THREE COLORS TRILOGY. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Magnum Opus

The screech of tires and the crunch of metal. A car crashes violently into a tree.

Karolina Chymkowska

30 May 2024

THREE COLORS TRILOGY. Krzysztof Kieslowski's Magnum Opus

WARNING! Text reveals plot details and endings of the films.

Three Colors: Blue. Freedom

The screech of tires and the crunch of metal. A car crashes violently into a tree. Through the open door, a light, colorful beach ball falls out and is carried away by the wind. This lightness recurs in the first part of the film during the most emotionally challenging moments. A delicate feather from a pillow sways to the rhythm of a woman’s breath, whose world has just collapsed. A light tulle scarf serves as an effective armor: Julie dons the mask of an impersonal professional, issuing orders to a lawyer.

Three Colors: Blue Juliette Binoche

Dependencies and relationships are sources of memories. And memories are sources of pain. Pain anchors us; as long as we suffer, we cannot be free. Julie attempts to completely cut herself off from places, people, and events. She wants every trace of who she was, who she loved, to disappear. Let the sheet music of compositions vanish. Let the accidentally found lollipop in a blue wrapper disappear. Let the past fade into non-existence, and she, Julie—lost, carried by the wave of events, hurt—may regain the freedom of being solely herself. Herself without anyone. Even if it means hiding the memory of her husband’s kisses under the kisses of another man. A clean, straight, swift cut. Knuckles torn to blood on the roughness of a wall. I didn’t disappear. I am. I will live. I can’t cry, but at least I will live.

Julie will quickly realize how illusory this freedom she seeks is. The past seems to attack her from all sides. It returns in fragments, in snippets. It appears unexpectedly in various guises. The more Julie distances herself from others, the more they seem to need her.

Three Colors: Blue Juliette Binoche

Suffering, in one way or another, is common to us all. To be freed from it requires strength. Is true strength possible without unity, at least metaphorically, with those who have experienced what we have, and directly, with those who have marked our lives—and whose lives we have marked? We do not and will never function in a vacuum, no matter how hard we try. History, memory, and the future will not allow it. A single note is just a flash in time. A series of harmoniously resonating notes creates a symphony.

Julie’s indifference is an artificial construct and contains a falsehood she herself is unaware of for a long time. This is evident in the scene where, hearing banging on all the doors in the stairwell, she is the only one who decides to peek out—though, paradoxically, no one banged on her door. The doors slam shut behind her, she can’t return to her apartment, to her cocoon, to the consciously chosen isolation. This alone puts her in the position of at least an observer, if not yet a participant. Music returns—it doesn’t let her forget.

Three Colors: Blue Juliette Binoche

And as for those memories Julie tries so hard to escape from… did they really look like she remembers? Is there a truth she missed and can still find, save? Astonished, she discovers that someone else can suffer like her. From the same reason as her. She is not alone in this suffering. She has a choice, of course: she can close her eyes, withdraw, pretend she saw nothing. Or—symbolically reach out to the shadow of her deceased husband, make peace with the memory of him. And not only live but move forward. Love someone. Create something new where there were supposed to be only ruins. Julie thought that only cutting off relationships with others would give her the desired freedom, safely placing her in a bubble of indifference. Yet true liberation lies in opening up to the one relationship she would rather not know exists. This is not easy and requires much strength. And Julie finds that strength within herself. This is the moment when she can stop running, start shouting, running, demanding something. The comfortable illusion shatters, but along with it, the artificially built barriers fall.

It’s okay, Julie. You can finally cry.

If I have the gift of prophecy
and can fathom all mysteries
and all knowledge,
and if I have a faith that can move mountains,
but do not have love,
I am nothing…

Three Colors: White. Equality

In all three parts of Kieślowski‘s trilogy, there is an old, infirm person throwing a bottle into a glass container. Julie in Blue doesn’t notice the elderly lady at all. It’s a stage where she is practicing her new concept of freedom understood as cutting off from everyone and everything. Valentine in Red rushes to help in the spirit of fraternity. And Karol Karol in White… smiles sardonically.

