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March 7, 2007 |

By Miscellaneous | Guides | March 7, 2007 |

The difference between an artist and a hack may be as simple as the difference between asking questions and assuming that you have the answers. A hack — say, Paul Haggis — begins from the premise that truth is simple and knowable and arrogantly sets out to reveal it to his audience, like Moses descending Mount Sinai. An artist begins from the premise that truth is complex, mutable, and never fully knowable and opens an inquiry, or a set of inquiries, that may reveal some valuable, if provisional, portion of the truth. The work the hack produces has one “valid,” preordained meaning and leaves no room for interpretation or disagreement. The work of the artist usually begins with an intended reading, which may or may not change during the production of the work, but it is finally available to a variety of interpretations; the work is open-ended, like the process of inquiry itself.

Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski began his Trois Couleurs trilogy with a series of questions: Taking the motto of the French Republic — liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, brotherhood), which he associated with the colors of the tricolore, the French flag — Kieślowski and his longtime co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a prominent Polish attorney, set out to examine those abstract ideals in a contemporary context. Beginning work on the trilogy in 1992, just as the Maastricht Treaty created the European Union and only a year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kieślowski and Piesiewicz wanted to inquire into the role those revolutionary ideals might play in those changing times.

Beginning with explicit references to the unification of Europe, the trilogy often refers, however obliquely, to the idea of interdependency, of existing ties between characters and indeed, by implication, among all humanity. Throughout his career, Kieślowski constantly questioned the roles that chance, destiny, and free will play in our lives, examining the way that we may unknowingly be socially connected to others and the degree to which we are innately connected by simple virtue of our humanity and simultaneous coexistence. He was a moralist — not a proscriptive moralist trying to force a set of values down an audience’s throat, but a kind of moral inquisitor seeking to discover what values might be considered universal.

The first film in the trilogy, Bleu, asks if a person can ever be truly free, truly independent. Its protagonist, Julie de Courcy (Juliette Binoche), is the wife of a famous composer and mother to a beautiful little girl, both of whom die in the film’s opening minutes, when their car hits a tree on an almost treeless stretch of rural highway. The nature of the accident opens the door to Kieślowski’s ongoing questioning of causality — was it chance or fate that brought them there? And to what degree can Julie determine what her own life will be in the aftermath of such an event?

Along with Piesiewicz, the trilogy also continued Kieślowski’s collaboration with composer Zbigniew Preisner, who actually wrote all the music contained within Bleu in advance of its production, a reversal of the usual practice. Preisner’s music in many ways drives the film’s plot, as it is his composition that the film introduces as being written by Julie’s husband Patrice, an unfinished concerto for the ceremonies celebrating the unification of Europe. In a fury of abnegation, Julie tries to destroy Patrice’s work rather than deal with it, but it is inescapable. She hears the concerto in her head in moments of grief, and even the homeless musician outside her favorite café plays the tune on his little recorder. Patrice’s music is everywhere: It is memory itself. At moments, as emotion assails her, the concerto rises and the image suddenly fades out to black (or, when the feeling is most intense, blue) before fading back in for the scene to continue. It’s a brilliant tactic, using a piece of film vocabulary that usually signals the end of a scene as a way of conveying a character’s subjective experience. It’s as though her pain is so great that the film itself can’t bear it.

Her loss too great to comprehend, let alone endure, Julie seeks to move on by cutting all ties to her former life. She returns to her maiden name, Vignon, and tries to lose herself in Paris’ bustling fifth arrondissement. She furnishes her small apartment spartanly, with few chairs — she’s not expecting guests — and her daughter’s mobile of blue glass beads, which serves as her only reminder of her family.

Julie hardens herself, attempting to cultivate an indifference to life, to separate herself not merely from her loss but from all emotion. By refusing all ties and obligations, she thinks she can live in total freedom — liberté — from connections that might cause her further pain. “I don’t want any belongings, any memories. No friends, no love. Those are all traps,” she says, but she cannot escape her feelings any more than she can her connections to others. As a counterpoint to Julie’s futile quest, we see that her mother truly lives without connections — lost in the fog of Alzheimer’s, she mistakes Julie for her aunt Marie-France, who has apparently been dead for some years. This, Kieślowski implies, is the nightmare of a life absent connections — without them, how would we find meaning?

