Lumped among all those soggy-tart Britcoms and odes to Gong Li’s exquisite suffering atop the cresting wave of the 90s Miramax art film, Krzysztof Kieselowski’s Three Colors trilogy (screening at Walter Reade’s ongoing Kieslowski retro) comes attached to expectations at odds with its back-alley oracular idiosyncrasies. Invariably identified by its grandiose concept — a triptych based around the ideals of “liberté, egalité, fraternité” and color-coordinated with the French flag — it’s actually a narrative universe folding in on itself, defying all attempts to frame it.
That said, the first film, Blue, comes closest to the determined pomp so antithetical to Kieslowski’s project. Juliette Binoche loses her family in a car crash at the film’s outset, and tries to first shed, then reconcile with, the vestiges of her life’s interrupted arc. Unfortunately, that reconciliation comes partly through her completion of her composer husband’s final piece, an (intentionally?) turgid concerto for the unification of Europe. It’s in the margins — Kieslowski’s elliptical framings, so tight on incidental objects that even a sugar cube seems invested with a rich interior life; recurring scenes of Binoche nightswimming in a pool glowing chlorine blue — that Blue sidesteps self-containment.
Blue and White overlap momentarily, their stars brushing up against each other in a courtroom near the former’s end and the latter’s beginning. In that scene, White’s Julie Delpy and Zbigniew Zamachowski divorce: she’s a Frenchwoman, and he’s a Polish hairdresser stricken with impotence since moving to Paris. After their humiliating split he returns, smuggled inside a suitcase, to his (and Kieslowski’s) recently post-communist homeland, where his adaptability to the ramshackle opportunism and slicked-back hair of the new economic order sets them back on intersecting courses. It all carries the faint aroma of shaggy dog, right up until a short-circuit ending reveals its gravest underpinnings.
Red, the best of the three, is the one most imbued with the notion that what’s on screen is only one of many possible worlds. Model Irene Jacob enters into the guarded confidences of retired judge and dispassionate eavesdropper Jean-Louis Trintignant, whose snippets of autobiographical disclosure are enacted in the unfurling storyline of Jacob’s neighbor. Though Kieslowski’s craning camera links the neighbors throughout, they don’t meet until the finale, in an astonishing moment of convergence that also suggests a world of what-might-have-beens and what-maybe-is. Walter Reade’s calling their retrospective “A Road Map of the Soul,” but for Kieslowski it’s more like a Venn diagram.