Three Colors: White Zbigniew Zamachowski

For him, equality means loneliness: everyone has to fend for themselves. Equality also means the right to revenge: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Equality is not owed to anyone, it’s not obvious. You have to fight for it yourself, show that you deserve it. Maybe then they’ll look at you as a human being, not as a pest. As long as appearances are kept, it doesn’t matter how you created them. The end justifies the means. And who would want to look deeper? The outer facade is enough. Equality, chance, justice, the right to a voice. One big, disappointing farce.

It started well, or at least he once thought so. A beautiful, smiling woman, reaching out to him. The promise of eternal happiness. Love… the illusion of love. Did they ever understand each other? Did they ever really know each other? Did they ever really talk, considering she’s so sure she’ll mold him into her image, and he trusts her supposed sweetness and coquetry? This same woman doesn’t hesitate to humiliate Karol in the courtroom. To blackmail him. To condemn him to a life of misery. Their misunderstanding goes much deeper than just language.

Three Colors: White Janusz Gajos

No wonder Karol is so afraid of this woman. His body and mind run away from opening up to her. Only his foolish heart remains naive and exposes itself to a blow, as it usually does. Karol must speak in the language she understands. Equality, yes, they will then be equal—in manipulation, ruthlessness, and relentlessness.

Before that happens, there is a return to the tender bosom of a longing homeland and to the friendly, familiar faces of compatriots welcoming the prodigal son with bread and salt. After this welcome, beaten and limping, Karol is overjoyed: finally home, on his own turf, with his brother. Everything can start anew and on his own terms. That is, after he gets some sleep. Because he hasn’t slept for months. Or at least it feels that way.

Mikołaj… everyone suffers.

Yes… but I wanted less.

Such is fate. What to do. At most, enjoy what you have. A cliché among clichés, but in the hardest moments, don’t we need the simplest consolation? A bit of hope, even if it’s framed in a truism. Everyone suffers. Equality.

Three Colors: White Julie Delpy

Mikołaj, upon first meeting Karol at the Paris station, sensed in him a desperation akin to his own. But what did she, Dominique, sense at those memorable hairdressing fairs in Budapest? Something drew them to each other, something connected them. Something that became a source of disappointment for her. Dominique sensed in Karol the same ruthlessness that characterized herself. And she was unpleasantly surprised when she didn’t find it later. She felt deceived. To reach her again, Karol must awaken that ruthlessness within himself once more. And he does, doing side deals, getting involved in shady financial schemes, using inside information, and blackmail. How proud she would be of him. She would recognize the man she expected. An equal manipulator. But this time, he is on top, and she is the victim. He won this game, but at what cost? Over whom does he weep: himself for becoming what he has become, or over her, the woman he ultimately lost?

They were probably never so close as at this moment of parting.

Three Colors: Red. Fraternity

Of the three heroines of Kieślowski’s trilogy, Valentine is the youngest and most innocent. She has nothing to do with the cruel Dominique. Perhaps Julie was like her when she was twenty. Valentine looks at life with simplicity and hope. She has not yet experienced tragedy or deep sadness.

Three Colors: Red Irène Jacob

She hasn’t yet moved beyond the stage where everything is seen in clearly defined colors. Something is right or not, just or not, black or white. In her world, there are no grays, but there are plans, actions, and the future. Similarly, she judges others, automatically projecting her cheerful, sincere, and untainted emotions onto them.

For balance, among all the colors, Red is the most complex, multifaceted, and ambiguous in interpretation. It touches on several motifs present in the previous two films, acting as a closing bracket for them, and additionally explores new ones such as law, ethics, the power to pass judgments, moral ambiguity, and the lesser evil. In my personal opinion, however, the most interesting aspect is the motif of symbolic time travel and the chance to take a new path, to correct mistakes. This is a theme that fascinated Kieślowski and which he tackled repeatedly in his films, most meticulously in The Double Life of Veronique. In Red, he went a step further—the elderly judge Kern and the young lawyer Auguste simultaneously are and are not the same person.

In one temporal plane, there are four people: Valentine, who hits the judge’s dog with her car; Judge Kern, seemingly indifferent to the fate of the animal; Auguste, living next door to Valentine yet they have not met until now, and finally Karin, Auguste’s unfaithful partner.

