(Spoiler alert: but they don’t really matter…as I explain below)
Please get used to me extolling the virtues of The Criterion Channel. It will probably go on for quite a while. It just a few short weeks I have caught up with so many films on my ‘should see’ list. This is a list of films that I feel I should watch to become as well-rounded a film connoisseur as I can be. This is not a list of things I necessarily want to see, but that I feel I should see. Unfortunately or fortunately, ‘should’ is a big word in my aesthetic self-education.
More often than not, these ‘shoulds’ have turned into wonderful experiences. I was dreading watching the big films of Tarkovsky, but I was thrilled by both Stalker and The Sacrifice, especially the latter.
I had seen The Double Life of Veronique and Dekalog by Krysztof Kieślowski. The former left me cold and confused. The latter was often stunning. This told me that I “should” see his last films, Three Colors Trilogy.
I found two thirds of the Three Colors trilogy to be stunning, as well. Blue and Red I found emotionally, intellectually and formally overwhelming.
When discussing or thinking about films, I am most interested in in them as films. So many conversations and reviews of films don’t go much further than the plot, and thus are no different from a book discussion. Of course, there are many films that are only about plot. They are indeed entertaining, and don’t merit deeper technical analysis. But what gets me interested are films where the plot is the jumping-off point of the discussion. For example: there are scary bird attacks in The Birds which drive the plot forward, but how does Hitchcock make them scary? How do they affect the rhythm of the movie. How do the bird attacks lead us to sense what Hitchcock ultimately wants us to think the film is about? Ultimately, is the film even about the bird attacks? (Hint: no). See me after class for that discussion.
To discuss only the stories of The Color Trilogy will miss the greatness of these films.
All three films are organized around their title colors. They represent the Tricolor of France. Kieślowski and his script collaborator mistakenly understood the colors of the French flag to correspond to the mantra of the French Revolution, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, so right or wrong, these colors and concepts became the templates of the movies.
Blue is the most affecting portrait of grieving that I can think of. The cool blue palate of the film at first seems schematic, but it creates a somewhat motionless world into which our grieving heroine retreats. The wonder of the movie is that the grieving evolves into a depiction of reintegration into life. There are many ‘blue’ motifs. A glass chandelier from her daughters bedroom. The liquid blue of the swimming pool she visits after each step of the (unbeknownst to her) reintegration into the world of the living. These all evolve throughout the film into totems of hope. At the end Kieślowski gives us a beautifully shattering montage of all the characters who have helped our heroine out of her isolation and whom, we realize, she has helped transform in many ways. What is the liberty meant here? Liberty from self-imposed Hell, perhaps?
I’ve seen Juliet Binoche in two films recently and I am beginning to think that she might be the world’s greatest living actress. Her performance is here is one for the ages.
White seems like a failure, but perhaps it seems that way because it comes between the other two masterpieces. It just doesn’t compare. Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony is wonderful, but can seem inconsequential when listened to next to his Third and Fifth. Of course, this is not the fault of the Fourth Symphony, nor, perhaps, is it the fault of White. First Matra of Mitchell Brown’s school of criticism: never blame a work of art for not being what it isn’t.
I vaguely remember one of the ‘lighter’ episodes of Dekalog. It concerned two brothers (I think) and some humorous antics with a valuable stamp collection. I didn’t buy the whimsy, but Kieślowski had created such a powerful tapestry with the other nine episodes that I was able to see this episode with the proper weight it deserved. This is more or less my reaction to White.
But ah, Red! I recently reread Pericles by Shakespeare and it struck me that the extended philosophical and emotional discussions Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintingant have throughout the film have the same reforming purpose as Marina’s discussions in the brothel.
It is hard for a writer or actor to portray a character who is ‘only good’. If you don’t have the talent to do this, then the character quickly turns two-dimensional. No fear of that happening here. The Valentine that Irene Jacob and Kieślowski is delicate and a tower of strength. Valentine is as strong as Athena but as kind and intuitive as Cinderella. As in Blue, the overarching direction is healing and reintegration into the world.
The last few minutes of Red wrap up all three films in a way that many have found contrived. Not me. When you are dealing with themes like reintegration into the world, freedom from self-inflected damage and finding ‘correct’ love, I think contrivance is perfectly fine.