Pop culture item consumed: Trois Couleurs , continuing my cultural preparations for our trip to Paris by viewing Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy dedicated to the colors of the French flag and the themes they represent. Kieslowski’s loosely linked triptych, Bleu (Blue), Bialy (White), and Rouge (Red) — in that order both chronologically and from left to right on the French flag — tells three powerful stories of human nature, creatively themed around the aspects of character represented by the colors: liberty, equality and fraternity. While Kieslowski was Polish, the trilogy is generally scripted in French and revolves around Paris, though many of the scenes occur in Switzerland and Poland.
Beverage consumed: A boozehound hall-of-famer, the French 75, an underappreciated gem if ever there was one. The Catherine Deneuve of cocktails, this elegant, timeless beauty combines several of my favorite flavors in a lethal nerve-gas compound of gin, champagne, lemon juice, and bar syrup, a cocktail so-named for its ostensible similarity in effect to the French 75-millimeter artillery gun. While I can personally vouch for the efficacy and character of the cocktail, I have my doubts about the Gallic gunplay. One might assume that naming a cocktail for a French artillery weapon is a bit like naming a nicotine patch for French women: “Les Femmes Francaises, the patch that makes you want to smoke more!” While it is admirable that the French were dwelling on mixology down in those foxholes, it is all-too-easy to imagine a battalion of Frogs confronting advancing Prussians along the Maginot Line, a French officer yelling the order to fire, and hundreds of field guns simultaneously squirting out gag banners exclaiming “Nous rendons!” (Google it.)
The French 75 is a fun drink for many reasons — mixing a batch in front of your friends confers a sense of regal authority — not least of which is that it’s a good way to test a bartender without coming off as a complete tool. Any skilled mixologist should know this drink, and if you order it and are met with a blank stare, it’s time to take your thirst and your coin up the street. It’s also fun to shake champagne in a cocktail shaker — go ahead, try it; I’ll wait here with a towel. I typically mix this at home with one part gin to three parts champagne, adding lemon juice and syrup to taste — I like them a little more gin-and-lemony, the missus prefers more champagne and sweetness. As with most such cocktails, you shouldn’t substitute sugar for bar syrup unless you’re in a foxhole defending France from German invaders, which should happen every 3.5 years based on historical averages. Granular sugar just doesn’t dissolve very well in cold champagne.
Fun side fact: Mrs. socalled and I are about as Bavarian-looking as it gets, especially me, even though we are not of German extraction. You commenters want to know what I look like? If you’re overly familiar with the Clint Eastwood/Telly Savalas/Don Rickles vehicle Kelly’s Heroes, then you will know to whom I’m referring when I tell you that I look like the German captain of the Tiger tank defending the bank in the town square. (Yeah, just let that soak in.) Anyhoo, when Mrs. socalled and I walk down the street in Paris, people sometimes just stop and openly gape at us. For years, I thought it was just me, but she reports the same phenomenon. Conclusion: Parisians constantly believe it’s only a matter of time until the Germans show up again. At some point I’m going to just walk into the prime ministry and demand their surrender in a thick Bavarian accent. At a minimum, I’m pretty sure we’ll score a free weekend stay at the Ritz.
Summary of action: At this stage of my cinephile existence, I will never catch up to Ranylt in terms of watching new films. While the intellectually ravenous professor works on discovering unseen films on a frequent basis, I too often comfort myself with a mac-and-cheese diet of beloved old friends such as Kieslowski’s Three Colors. I certainly do not fancy myself a connoisseur of French film, though I’m familiar enough with the usual suspects, both the classic New Wave and the recent return to more traditional commercial films — in sum, The 400 Blows vs. La Femme Nikita. (By the way, The 400 Blows is not nearly as exciting as the title suggests.)
Trois Couleurs is a modern staple of classic, satisfying French film. I tend toward the melancholy in preferences for film, music, and literature, and Kieslowski typically delivers in an epic way. On a deeper level, however, these films capture Kieslowski’s unequaled ability to combine a misanthropic gimlet eye for mankind with a paradoxical love of the human spirit and its astonishing capacity for healing and forgiveness. In forging this unparalleled triptych of existential contemplation, Kieslowski takes a starkly defiant approach to exploring the themes represented by the French flag. In Blue, the concept of “liberty” is realized through the liberation of a woman from her family by the death of her beloved husband and daughter in an auto accident. As Juliette Binoche — otherworldly in her pale beauty — attempts to isolate herself from all human contact, she finds that liberty has its limits, some imposed by our nature as social animals, some by the actions of those we allow inside our barriers.
The second film, White, focuses on “equality” through the eyes of a Polish immigrant to Paris, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski). Karol suffers a humiliating divorce from his French wife, played with brilliantly aggressive sexual malice by Julie Delpy, and the film focuses on his subsequent bottoming-out as a vagrant, penniless beggar, followed by his return to Poland, where he discovers a resolute, fearless hunger for vengeance that surprises him, a vengeance that transforms into an unusual form of closure with Delpy. This middle film carries most of the humor of the trilogy, and it’s no accident; Kieslowski the Pole saw in his own people a resilience and chippy spark in the face of daunting challenges, particularly challenges for which they are at least partially responsible, as with the Polish protagonist of White.
Closing the series, Red approaches “fraternity” by examining a random relationship between a young Everywoman (Irène Jacob) and an elderly retired judge, Kern, who happens to be an aural voyeur, listening in on the telephone conversations of his neighbors. When Jacob accidentally injures Kern’s dog, she locates Kern to return the beast and is drawn into his outwardly pathetic life, thereby learning the secret past driving his actions. Red’s finale closes the series with a dramatic sweep of destined events bringing the disparate characters together, a singular denouement for the three films revealing Kieslowski’s overarching belief that all humans are deeply connected.
As an overlay to this spirit, and deepening my love for his work, Kieslowski absolutely adores women, in all of their noble and not-so-noble states. Kieslowski refuses to shy away from depicting the female of the species in every conceivable state of emotion, and through his lens they become only more attractive and intriguing in embodying malice, disdain, grief, greed, and confusion. It doesn’t hurt that Kieslowski stocks his team with ringers. The primary female figures in the trilogy are Juliette Binoche as a grief-numbed widow of a philandering composer; Julie Delpy as the razor-clawed ex-wife of a heartbreakingly vulnerable Polish émigré; and Irène Jacob as an avatar of Western ennui, charged by fate with saving the soul of an isolated, aging voyeur. Three to draw to, indeed; pondering this collection, I always find myself linking the actresses with the films’ titles on a more superficial level as well: Binoche in her pale, icy-cool perfection; Delpy in her white-hot blonde sexuality; Jacob in her earthy, pulse-throbbing intensity.
Trois Couleurs is fundamentally different from what one might generally think of as “French cinema” (in itself an unfair generalization), mixing a brooding sensibility and an ominous expectation of doom with a wistful sense of humor and delighted appreciation of the beauty in the world. Maybe I haven’t seen enough French cinema, but I have never before or since seen anything like Kieslowski’s masterpiece series. On dark, cold nights of the soul, Kieslowski’s patchwork quilt of Polish sensibility, French actresses, and existential desperation is surprisingly, deliciously warm, and not to be missed.
Tastes like: Three parts bitter Gallic tears, one part crème de Juliette Binoche, one part sweet-natured Polish determination. Garnish with something flimsy from Irène Jacob’s lingerie drawer — preferably unlaundered, but like dirty martinis, that’s not for everyone.
Overall rating: 19 out of 20 stars.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at email@example.com.
Trois Couleurs: The Boozehound Cinephile / Ted Boynton
Boozehound Cinephile | March 7, 2008 | Comments ()