Julie’s experiment fails: She finds that life demands engagement. Even her deliberate attempts not to involve herself in the lives of others backfire, as when her refusal to sign a petition to force out her downstairs neighbor for moral turpitude causes the neighbor to see her as a friend. Later, as will also happen in Rouge, Julie finds out important information pertaining to her life through a news report — another sign of interconnectedness — that was deliberately arranged to provoke her response. Old acquaintances and new obligations continue to force themselves upon her, driving her to confront her past, her loss, and the hold that its legacy will continue to have over her.

Kieślowski wrote Bleu with Binoche in mind — he told her agent he wouldn’t make the film if she couldn’t star — and it’s easy to see why. Binoche is among the most beautiful actresses in the world, yet she has a quality that is almost unique among their number: It’s rare that the faces of beautiful women are truly expressive, but Binoche, who speaks as little as possible in Bleu and never about her feelings, is able to make herself entirely transparent, to communicate everything that Julie is trying so hard to deny and to hide, as well as her struggle to do so. Not having familiarized us with her or her family prior to their accident, Kieślowski depends entirely on Binoche’s performance to draw us in emotionally, and she does so with heartbreaking restraint.

Blanc, the trilogy’s second and slightest film, addresses the concept of equality by examining a romantic relationship in which it is entirely lacking, one in which the scales must be balanced. Equality here isn’t some noble ideal: It means revenge. The film opens with the arrival of its protagonist Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) at a Parisian courthouse; his younger, more attractive wife, Dominique Vidal (Julie Delpy), has requested a divorce because he’s impotent — theirs is an unconsummated or “white” marriage. In the courtroom, Karol specifically invokes the notion of égalité, asking if the court is giving Dominique preferential treatment because he’s a foreigner and doesn’t speak the language. The reason for his impotence is never specified, but it appears that Karol is impaired by his feelings of inferiority to Dominique and to the French in general.

Initially, Karol is a pathetic figure, emasculated and likely cuckolded by Dominique, without money or friends in a foreign city where he cannot speak the language, yet our pity for him is leavened with humor. The short, squat Zamachowski has a childlike quality that dimly recalls Chaplin’s Little Tramp (“Karol” is the Polish equivalent of “Charlie”), and his situation, even at its bleakest, plays as black comedy. The film’s humor emerges more fully as Karol’s fortunes change: In the film’s first half, its tone, as set by Preisner’s score, often retains a hint of melancholy even when events are comical; in the second half, Preisner introduces the lighter, more cheerful rhythms of a tango, which reoccur throughout the remainder of the film.

Blanc begins in Paris, but the bulk of its story takes place in Warsaw, home to both Karol and Kieślowski himself. A chance meeting with another Pole gives Karol an opportunity to travel home, and as Julie did, he takes a single emblem of his life before, a plaster bust of an 18th-century maiden that reminds him of Dominique. Once back in Warsaw, he embarks on a series of schemes intended to improve his fortunes and win back Dominique. In the newly capitalist Poland, criminal enterprise abounds, and soon the unprepossessing little man is involved in money laundering and shady land deals, competing with and — shockingly — outsmarting the local gangsters. He uses his ill-gotten loot to build a minor import/export empire, all the while developing his complex and highly unorthodox scheme to balance the scales with Dominique. Initially a hapless putz, Karol gradually becomes the master of his fate.

In an interview, Kieślowski said the film’s real subject was humiliation, and indeed the first appearance of the color white comes when a pigeon shits on Karol’s overcoat. His situation can be read as an allegory of Poland’s impotence in Western Europe at the time: In the early 1990s, Poland was just beginning to rebuild its government and economy after decades of Soviet rule, and it could not yet compete with the powerhouse economies of the West, nor would Poland be welcomed into the then-nascent European Union for another decade. Blanc is suffused with the feeling of change within Poland and with outward signs of both new freedom and new corruption and violence. “These days you can buy anything,” is a regular refrain.

The trilogy’s final film, Rouge, opens with a phone call, traced from its inception in England through the wires running under the Channel and all the way to Geneva, where we see that the line is busy at the other end. Rouge is all about connections, both those that are missed and those that are inevitable, so phones are symbolic of both communication and frustration, and throughout the film, electronic devices, especially phones, often betray the characters.

In Rouge, Kieślowski gives us a parallel woman and man — the neighbors Valentine Dussaut (Iréne Jacob) and Auguste Bruner (Jean-Pierre Lorit), both of whom are in moribund relationships with unreliable partners — and a parallel of youth and age — in judicial student Auguste and the retired judge Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who may be intended as the same man at different points in his life or simply as two men with many commonalities who display the different paths a life can take. In looking at those paths, Kieślowski suggests that any is potentially changeable, that a second chance is always possible. As Kieślowski scholar Annette Insdorf observes in her DVD commentary, throughout the trilogy, Kieślowski posits a compensatory universe in which negative events are balanced by positive ones.

