few friends. In Red, the single-protagonist scheme is somewhat modified. Here the viewer is not so much following one introvert character as s/he is led through a pattern of uncanny encounters and never-quite-explained parallels between a character-function and a double of sorts (the old and the young judge, Valentine and the old judge’s lost lover, etc.). In these encounters time slows down and events lack closure, losing ground to contingency but retaining the uncanny power of possibility.
As is appropriate for modernist/time-image cinema, then, plotting is not where the viewer finds her satisfaction. Julie’s final overcoming of her death-wish phase and tentative embrace of music and life with Oliver produces no change in the film’s emotional tone; Karol’s life after the triumphal revenge appears as pointless as it seemed when he was still hustling his way up; and though Valentine and Auguste are supposedly predetermined for a future happy life, as per the old judge’s dream, that flaccid and possibly selfserving fantasy is all we have to go on as the film stills on the final shot. In this respect it is fair to say, with the Polish critics, that none of the three films – in fact, none of Kieslowski’s ‘Western’ films – takes a real crack at a moral dilemma in a political sense. Instead, their narrative resolution is at most a hint at some alternative, virtual, reality, a dim glimpse of one or several other possible pathways in which the transpired events might be recombined. Assessing Kieslowski’s legacy, a number of critics have traced the seed of the now so commonplace ‘multivalent narratives’ like Haneke’s Code: Unknown, Iñárritu’s Babel or the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas to the open, hesitant, even haunted causalities structuring Kieslowski’s films.10
Instead, the seductiveness of these late films derives from their unique array of optical and acoustic techniques of intimacy and inwardness. On a descriptive level, critics have highlighted their colour and light compositions as borrowed from painting and still photography, along with the highly elliptical editing and camera work that combines documentary and tightly controlled, ‘predictive’, movement so as to ‘collaborate’ with the viewer without dictating his or her reactions.11 On a more theoretical level, the look of these films has been translated into a distinct ethics of seeing. Pointing to a recurrence of ‘impossible’ shots, in which a character sees herself seeing (with the help of an optical device such as a glass ball, a reflective surface, or even the iris itself), Slavoj Žižek has argued that in Kieslowski’s editing philosophy such constructions, or ‘interfaces’, go beyond standard art cinema’s familiar and comfortable bare-it-all self-reflexivity, and instead let the viewer indirectly glimpse a more radical recognition of alternative and mutually exclusive selves. In this sense, then, The Color Trilogy would represent one final missive of non-commercial cinema’s ‘non-pornographic’ way of looking.12
Cast and Crew:
Trois couleurs: bleu (1993) [Country: France, Switzerland, Poland. Production Company: MK2, CED Productions, France 3, CAB Productions, TOR production. Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski. Producer: Marin Karmitz. Sceenwriters: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Cinematographer: Sławomir Idziak. Editor: Jacques Witta. Music: Zbigniew Preisner. Cast: Juliette Binoche (Julie); Benoir Régent (Olivier); Florence Pernel (Sandrine); Charlotte Very (Lucille); Emanuelle Riva (mother); Julie Delpy (Dominique); Zbigniew Zamachowski (Karol Karol).]
Trois couleurs: blanc (1994) [Country: France, Switzerland, Poland. Production Company: France 3 Cinema, MK2 Productions, CED Productions, France 3, CAB Productions, TOR Productions, Canal +. Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski. Producer: Marin Karmitz. Screenwriters: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Cinematographer: Edward Kłosin´ski. Editor: Urszula Lesiak. Music: Zbigniew Preisner. Cast: Zbigniew Zamachowski (Karol Karol), Julie Delpy (Dominique), Janusz Gajos (Mikołaj), Jerzy Stuhr (Jurek), Aleksander Bardini (lawyer), Jerzy Nowak (old farmer), Cezary Pazura (foreign exchange shop owner), Juliette Binoche (Julie).]
Trois couleurs: rouge (1994) [Country: France, Switzerland, Poland. Production Company: France 3 Cinema, MK2 Productions, CED Productions, France 3, CAB Productions, TOR Productions, Canal + Productions, Télévision Suisse Romande. Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski. Producer: Marin Karmitz. Screenwriters: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Cinematographer: Piotr Sobocin´ski. Editor: Jacques Witta. Music: Zbigniew Preisner. Cast: Irène Jacob (Valentine Dussaut), Jean-Louis Trintignant (judge Joseph Kern), Frédérique Feder (Karin), Jean-Pierre Lorit (Auguste Bruner), Samuel Lebihan (photographer), Juliette Binoche (Julie), Zbigniew Zamachowski (Karol Karol), Julie Delpy (Dominique), Benoir Régent (Olivier).]
1. Moreover, the trilogy format itself has been argued as the epitome of authorial power. See Claire Perkins and Constantine Verevis (eds), Film Trilogies: New Critical Approaches, New York: Palgrave, 2012.
2. In Danusia Stok (ed.), Kieslowski on Kieslowski, London, Faber & Faber, 1993, pp. 127–9, the director talks about his role as a cameraman witness at the political trials against Solidarity activists, and his subsequent lifelong collaboration with their lawyer Krzysztof Piesowski – also a screenwriter on the Trilogy. On Zanussi and TOR, see Stok, p. 144.
3. Emma Wilson, Memory and Survival: the French Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, Oxford, European Humanities Research Centre, 2000.
4. Marek Haltof, The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski: Variations on Destiny and Chance, London, Wallflower, 2004, p. 110.
5. On France’s politics in the global film market see for instance Martin O’Shaughnessy ‘French Cinema: Counter-model, Cultural Exception, Resistances’, in J. Kapur and K. B. Wagner (eds), Neoliberalism and Global Cinema: Capital, Culture and Marxist Critiques, New York, Routledge, 2011.
6. Wilson, p. 119.
7. Haltof, p. 125.
8. For the definitive discussion of the vicissitudes of this problematic see Thomas Elsaesser, European Cinema Face to Face with Hollywood, Amsterdam, University of Amsterdam Press, 2005.
9. For an introduction to ‘Production Studies’, see http://widescreenjournal.org/index.php/ journal/issue/view/4.
10.Joseph Kickasola, ‘Kieslowski Crosses the Atlantic’, in Steven Woodward (ed.), After Kies ´lowski: The Legacy of Krzysztof Kieslowski, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009, pp. 165–7.
11.See for instance Charles Eidsvik, ‘Kieslowski’s Visual Legacy’, in Woodward (ed.).
12.Slavoj Žižek, The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski Between Theory and Post-Theory, London, BFI, 2001, pp. 75–7.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.