This article discusses Kieślowski’s usage of colour palette throughout his renowned trilogy. Firstly, a brief explanation of the director’s career is provided before engaging in the analysis of Three Colours: Blue (1993), Three Colours: White (1994), and Three Colours: Red (1994). The article will refer to each film consecutively as Blue, White, and Red.
Krzysztof Kieślowski was a Polish director specialising in documentary and feature films. After failing to attain a bachelor’s degree and a career in theatre, he was accepted in the directing department at The National Film School in Łódź. It was here where his interest in documentary filmmaking took place despite the country’s censorship. This was due to the opportunity the school offered him in travelling the country where he observed the simple lifestyle of his fellow countrymen. Later, Kieślowski decided to abandon documentary filmmaking due to the censorship laws and notorious exploitation of his footage without his permission. He started his career in the feature film, still focusing on the lives of common citizens affected by the political regime, stating that it allows him more freedom as a director. (Kieślowski (1993), Kieślowski on Kieślowski)
Kieślowski started directing his documentary films in the 1970s. Since 1939, Poland was divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The authoritarian communist government heavily regulated Polish television and film industry. It was only until 1989 that Kieślowski could create his films without external communist control as 1988 saw Poland’s first partially free elections (Łabuz, 2005). When Poland regained its freedom, the director could create his films with more ease and decided to make his next three films with the French co-production.
Three Colours Trilogy
Drawing inspiration from his experience in directing documentaries, Kieślowski decided to make his next films about people trying to lead a normal lifestyle in spite of their country’s politics, laws and regulations. The director said in 1996 that, in his movies, ‘the political environment only formed a background’ (Wilkinson, 2016). One of the first examples of Kieślowski’s work was a television mini-series from 1989-1990 titled Dekalog (Eng. Decalogue). The series was inspired by the biblical Ten Commandments. Each episode focused on a story of a character facing an ethical and moral dilemma. The director decided to continue the theme of people’s confrontations with the administration. His trilogy would centre and question the idea of three key concepts of the French revolution - liberté, égalité, and fraternité (Eng. liberty, equality, and fraternity). This concept is reflected by the three colours of the French flag, which correspond to the titles of the Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy (Blue – liberty, White – equality, Red – fraternity). Kieślowski juxtaposed each word with the ordinary lifestyle of the main characters, provoking the audience to question the importance and the message of French motto. The director explained how slogans can only be beautiful words and not compatible with human nature (Bernard, Woodward, 2016, p. 181).
Kieślowski downplays the meaning of the colour palette and titles illustrated by his trilogy. For him, they are ‘not significant’ because the theme of France was fitting to the films’ production, so the apparent symbolism identified in the films is ‘not important’ (Bernard, Woodward, 2016, p. 273). The article is going to thoroughly examine the connection between Blue, White, and Red, by analysing the meaning of its titles, colour palette, and Kieślowski’s contribution to the French motto.
The first film from the trilogy, Blue, was released in 1993. The movie follows Julie Vignon (Juliette Binoche) who loses her composer husband, Patrice (Hugues Quester), and young daughter Anne in a car accident. The woman struggles to find the will to live her normal life, being constantly hunted by the unwanted freedom given to her. The second film, White, released one year later, follows the story of a broken marriage and revenge. A Pole, Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) marries a French woman, Dominique (Julie Delpy), and moves to Paris. Their marriage falls apart, forcing Karol to leave France and start a new life in Poland. He never forgets his ex-wife, planning how to get even with her after what she has done. The last film from the trilogy, Red, released in the same year as White, focuses on the story of a young model, Valentine (Irène Jacob) living in Geneva (Switzerland). One day after running over a dog, she meets a retired judge, Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), whose hobby is to spy on his neighbours. The film focuses on the themes of relationships and unity between its characters. To properly convey the analysis of colour palette present in the movies, it is crucial to understand the concept of colour theory. Hellerman (2019) ‘states that certain colours in film illicit certain emotions from the audience. Manipulation of these colors can be used to guide the audience toward the intent of the author, juxtaposed against one another to send a message, or subverted to create dramatic irony.’