As in the other films, Preisner’s music sets the tone — for the tragedy of Bleu, he wrote a grand concerto; for Blanc’s dark comedy, a tango; for the complexly layered Rouge it’s a bolero, which Insdorf describes as “basically the development of a theme … that keeps repeating and accumulating,” a parallel of the film’s visual and thematic construction.

The issue here is fraternité, or brotherhood, and what Kieślowski is examining is a continuation of what he explored in Bleu — having seen that it is impossible to live a life totally free of obligations to others, he’s looking at just what those obligations might be. He begins with a character who feels obligation very heavily: When Valentine accidentally hits a dog with her car, she picks up the bloody, limp body and places it in her back seat, then sets out to find the owner. He turns out to be Kern, an elderly man who lives alone and has no interest in the dog’s injury, so she takes it to a veterinarian herself and later returns to try to convince Kern to take his dog back. In doing so, the open, guileless young woman enters his misanthropic world.

Kern is a retired judge, so sick of seeing the worst of humanity that he has removed himself from the world entirely. In outline, he’s a combination of Julie’s isolation and Karol’s impotence, sitting in his comfortable suburban home with no company but his neighbors’ private conversations, which he eavesdrops on via an electronic surveillance system. Horrified at his invasion of their privacy, Valentine tells him he must stop, but she doesn’t judge him for his voyeurism (which, not incidentally, mirrors the voyeurism of a movie audience); rather she pities him for having arrived at such a sad state. Over time, an unexpected filial intimacy builds between the judge and Valentine, and the films’ isolated figures are revealed to be inextricably linked.

One of Kern’s neighbors, it turns out, is the girlfriend of Valentine’s neighbor Auguste, whom Valentine has never met, though they are constantly just missing each other. Auguste himself, it happens, is studying to be a judge, and many of his experiences, both as a student and as a lover, are gradually shown to parallel events in Kern’s life.

Kern explains that all of life is guided by chance, that had he been born into other circumstances he certainly would have become a criminal. It is this sense of the contingent, of the myriad possibilities of life, that gives Kieślowski’s work a particular dramatic frisson and maintains the credibility of his films even when coincidences pile up in a way that seems improbable — Kieślowski sees the universe as working this way, and he’s able to make us believe in it as well, at least for the length of a film.

The situations in Rouge are exaggerated versions of experiences we’ve all had — how often have we been surprised to learn that a new friend or lover had attended the same concert or frequented the same bakery, that their lives had come within an inch of touching ours, perhaps many times, before finally we knew them? — and they point to one of the trilogy’s central motifs. Call it fate or mere coincidence, it hardly matters. There is a connection that we all share, whether we’re aware of it or not, as much with the other concertgoers or bakery patrons as with the one we eventually became close to. It could have been any of them who became part of our lives, and perhaps some of them have in ways we don’t even realize. In Bleu, Julie visits a courthouse in search of a woman she’s never met, though they are connected intimately, and she opens the door to a courtroom, finds it’s the wrong one, and walks away. The courtroom is the one where Dominique and Karol’s divorce is being adjudicated, and we see the scene again, from Karol’s point of view in Blanc.

There is a minor figure that reoccurs throughout the trilogy in different forms: a black-clad person, stooped with age, who reaches up to insert a bottle into a recycling bin. In Bleu, Julie sees the old woman but doesn’t really notice her, so focused is she on achieving detachment from the world. In Blanc, Karol laughs at the old man, amused by his persistence at such an insignificant task. But in Rouge, when Valentine sees the woman, she walks over, takes her hand, and guides the bottle into the bin. She recognizes, as the others do not, at least at those points in their stories, the obligations of interconnectedness.

Upon the release of Rouge, Kieślowski, only 53 years old, announced his retirement from directing (sadly, he died less than two years later). He declared that he had said what he had to say and didn’t want to repeat himself. He called the film a summation of his work, but it’s more, even, than that. In all his films, Kieślowski acted as a moral philosopher, seeking out basic truths in complex, harsh, and often dehumanizing situations. What he sought, what drove him on, was nothing less than the desire to find a design for ethical living. What he found was the same basic value that many thinkers have arrived at: Be kind. As a philosophy, it is no more than fragmentary, but its essential validity is difficult to argue, and the diligence of Kieślowski’s lifelong inquiry gives it the weight of a truth hard-won.

Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]


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