Kern’s and Auguste’s stories overlap. The law code book opening to a crucial page, the keepsake pen given by a woman who turns out to be unfaithful, even the indifferent attitude towards the dog. Auguste walks in the judge’s footsteps—up to a certain point, he is him. For Kern, Valentine is both the daughter he never had and the woman he never met. The judge is tormented by the possibility of influencing human lives: he had it and used it. He withdrew when the weight of responsibility overwhelmed him, consciously adopting the role of an observer, essentially a voyeur—someone who watches, knows, and draws conclusions but does not act. How far does the effect of what we do reach, what decisions we make, do we create circumstances whose consequences we will feel someday in the future? How blind are the judgments of fate? When the judge re-engages in the course of events, will he bring the same fate upon himself and others?

Three Colors: Red Irène Jacob

Valentine has a habit of invoking the motif of destiny and purpose. If I hadn’t taken that break, we would never have met, she says to her boyfriend. I think I know why I won that money, she comments when she unexpectedly, unlike ever before, wins a handful of coins in a slot machine. She plays every day, usually without success, but she just needs money for the vet bill for treating the dog she hit—and the money appears. The judge, adhering to his principle of total passivity, did not participate in saving the dog’s health, but he decides to anonymously settle the bill. This is the first signal that his passivity will ultimately prove ineffective, just as Julie’s isolation did in Blue. Recall that the first step back for Julie is the moment when the locked door prevents her return to the sanctuary of her own apartment. The judge firmly advises Valentine to leave the door open when she leaves. This coincidence is by no means accidental.

– You don’t want her?

– I don’t want anything.

– So maybe you’ll stop breathing?

– Good idea.

Reflecting on his judicial career, Kern is uncertain whether he operated on the side of good or evil. Passive eavesdropping is, in his opinion, easier because he more or less knows where the truth lies. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Valentine’s innocent gaze sees something entirely different from Kern’s bitter perspective. Truth does not have a single face, even if we seem to have all the data to grasp it. So does it even exist? Or does it take different forms depending on who it concerns? Valentine sees love, while Kern sees the possibility of tragedy. Perhaps both are wrong. Perhaps both are right.

Three Colors: Red Irène Jacob Jean-Louis Trintignant

Ultimately, the judge concludes that claiming the right to indicate the truth is an act of arrogance. And he re-engages in the rhythm of life by reporting himself. At the basket with newly born puppies, with a glass of peach brandy in hand, an unexpected… fraternity is born between Valentine and the judge.

And what about Auguste? Will he manage to correct the mistakes of the man whose path he follows?

Valentine and Auguste pass each other at arm’s length, almost brushing against each other. She enters, he has just left. She disappears around the corner, he emerges from it. They stand back to back in the same room—he only has eyes for Karin, while her head is occupied with Michel. It’s still not the moment. Not the place. Not the point in time… Auguste discovers that his beloved is cheating on him. His experiences are identical to those described by Kern. The woman Kern portrays: blonde, radiant, dressed in light clothing, with a long neck—immediately brings to mind Dominique from White… She died in an accident, so he never had a chance to reconcile with her, forget and close the chapter. Auguste has a chance to do it for him, but by getting involved in Valentine’s life, has the judge perhaps awakened a dormant demon? He ran from this for so long. He allowed himself to open his heart again. Will fate overwhelm him once more with consequences and push him back into defensiveness?

Valentine’s face, against a red background, is visible in profile, exactly as on the advertising billboard where she pretended to be sad. Her emotions this time are deep and real.

Meanwhile, tears stream down the judge’s face. Twisted paths have straightened. Mistakes have been corrected, and his destiny will be fulfilled by someone else.

At last, he is free.

Every beginning, after all, is only a continuation…

Karolina Chymkowska

Karolina Chymkowska

In books and in movies, I love the same aspects: twists, surprises, unconventional outcomes. It's an ongoing and hopefully everlasting adventure. When I don't write, watch or read, I spend my days as a veterinary technician developing my own farm and animal shelter.

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