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Concentrating on Kieslowski: second viewing of Three Colours Red

This post is not really for someone who hasn’t seen the film.

Kieslowski has failed in his film to show me his object! Even after a second viewing, a week after the first, I can’t honestly say I grasped the full meaning of the story. I’ve had to rely on the extras on disk 4 plus a range of reviews and comments such as these below:

Three Colors Red by Krzysztof Kieslowski

A complex, comprehensive review by Dan Schreider – he covers every angle – weaving in references to other director’s work. He says after summarising the plot: ” Throughout the film there is the sense that Kern is more than mortal.” I didn’t see that at all until the end of the second viewing.  It is not difficult to see, a certain way through the film, that the the young judge might be in some way connected to the past of retired judge Joseph Kerns, but not immediately. This is because the information contained in the conversations that model/student, Valentine, has with Kern are needed to come to this surmise. Part of the films technique is to propel the story of Augustine the newly appointed judge in the present of Valentine, rather than doing it in a past: Auguste drives a modern 4 x 4  and is living in the same street as Valentine. This suggests something akin to what happens in The Double Life of Veronique, where each Veronique/Weronik is aware of the other at a distance. My impression on first watching Veronique was that Kieslowski was trying to use quantum imagery: particles can connect with each other at great distances, which is highly counter-intuitive.

In Red a new life is acting out in every detail what has happened for another person. Kern talks with Valentine about his life near the end of the film. There is no sense in which he is remembering the past based on earlier cues in the film. It is established that they are both judges early on, which allows the guess that Auguste is Joseph Kern. It is finally confirmed in the late scene when Kern explains – and the camera swoops down to illustrate – he too dropped his law book. But even then, knowing The Double Life of Veronique, I was left wondering if this was akin to his notion that music is convergent: that is possible two people could compose exactly the same piece of music in different places or times because as Kieslowki has said, “…the notes are out there.” In Blue, this is toyed with over the tune the street musician is playing being like the concerto. (Though at one point sheet music for the unfinished music is thrown away….)

Kieslowski has said all his films are the same film. This is certainly true of Three Colours and Veronique, where such things as the fictional composer Von Budenmayer in Veronique appearing in Red, which is all explained well by Schreider.

Demystifying Three Colors: Red by Anthony Leong

While Auguste is crossing the street one night, the elastic holding his books together snaps, and the books fall onto the street. One book falls open on a certain page, which he reads, and his subsequent exam asks a question relevant to that material. The same thing happened to the older judge, only thirty-five years earlier and in an auditorium.

Yes, but in the film chronology this is only explained for Judge Kern right at the end of the movie. Until that point the two events have not been conjoined. Not pointing this out does not help in demystifying the film!

Schreider suggests something which helps tie in Blue, White and Red.  We learn from the extras on disc 4 that all three films were made at the same time (though not exactly how and how and when they were edited):

…given the time frames of the three films, the ending of Red could have happened before the ending of White, since that film takes place over the longest span of time — almost two years.

How many people might have seen, after watching all three in the correct order, that our hero went on to divorce his wife in the Paris courts, survive the ferry disaster and go on to success in post-communist Poland.

An Artistic Consideration: Kieslowski’s Judgement in Red

Red is very complex in its construction. I don’t know whether we’ll manage to get my idea across on the screen. [. . .] I’ve got everything I need to put across what I want to say, which is really quite complicated. Therefore, if the idea I’ve got in mind doesn’t come across, it meant that either film is too primitive a medium to support such a construction or that all of us put together haven’t got enough talent for it.
– Krzysztof Kieslowski, June 1993

So that is not too much a love-fest: from a review by Bryant Frazer:

Kieslowski’s harshest critics maintain that the films sap the sympathies of an irredeemably gullible audience. They accuse him of arranging for fashionable Frenchwomen to traipse through his very European landscapes, murmuring New Age platitudes, sleeping with sensitive New Age guys, and pouting for the camera. The director’s newest film, Red, the culmination of his Three Colors trilogy which also includes Blue and White, they insist, is overblown claptrap, substituting notions of Fate and Destiny for credible film-making. The new issue of Film Comment (November-December 1994) juxtaposes a rich essay on the trilogy by New York Daily News critic Dave Kehr with a tirade against it (by Phillip Lopate) which insists that the film’s supporters have been aesthetically “bamboozled.”

Critics have complained that Kieslowski’s films are reliant on coincidence and overblown ideas about Destiny, but it’s a moot complaint when the director is so honest about his role as grand manipulator of his own world, weaving his presence thematically into the work. The culmination of his masterful Three Colors trilogy suggests there is Something Larger than Kieslowski’s characters. Whether that is the Deity or simply the Director is left for us to decide.

