Dir. Krzystof Kieslowski. Starring Juliette Binoche, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Irene Jacob
Not since I wrote about Persona about eighteen months ago have I felt so reluctant to commit to what I think about a movie (or, indeed, three of them). Kieslowski died in 1996 and never lived to see the new millennium or the way the Internet evolved from lily to rafflesia, and yet the Three Colors Trilogy rightly predicts what people will cling to when the world shifts under their feet. In Blue, Julie (Binoche) tries to destroy her past, and reasonably so, for her recent past is intensely tragic. All the same she discovers that the mere fact of her existence disturbs the world around her as a raindrop disturbs an ocean. White, which addresses connection less than its siblings and which is thus the least interesting, still recognizes the vulnerability of people who have rent themselves from one another. And Red, barring even its oddly neat ending, is sympathetic because it is able to trace a relationship from disgust to affection. If you’re looking for a movie of the moment, this is it. People use handheld phones with enormous antennae and the Cold War has only just ended, but here is the statement of how people work through the isolation caused by an ever-changing planet.
Kieslowski depicts Europe on the verge of an uncharted century. When Patrice de Courcy died in a car wreck, he had been commissioned to complete a “Song for the Unification of Europe,” which would be performed simultaneously in twelve cities by twelve orchestras. The film, so intimate and focused on Julie, occasionally listens in on the grandiose strains of the score for this new piece for a new time; it is the only source of bombast in a picture which otherwise eschews it at every turn. White becomes a geopolitical allegory the longer it stretches on; France, stood for by Dominique (Julie Delpy), humiliates the Polish Karol (Zamachowski). In this vision France is stylish, haughty, and aloof, and Poland is its impotent supplicant. Poland is not content with its state of affairs, though, and in the end strikes back to humble France. Red lacks the overt statements of European togetherness as found in Blue and White, but in its famous ending (I realize that this goes against my entire ethos as a moviegoer but if you don’t want to know about how Red ends stop reading now and skip a bit so as not to ruin the moment), a ferry bound for England from France goes down, and only seven passengers survive, of whom six are shown: three French citizens, two Swiss citizens, and one Polish citizen. No one nation survives alone in the new Europe, the one so threatened by the storms crashing upon it. And at the same time, the emphasis really remains on “uncharted.” This new Europe is totally unafraid of terrorism, for example. It does not think overmuch about the United States, which will truly emerge the greatest power on the planet and use that power to create neverending war in the Middle East and accelerate the process of global climate change. The new Europe is as lily-white as the old one, too.
I’m inclined to call Blue the best of the trilogy, maybe even because my little contrarian heart doesn’t want to indulge the power that the end of Red exerts a little too tidily. Blue has the single best performance of the three movies. Binoche in Blue belongs with the children of Forbidden Games and Sutherland in Don’t Look Now among the great portrayals of grief on film. There is a process in place to her grief which is not simply the tired five stages. In the wake of destruction she has survived, she creates concentric circles of destruction, tries to destroy what is within them, fails, and works outward. In the hospital, she breaks a window as a diversion so she can walk into a station to find enough pills to swallow to die. It’s a weak attempt, and it ends with the nurse in the station finding her and offering only sympathy. Over the course of the film, Julie decides to sell the giant house she lived in, and when she begins to talk with the stripper downstairs, Lucille (Charlotte Very), she considers moving out of the apartment she’s renting. She does her best to destroy the Song for the Unification of Europe, but finds that a copy has been rescued by a woman who guessed what Julie would do with the original score. Olivier (Benoit Regent), a musical collaborator who has long kept a place in his heart for Julie, is invited over for a night and shunned. Even a young man who tries to return a necklace to Julie from the scene of the wreckage is pushed aside. We find her more and more often in a shimmering amniotic swimming pool, doing laps by herself and perpendicular to the lanes.
Virtually all of this is reversed because it is impossible to cut oneself from everyone else unless you’re as dead as Julie’s husband and daughter, which is obvious but is made clear through two stunning visual elements. The first is the little mobile, made of little blue stones, that used to hang in Julie’s daughter’s room. She tries to tear it apart with her bare hands, but cannot bring herself to destroy this symbol of her daughter after just one yank at the strings. The second is the little family of mice she finds in her apartment. Kieslowski hones in on the mother, but especially features the naked newborns, which look like pink edamame and are obviously helpless. Two conflicting ideas explode in the viewer’s mind just as surely as they explode in Julie’s: one cannot abide vermin in a house, but the killing of anything that small and weak is abhorrent. Eventually Julie borrows an aggressive little tom from a neighbor, tosses him into the room where the mice are, and closes the door. It is this moment that the movie turns on, for much of Julie’s recovery seems to hinge on this revelation as much as any other: she has the power of death in her hands just as much as the leaking brake fluid underneath the car had that same power.
