Movies As Metaphysics: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy

In the hands of a master, metaphysics and movies can make a marvelous mix. Ingmar Bergman, no longer directing films, was such a master. Robert Bresson was one also, as is Woody Allen. Metaphysical moviemakers are able to depict on celluloid those seductive but awesome infinitives: to be, to live, to love, to die.

To my pantheon of philosophical filmmakers I now add Polish author-director Krzysztof Kieslowski. With the appearance of Red (Cannes, May 1994), the final episode in his Three Colors Trilogy, Kieslowski exceeds himself with a film even better than his disturbing and haunting Blue (Venice Film Festival, September 1993) and the amusing but deeply touching White (Berlin Film Festival, February 1994). Though the 53-yearold Kieslowski has stated that the three films need not be viewed in the order of their creation and that each film can be viewed as an individual work, I suggest that each film and the entire trilogy is more accessible and more powerful when viewed in order.

Kieslowski has said, “Blue, white, red: liberty, equality, fraternity. . . . The West has implemented these three concepts on a political or social plane, but it’s an entirely different matter on the personal plane. And that’s why we thought of these films.”

As the three colors come together to form the French flag, the three stories coalesce into a powerfully filmed phenomenology of interpersonal relations. Although each film within the trilogy is about isolation and reconciliation, the overriding theme is love for others. In Kieslowski’s vision, unselfish love is the sign of salvation, the sign that the world need not be a cold, heartless dwelling—indeed the sign that there is a transcendent love that can touch us and redeem us.

In Blue (liberty) upper-middleclass Parisian Julie (Julitte Binoche) loses her husband and her young daughter in an auto accident. Her husband (Claude Denton) is a famous composer who had been working on a symphony to celebrate the opening of the West. Devastated by her loss, determined to live in isolation, and to avoid all emotional attachments, Julie moves to a working-class section of Paris seeking complete anonymity. Kieslowski frequently films her alone in a cavernous swimming pool, self- absorbed but seeking to wash away her memories and drown her identity. But the world keeps pressing in and Julie, who may have been the actual composer of her husband’s music, is drawn back into life by her husband’s assistant, Olivier (Benoit Regent), who loves her and also needs her help to complete the unfinished symphony. Two others also aid her re-entry into the world: Lucille (Charlotte Very), a prostitute living in Julie’s building, and Sandrine (Florence Pisnel), who Julie discovers was her husband’s mistress and is bearing his child.

In these relationships Julie reveals her profound goodness, indeed her heroic charity. Near the end of Blue there is a brilliant kaleidoscope of the people who have touched Julie and whom she has helped, including Sandrine’s unborn child seen through a sonogram. A moving scene in which Julie gently strokes a cross worn by the prostitute, Lucille, visually sums up the movie’s message. Kieslowski’s use of a subjective camera (reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s technique for forcing viewers to identify with a character) causes us to experience directly Julie’s isolation as well as her liberation through unselfish love.

White (equality) tells the story of Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a conscientious Polish hairdresser. His cold-hearted French wife Dominique (Julie Delpy) is suing him for divorce because of the sexual impotency that developed after they married. Having lost his beauty salons, his self-respect, and his wife, Karol ends up a homeless drifter in Paris. Eventually, he is saved from complete despair by a fellow Pole (Janusz Gajos), who smuggles him back into Warsaw in a trunk, and eventually he becomes a wealthy real estate mogul. Still passionately in love with Dominique, Karol fakes his own death to lure her to Warsaw for his funeral. After his “burial,” Karol reveals himself to her, makes love to her, and disappears shortly after. Dominique is arrested and imprisoned for what the police wrongly judge to be Karol’s murder, but what is actually a frame-up planned by Karol. At the end of the film, Karol is visiting Dominique in prison. From behind bars, Dominique signs to him that she loves him and is ready to remarry. White dramatizes Jesus’ dictum that the greatest love is shown by laying down one’s life for the beloved.

In Red (fraternity) Valentine (Irene Jacob), a student and part-time model, is having difficulty with her fiance whom we know only indirectly through her brief, halting phone conversations with him. One evening, Valentine accidentally strikes a dog with her auto and brings the lame animal to its owner, a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant). The judge is a misanthropic eavesdropper on the phone conversations of his neighbor. Valentine is stunned by the man’s “hobby,” and by his indifference to his injured dog, but gradually becomes fascinated with the man who may represent a failed god. A companion plot is interlaced with Valentine’s story: Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), a law student preparing for an important exam, discovers the infidelity of his fiancee Karin (Frederique Feder). What is especially strange about Auguste’s activities is that they duplicate what happened in the judge’s life forty years before.

Though their paths cross frequently, Auguste and Valentine don’t meet until the closing moments of the film when they are among seven survivors of a shipwreck. The meeting between Valentine and Auguste has been arranged by the judge who has re-entered the human community through his loving but non-romantic involvement with Julie. With the brief appearance of Julie, Olivier, Dominique, and Karol as other survivors of the shipwreck, Kieslowski sums up the trilogy as a kind of paean to love. At the end of the film, the judge, who is smiling, with a tear of joy streaming down his face, suggests God’s total involvement with those he loves.

The trilogy would lend itself to an Hegelian interpretation: Blue (isolation) as the thesis, White (reconciliation) as the antithesis, and Red (cosmic love) as the synthesis. But I also see the trilogy as a gloss on the Gospel. In each film there is a brief shot of an elderly person trying with great difficulty to place a bottle in a disposal machine. In Red the person is helped by Valentine and that simple gesture is a lovely illustration of Kieslowski’s vision of agape.

Besides the predominance of the title color in each film there is so much happening visually that each film warrants a lengthy essay. Images, rather than dialogue, will stay with viewers long after they have left the theater. With the Three Color Trilogy Kieslowski has secured a position not only as a great moviemaker but as a master metaphysician.


  • Rev. Robert E. Lauder

    Rev. Robert E. Lauder is a Brooklyn diocesan priest and professor of philosophy at St. John's University, Jamaica, New York.

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