There is also, Kieslowsi’s “Three Colors”, by Jonathan Kiefer, which is a detailed commentary/essay on the whole and the parts of Three Colours. Although bits of ideas are to gleaned from many on-line sources, if I had to chose one alone this would be it up to now. His take is both in terms of story, in particular how these three stories integrate, and cinematography. For example, he observes of Blue:

Cinematographer Slawomir ldziak, whom Kieslowski calls upon for his most expressionistic work (A Short Film About Killing, The Double Life of Veronique), shoots with a depth of field so shallow, a focus so precise, that his lens can barely hold a single, small object in clear view. The cut glass hanging that Julie takes from her husband’s studio, or the metallic candy wrapper that her daughter held in the wind just before the accident-these and other emotionally charged objects are allowed to dissolve into shapeless impressions and free-floating clouds of color (blue, of course), hanging over Julie’s world like strange spiritual effusions.

There are more systematic considerations, which anyone wanting to study Kieslowski can benefit from:

In discussing “The Double Life of Veronique,” Kieslowski makes a distinction between the “synthetic” narrative style of the first, Polish half of the film by which he means a narrative that goes from episode to episode, covering a year or so of the heroine’s life in half an hour of screen time-and the “analytic” style of the French part, which focuses on Veronique’s state of mind as reflected in the non-narrative elements of the mise-en-scene: camera placement, color, and so on.

The same distinction applies to the French and Polish components of “Three Colors”: Julie lives in a subjective, inwardly focused, visually oriented environment, Karol in an objective, aggressive, action-oriented world.

November 17, 2008 - Posted by | film [its techniques], Kieslowski, Krzysztof Kieślowski | , ,


  1. Wow, you are the first blogger I’ve come across to do such thorough research into the meaning (or maybe perceived purpose) of Trois Couleurs: Rouge. I being one of those that have been “bamboozled” think its a masterpiece. I have seen all three films one after the other in Film School and it does not make the dissection any easier. In fact, when I saw Red the first time I had not seen any of the other films yet I felt this intense “aha” moment at the end. Maybe it was just a visceral reaction due to my extreme love of film, but I think it was more of a acknowledgement of all the subtleties that Kieslowski threw in throughout the film. I too think that Auguste is a manisfestation of judge Kern in present day, used as a sort of illustration to Kern’s stories. Also, if it the “object” you seek from Kieslowski, have you ever considered his object (other than women – an unavoidable object of the male gaze) is the colors themselves? What do they represent? Valentine…red…love…passion…blood…life…etc.

    Comment by whippedtopping | September 10, 2010 | Reply

    • I did read what you said at the time, but wasn’t really able to add more at the time. Reading it now this occurs to me:

      One line of attack is to go straight to how liberty, egality and fraternity are considered gnerally. For this purpose the brief entry in wikipedia is enough to be going on with.

      Taking fraternity first, it says “The third term, Fraternité, was the most problematic to insert in the triad, as it belonged to another sphere, that of moral obligations rather than rights, links rather than statutes, harmony rather than contract, and community rather than individuality.” and: “..two senses of Fraternity: “one, that followed liberty and equality, was the object of a free pact; the other preceded liberty and equality as the mark on its work of the divine craftsman.”

      If you keep focused all the time you are doing the political and moral philosophy, on the three stories characters, it is not difficult to see that Kieslowksi might have simply developed them to take on facets of meaning of the tripartite motto.

      On returning to liberty and fraternity, there is the question of whether only “only liberty insured equality (..unless the latter was to be the equality of all dominated by a despot), while, “while liberty followed equality insured by rule of law”.

      The central film, White, could be seen as a debate about these concerns about how liberty and equality interrelate. The story of the Polish hairdresser and his French hairdresser wife resolves in the land of liberty, equality and fraternity, and the Polish hairdresser returning to his newly ‘free’ homeland, which is not not quite getting how this works in practice, with liberty – quite naturally taking precedence in the minds of those seeking to enrich themselves – over either equality or fraternity.

      So we are left with fraternity for Red. Kieslowski is perhaps allowing himself a little bit of slack with a hint that the Old Judge is a God-like figure. But the story is about the gilr sticks with the man and wins him over to a less benign view of the world. Any number of other side stories can be teased out of the remnant: that we see the judge as a young man becuase we are bing shown the reason for him loss of faith in humanity through his girlfriend betraying him with another man; the listening to neighbours might be seen as some sort of God-like detachment, but could as much be one of several simple ways of showing how far removed he has become from real life, that and his detached sentencing of a man in his court.

      Blue could be seen as an examination of liberty without recource to questions of equality. Though I feel, without being able to give chapter and verse, right now, that he is in a sense reheasing all three concepts in Blue. There is certainly fraternity as a resolution, with Juliet Binoche, having worked in cooperation with her husband’s friend (fraternity in many aspects: beyond the grave, for the greater good, etc) – who temporarily becomes her lover, but is dismissed by her in her bid for real/genuine/complete freedom (he says he has always loved her: she seems to cruelly reject him for this higher principle of individual freedom) – on the composition that he husband did not complete (with a hint that it may in fact been she who was the main composer and that her husband has been unfairly taking the credit for it), and finally, in her wish to care for dead husband’s pregnant girlfriend.

      Comment by adferoafferro | January 1, 2011 | Reply

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