Nearly thirty years ago the Venice Film Festival premiered Three Colors: Blue, the first installment in a trilogy that ranks among the greatest cinematic achievements of the twentieth century. With Blue, along with its companion pieces White and Red, being re-released in brilliant new restorations, it’s an opportunity to appreciate just what made these films so outstanding, and to contemplate what we’ve lost, both artistically and politically, over the intervening decades.
First, a primer: These three films take their names, and their color palettes, from the French flag, and each is ostensibly a meditation on the concepts those colors embody: liberty, equality, and fraternity. In Blue, Juliette Binoche gives one of her finest, most restrained performances as a woman trying to forge a new life following the deaths of her husband and young daughter in a car accident. White follows the scheming efforts of a Polish ne’er-do-well (Zbigniew Zamachowski) to get revenge on the French bride (Julie Delpy) who ruined his life. And Red chronicles the unlikely friendship between a fashion model (Irene Jacob) and a retired judge (Jean-Lous Trintignant).
These prosaic descriptions of narrative, of course, hardly do justice to the richness and resonance of the films, which tackle eternal themes through character and incident in a way that’s utterly serious without ever veering towards pedantry or pretension. They’re crafted with precision and poetry in equal measure, utilizing cinematic technique in original and surprising ways without indulging in style for its own sake. And they capture, in more ways than one, a moment in both real and reel history when even the most jaded were tempted into thinking that things would eventually be okay.
Three Colors was the premature capstone to the career of the Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski, who started out as a documentarian during Communist rule. Eventually, the story goes, he realized that he could only truly access intimate truths through fiction, and his early features such as 1979’s Camera Buff and 1985’s No End engaged in social and political critique as much as possible under the repressive regime. Kieslowski always swore that he was not a political filmmaker, however, and he drifted into more metaphysical territory, most clearly with the ten-part television series Dekalog, which based each episode on one of the Ten Commandments, as they were embodied in Solidarity-era Poland.
Dekalog earned Kieslowski global renown, which meant access to international financing for his 1991 feature The Double Life of Veronique, and for the Three Colors trilogy after that. At the same time, the end of the Cold War opened up previously unavailable possibilities, including filming in Paris (for Blue) and Geneva (for Red). An overnight success after thirty years, as the saying goes, Kieslowski was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay (alongside writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz) for Red.
Kieslowski had announced his retirement from filmmaking following the premiere of Red, but it’s impossible to know if he would have held to that. Less than a year after the Oscar ceremony where he lost to Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) and Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), he suffered a massive heart attack and died during open-heart surgery. He was only 54 years old. (If he were alive today, he’d be a year and a half older than Martin Scorsese and four years younger than Ridley Scott.)
It would be an exaggeration to say that serious European art cinema died with Kieslowski, but it’s impossible to deny that it became an endangered species. The sort of filmmaking that dares to engage seriously with ideas, that combines philosophy with storytelling, and that refuses to wink or pander to its audiences, almost never reaches American movie screens. The tradition of Bergman, Godard, and Kieslowski has petered out. Even stalwarts such as Werner Herzog, Michael Haneke, and the Dardenne Brothers are likely nearing the end of their careers, with very few promising torch-bearers in the wings.
If such successors do exist, it’s almost impossible to know, since the collapse of American theatrical distribution of foreign films means that those viewers unable to attend film festivals are exposed only to a thin, watered-down portion of international cinema. Specialized streaming services such as OVID and, especially, MUBI, do what they can, but the prospect of the Three Colors films receiving the sort of exposure today that they got in the 1990s is unimaginable. (One hates to give such credit, but Harvey Weinstein and Miramax Films did sometimes do the Lord’s work…)
If all this sounds like the ravings of an old man yelling at a cloud, I hope Kieslowski might relate. He once said, in the 1995 documentary Krzystof Kieslowski: I’m So-So, “I have one good characteristic. I am a pessimist. I always imagine the worst. To me the future is a black hole.” This makes it all the more remarkable that the Three Colors films were intended to celebrate, or at least commemorate, a new era of European unity following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
By taking inspiration from the French Revolution’s ideals, and setting his stories in locations spanning Europe, Kieslowski clearly intended to communicate the renewed connections between people previously separated by ideology. This is never clearer than in the final moments of Red, which I won’t spoil for anyone who hasn’t experienced them.
And yet, here we are, three decades later, with Russian slaughter in Ukraine, quasi-fascist rule in Hungary and Poland, and the United Kingdom literally resigning its membership in the European community. That, to me, is the most poignant aspect to revisiting these magisterial films. Even a pessimist raised under the specter of totalitarian repression, whose nation had served as the bloodfields of decades of war, seemed poised to acknowledge that there might be hope for the future after all. And, for a while, there was.
There still may be, and with any luck, artists worthy of the task will be there to chronicle it.
(The Three Colors trilogy opens at Cinema 21 on Friday, September 2.)
ALSO THIS WEEK:
A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff: The brainchild of Portlanders Alicia Jo Rabins and Alicia Rose, this unique, genre-bending examination of Madoff, his infamous scams, and his impact on the Jewish community has its official Portland premiere. The fact that such a personal, quirky, and adventurous work has been acquired for theatrical (and on-demand) release is a stunningly pleasant surprise, one well-earned by the passion and intelligence both Alicias brought to bear. A musical-documentary hybrid inspired by Rabins’ experience during a songwriting residency in 2008 New York, it’s a commentary on greed, Judaism, and, well, America in general. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Rabins, Rose, and producer Lara Cuddy. (Thursday, Sept. 1, at the Hollywood Theatre.)
The Good Boss: Javier Bardem stars in this dark, unfunny Spanish comedy that embodies some of the gripes I enumerated above. He plays the owner of a scale factory (cue strained metaphors about justice and balance), who thinks of himself as a paternal figure to his workers, but is actually quite an ass. From seducing his young female interns, to treating a disgruntled ex-employee as nothing more than a nuisance, to exploiting his supposed friendship with one of his managers, Bardem’s character never exhibits a shred of conscience. And yet, in the manner of some unenlighted 1950s sex farce, we’re supposed to sympathize with this harried capitalist when all his deceptions and plots start to unravel. Sorry, buddy, it’s not even fun to laugh at your misfortune. (Opens Friday, Sept. 2, at Living Room Theaters.)