White is the movie I feel I should watch on its own when I revisit it, and it’s also the movie I want to revisit least. It simply doesn’t have the power of Blue, and it definitely doesn’t have the ambition of Red. Zbigniew Zamachowski is probably the most charismatic performer in any of these movies (though his performance falls short of Binoche’s, Jacob’s, Trintingnant’s…), and at his best there is a little hint of the Tramp in Karol Karol. In court, Dominique ends their marriage on the basis that he has been unable to consummate it. This would be shameful enough, but two further complications make it a nightmare exercise. The first is that his command of French is too weak to follow the fast pace the court moves at, and it seems as if decisions are made by the time he hears the last thing translated. The second is that Dominique is a great beauty, wearing her long hair down and messily applied lipstick we never see again. (That he runs a hair salon with her and is an award-winning stylist besides is not exactly helpful for any kind of macho image he’s trying to project.) Without a zloty, a passport, a wife, or a shred of remaining dignity, he stuffs himself into a suitcase and gets himself flown back to Poland from France, only to be stolen by a dodgy employee who assumes not unwisely that any suitcase that heavy has something good in it. Dumped unceremoniously on his home turf, Karol successfully, narrowly, and almost legally makes good.
What makes Karol interesting or sympathetic, and what Zamachowski does well at expressing, is the hard luck this character has to deal with. The man who slicks his hair back in homage to the mobsters of American cinema and plans out an absurd scheme to destroy Dominique is totally unlike the one who was brave and stupid enough to leave France in a steamer trunk. The fool in him, who was hopeful enough to get into the apartment he shared with Dominique and wait for her the morning after their divorce, who plays a tragic comb in the metro, is as dead as he makes himself seem. The fool sees Dominique from her jail cell, where she will doubtless be for some time after having been found guilty of his murder, but by then it is too late to rectify his foolishness. The man who plays at hardbitten cynicism and deceit as much as he actually is hardbitten and deceitful is not engaging enough to keep our interest. What I am most grateful for is that some wannabe American director (Damien Chazelle, fairly or unfairly, comes to mind first) has not decided he wanted to remake the movie for the States.
The Three Colors Trilogy predicts that everything will happen again as it has happened before, a circularity which eradicates the need for forgiveness or expectation. Life, ah, finds a way, as it does for Patrice. Though he dies in the first five minutes of Blue, we know that his affair with a young attorney named Sandrine (Florence Pernel) will bear him another child months after his death. Julie finds a sort of relief in this perpetuity, deciding to give the child as much as she can of the life he might have had if his father had lived. This prediction comes to full flower in Red, a movie which is almost disturbingly neat. The most famous example is the enormous blow-up of Valentine’s dismayed face on an advertisement, which comes down in a gust of wind not long before the shot is recreated more honestly after she is rescued from the ferry. But more striking, even down to the smallest events, we can see how Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), the young jurist who survives the sinking of the ferry alongside Valentine (Jacob), mirrors the life of Joseph (Trintignant). Both of them can recall losing their papers, receiving the wrong gift, being left by a girl they had put so much stake into. (Both of them abandon their dogs and decide that they are unwilling to get rid of their only genuine companions, which ultimately puts both in harm’s way.) Until the moment when Joseph calls the weather girl who left Auguste, it’s possible to believe that Auguste is an extended series of flashbacks to the young Joseph; although the movie strongly suggests that Valentine and Auguste will fall for each other, it may not matter so much in the end. Another Valentine will appear to another Auguste, as she already has.
Red is a more beautiful movie on the whole than Blue, although if it has a single discrete advantage it is that Blue opens without the unforgettable nexus of speed and scale that Red does.
The shot of a wheel on the highway makes for a memorable and creative beginning. Watching the fingers hit numbers and the camera zoom left to follow the spinning wires of the now critically endangered landline telephone as it goes underwater, comes above again, and reflects itself in a single blinking button to be pushed by someone many miles away is staggering. Of the films in the trilogy, the one that comes closest to explicitly considering the symbolism of the corresponding color on the French flag is Red. (I don’t know how serious any of the people who made these films were about actually connecting those elements to the film. It seems to me that this is a PR coup more than anything else, but should one choose to fish for meaning, I suppose one may fish in less fruitful waters than those.) Fraternité is at the heart of Red (and Blue) (and White too, really), and Kieslowski shows us what fraternité signifies for the normal person in the mid-’90s. (Or, in Joseph’s NSA-creepy listening efforts on his neighbors’ phones, the abnormal person as well.) Today it’s not so different. We would jump to one of those warehouses where the Internet lives, and we would feel our connection as feebly over social media as the characters of this film do over the phone. Next to each other, huddled in their blankets and soaking wet and lucky to be alive, Valentine and Auguste share the sort of nearness which is impossible to replicate and which is going extinct almost as quickly as the landline.