Three Colours: Blue (1993)
Blue starts with the car accident scene, presented from the perspective of the witness. The frame of the car crushed beside the tree begins with its natural colours and gradually saturates into the deep blue (Izod & Dovalis, 2013, p. 58). Julie is the only family member (barely) surviving the accident. The woman has been freed from her duty as a mother and a wife, left alone in grief. Blue, as an emotional colour, emits and enhances the feelings of sadness, melancholy, and depression (Hellerman, 2019). The film’s colour palette emphasises the heroine’s emotions. The director purposely introduced meaningful items and scenes in the story in the blue colour, in order to relate to the title of the film. Julie’s blue jeans combined with her black coat (Western culture, black represents death and fear; Hellerman, 2019) can symbolise her mental state balancing between acceptance and death (Coates, 2002, p. 47). The main character is not able to accept what she has lost, thus blue, constantly reminding her about the tragedy, and black, her thoughts about committing suicide and ‘freeing’ herself. Blue and black, the colours of her clothes, implies that these emotions accompany Julie daily. Another item, a chandelier in Julie’s room with attached blue crystals, which appears every time the main character wants to move on in her life, blocks the narrative and signals to the audience that she is not yet ready, because of her past. According to Izod and Dovalis (2013), the chandelier ‘serves as a transitional object that comforts and holds her together while grieving for the old life to which she cannot now return’ (61) The item represents Julie’s reunion with her memories which explains why the heroine finds peace while touching it. The scenes featuring Juliette Binoche swimming in the pool are tinted with clear and intense light blue colour. While being surrounded by nothing but water, Julie’s thoughts are the most intense as they are not interrupted by any sound or people. The isolated heroine can finally resonate and familiarise with her thoughts. After the accident, Julie has been reacting emotionally only when Anne’s name is mentioned or when she was able to see her daughter’s small coffin. Julie’s blue flashbacks of Anne inform her about the mother’s inability to accept her daughter’s death. The main character is purposely avoiding children, seeking a place where she will not find any, in order not to remind her of Anne (Coates, 2002, p. 49). Julie then learns about his husband having an affair with a younger woman, Sandrine (Florence Pernel), who also is carrying Patrice’s child. While the flickering blue image of an ultrasound of Sandrine’s unborn baby is visible on the screen, Julie understands that she has to move on from her past life as it no longer belongs to her. She decides to finish the composition her husband left before his death and starts a new chapter of her life with Olivier (Benoît Régent), her former friend, who’s always been secretly in love with her.
The director is confronting the audience with questions about the importance of love and freedom. ‘Can one fall in love again, and isn’t love just a trap limiting our own freedom? What means more to us: freedom or love?’ (Bernard, Woodward, 2016, p. 207). The heroine of Blue is confronted with unwanted freedom, which results in her isolating herself from the rest of the world. Even though at the end of the film she starts a life with a new man, it is impossible to state if she can be finally free from the traumatic experience that happened to her. Her inability to free herself from the memories of her past is a recurring motif of Blue, implying the meaning of unwanted liberté.
Three Colours: White (1994)
White begins in France where the main character Karol learns in the court that his wife Dominique demands a divorce. The main character loses everything he has once owned in France, the salon he was running with Dominique, his residency abroad, and the rest of his funds, ending up as a beggar on the streets. Karol’s successful friend – Mikołaj (Janusz Gajos) helps him to return to Poland by hiding him in the suitcase (visible at the airport opening scene of the film). The travelling item is stolen by the airport workers, who are surprised by its unusual content. They beat up Karol, break the statue representing Dominique and leave the Pole bleeding on the cold snow. The main character starts working in Poland as a bodyguard. He discovers the way his bosses are making money in a financially corrupted past communistic Poland. He decides to use their system to enrich himself illegally. After his economic transformation, Karol desires to have an act of revenge on his ex-wife. He feigns his own death, reunites with Dominique at his ‘funeral’ to later blame her for his death by using false clues against her innocence. The couple meets again through the prison bars, where trapped Dominque informs the main character that they are even now and that she is ready to go back to him again.
The dominant colour of the film is ‘used in the wider range of ways, varying from brilliant white, off-white and blonde’ (Coates, 2002, p. 52). Kieślowski manipulates various shades of white according to the significance of each scene. White can be associated with positive emotions, such as purity, youth, love (marriage in Western cultures) and peace (Hellerman, 2019). In Kieślowski’s work, the objects which bring importance to the plot of the movie are usually white. The scene of the couple’s wedding with the camera moving out of the black church towards the laughing figure of Dominique dressed in white was purposely shot with the usage of a white filter (Coates, 2015, p. 217). At the end of White, when Karol secretly visits his wife in prison, he uses white binoculars to better see her behind the bars. The two scenes mentioned above might symbolise the main character’s perception of Dominique. Karol perceives his wife as a personification of positiveness and purity. His feeling is also visible in the way he cares about the white rococo sculpture representing Dominique.
