Saturday, August 6, 2011

Film Review - "Three Colors" Trilogy

Note: This review is spoiler-free for the most part, but the final few paragraphs contain some major ones. I've put a warning in bold before these paragraphs begin, so anyone who's never seen the films (and you should, as soon as possible) should stop there. Read on after the jump:

We as audiences are conditioned nowadays to expect certain things from film series: such as recurring characters and continuing narratives. So calling the "Three Colors" films (quite possibly the greatest film series I've ever seen) a trilogy may seem a bit odd. "Star Wars" this isn't, or "Lord of the Rings". It's better. These three movies aren't about narrative in the traditional sense, although their storytelling is actually quite conventional in many regards. Rather, they're three films connected by both theme and style to form a cinematic statement of uncommon richness and depth.

Each film is supposed to explore a different theme based off the colors of the French flag: blue for liberty, white for equality, and red for fraternity. And so they do, although often the theme is barely noticeable or else used as a springboard into other topics. "Blue", for instance, concerns a young woman named Julie (Juliette Binoche) whose husband and daughter are killed in a car accident. Soon after, she decides to cut off all ties with her former life.

She seeks freedom: liberty from all the painful memories she has of them. But burying the past is hard, and as the film goes on we see that isolation does not necessarily mean freedom. She becomes terrified of a family of rats living in her new apartment: creatures she insists she was never afraid of before. Whether this is a symptom of something deeper is never in doubt, even if the movie never states it explicitly. Many films concerned with broad themes prefer to be a bit ambiguous about whatever it is they're dealing with, but this isn't one of them. No, Julie's "freedom" has brought her fear and misery. Ultimately, "Blue" insists that only through our interactions with others can we truly be free.

This was my first experience with a Krzysztof Kieslowski film, and it's clear from the start that he is a master at his craft. "Blue" is a beautiful, sensual, and intoxicating film. It's breathtaking in its intimacy, and every scene is a wonder to behold. As for Binoche, she delivers a wonderful performance in every sense. This could not have been an easy role to play, as it requires both an enormous emotional range as well as an actress who can bring a sense of warmth to a fairly cold and distant character. She does both, and perfectly.

"White" is a completely different film: basically a dark comedy about a man (Zbigniew Zamachowski) whose wife (Julie Delpy) divorces him in humiliating fashion and leaves him financially ruined. When he gets back to his home country of Poland, he begins to put his life back together and plot an elaborate revenge against her.

 It's the least complex of the three, but in many ways the most satisfying (at least in a conventional sense). There's a clear hero and villain, and the dialogue is sharp and very witty. But wrapped up in this engaging story (which with a few minor changes could very easily pass for a standard caper flick) is an extremely interesting take on how obsession can fuel a person if it doesn't destroy him or her. It's my least favorite of the three, but not by much.

And finally we come to "Red", widely regarded as the best film of the trilogy. Although I personally prefer "Blue" ever so slightly, there's no denying this is an impressive conclusion to one of the finest film series I've had the pleasure of viewing. Our theme here is fraternity, but once again that's only a surface-level understanding.

There are many was to interpret these films, but I believe they're mostly about passion: rediscovering it ("Blue"), using it to lift yourself up ("White), and finally what happens if you either let it consume you or else don't discover it at all ("Red"). This final theme is exemplified in both main characters: Valentine (Irène Jacob) and Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

Valentine's a young woman not entirely sure what she wants from her life. She has a boyfriend, but he's a jerk and we suspect she knows it. She has a modeling career that she seems to find all right. But she doesn't have any real passion: about anything. She meets Kern one day after she runs over his dog. The judge initially tells her to go away, but little by little he begins to let her into his life: which mostly consists of eavesdropping on his neighbors. He's a cynical, somewhat bitter man (for reasons that will become apparent), and Valentine's attempts to understand him bring her closer to revelations about herself.

The performances from Jacob and Trintignant are the best in the series. No disrespect to Binoche in "Blue" (she's great), but these two actors imbue these characters with life and energy: which helps make this the most optimistic film of the three. Their friendship is tenderly portrayed and emotionally real, and the movie is a joy to watch because of it. It's a stunning conclusion to a trio of films that can only be described as one of the great masterpieces of cinema.

Okay, that was the spoiler-free review. Everything from here on out (in which I discuss some key plot points from "Red" as well as how the film's ending relates to the series as a whole) contains major SPOILERS. That includes the "other thoughts" section and the footnotes.

So, am I the only one who completely misinterpreted "Red" initially? Since the film is about Valentine and the judge, I wasn't entirely sure what the purpose of the scenes involving law student Auguste was. But as he and Valentine continued to just miss each other, I began to feel like I understood. And when the judge told his story, I was sure of it: Auguste was the younger version of the judge. Then the ending came along, confusing me completely

Well, some quick research indicates that I was wrong. The judge's name is apparently Joseph Kern (something I must have completely missed when I was watching the film), and he and Auguste are in fact separate characters. The fact that Auguste's situation is basically identical to the one described in Kern's tale is a coincidence: designed to further explore the movie's themes of connection (or lack thereof). I'm not entirely sure how I allowed myself to get so mixed-up, but it all makes perfect sense now.

As for the ending itself... I initially didn't care for it all that much, viewing it as an unnecessary attempt to provide some sort of concrete link between the three films in order to solidify their cohesiveness: as if anyone watching these movies today could doubt that they belong together. The thematic links are strong enough on their own, and as such the final montage of the various characters surviving the ferry crash seems to serve only to undermine the beautifully subtle quality of the series.

I still kind of feel that way, but a few days of reflection have brought me to the conclusion that it's actually a pretty strong ending in many ways. While it does lack subtlety, the themes explored in the films are so universal that perhaps it is necessary to show that the characters are linked by something else besides their individual situations. At the same time, it also functions as a perfect ending for the character of Valentine. The choice to end on an image of her (looking confused and more than a bit frightened) rather than on Kern crying is a conscious one, since Valentine's life can really go in any direction at this point: something you really can't say about any of the other characters in the trilogy.

Regardless of how one views the final few minutes, I don't think there's any question that these films are among the greatest ever made. They're graceful, beautiful, and simply astonishing in their thematic depth. In just over four-and-a-half hours, they touch on just about every conceivable emotion known to us: grief, determination, fear, anger, etc. I said it earlier and I'll say it again: the "Three Colors" films are arguably the best film series ever made. This critic certainly hasn't seen a better one.

Other Thoughts*

- There are many interesting contrasts between the first two movies. The most interesting to me is the difference between their tones: "Blue" is tragic but ultimately uplifting, while "White's" dark comedy eventually gives way to emotional despair.

- The films' use of color is also striking, and it usually has nothing to do with the themes it purports to explore. White snow as a symbol of rebirth, for instance.

- Kieslowski's direction is attention-grabbing in places (particularly during "Blue" and parts of "Red"), but equally important is the way he allows these films to breathe and flow naturally from one scene to the next.

- The ending also provides a timeline for the three films. "Blue" comes first, then "Red", and finally "White". This is a conscious choice, I think: as it nicely frames Valentine's own aimlessness between the more concrete ideas of "Blue" and "White".

- I will be tackling Kieslowski's "Decalogue" at some point as well, so stay tuned for that. It won't be until next year at the earliest, though.

All Three Films: A

* I don't usually put an "other thoughts" section in my film reviews, but I made an exception here because there were a few other points I wanted to make about these movies.

1 comment:

  1. I am embarrassed to say that I have never seen any of these movies. Great reviews, though!