The film White is considered to be a dark comedy. Kieślowski uses irony and dark humour, which are contrasting elements to the clearness and purity of white. As mentioned by Dovalis & Izod (2008, p. 40), white is known for having its opposite – black. By combining the aspect of the dark comedy and the title of the film, Kieślowski creates an equal balance between the meaning of black and white. The director uses white’s cleanness to present impure scenes, such as a bird’s white waste falling onto the main character’s coat or the scene in the white toilet where Karol is throwing up.
In the background, Poland can be seen trying to rebuild itself economically after communism, presenting France in the light of the better and stronger country, symbolising financial inequality. Kieślowski leaves the viewer with the vision of corrupted and false equality by emphasising on the illegal means that Karol employs to get even with his ex-wife against the backdrop of an inequal power-play on the countries.
Three Colours: Red (1994)
Red explores the theme of fraternity in the Swiss city Geneva. The film’s opening scene follows multiple telephone wires across the city. The abstract montage of various overlapping phone conversations foreshadows the themes of connection and privacy, where the former is seemingly invisible that every character shares with one another and the latter is often invaded, as it can be seen later in the movie. Throughout the film, the director is foreshadowing the bond between Valentine and Auguste, always presented as sharing the screen space, but never interacting with one another. The two characters are usually visible being surrounded by many red properties (Auguste – red car, Marlboro Red cigarettes, red sofa and red university books; Valentine – red apple, red bed sheets, red alarm clock). As stated by Kieślowski (1993, p. 222), ‘the vital components of Red are red, the filters aren't. Red clothes or a red dog's leash, for example. A red background to something. The colour is not decorative, it plays a dramaturgic role: the colour means something.’ Colour red connects both of the characters, signalizing to the audience that they are destined for each other, even though they have never met.
In cinema, the colour red can often symbolise passion, love, desire, but also violence and danger (Hellerman, 2019). Valentine is associated with the aforementioned colour. No matter where she goes (café, catwalk, music shop, photoshoot), the colour red always follows her, encrusting walls, carpets, clothes, everyday-items and curtains or drapes. The plot of the film takes a turn when Valentine knocks over the dog while driving and finds its owner, a retired judge named Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Joseph draws happiness from his voyeuristic spying on his neighbours’ phone conversations. The heroine enters an unknown territory where everything is dominated by the colour brown. As stated by Piotr Sobocinski (the director of photography), ‘as the film dwells increasingly within the judge’s home, the key color may be said to metamorphose into brown, exemplifying the thematics of metamorphosis in general’ (Coates, 2002, p. 59). Brown, symbolising stability, reliability and maturity (Hellerman, 2019), is a mixture of red, yellow and black, which connects to the character’s dynamics in the film.
Valentines learns about the judge’s past after befriending him. When he was younger, the woman he was deeply in love with cheated on him and later died in an accident. The experience has changed his view on relationships and love, as no woman could compete with her. Kern believes that only by eavesdropping on people’s private conversations, including the ones they would hide even from their family, can he achieve the honest and true character of a person. The judge’s hobby enables him to connect with his neighbours, know their every secret, plans, and prejudices without physically meeting them.
Kieślowski’s Red focuses on how some people are drawn to each other without any specific reason other than fate. The judge somehow connects all the people together by knowing their secrets and even predicting the future. The judge tries to warn Valentine about Auguste, by mentioning a similar mishap that he has experienced in the past with his ex-girlfriend. From that particular point in the plot, Auguste is represented as Kern’s alter-ego. As Kieślowski (1993, p. 218) explained, ‘everything that happens to Auguste happened to the judge although, perhaps, slightly differently.’ The questions addressed by the director underlines the metaphysical aspect. If Auguste and Kern are sharing the same life, what role does Valentine have in the film? The visible, nonphysical bond between the judge and Valentine indulges one thought – Kern being born forty years later to live a peaceful life with a young model. According to Kieślowski (1993, p. 218) that is supposed to be the conditional mood of the Red; the mysterious bond between every character in the film that can only be suggested by the meaning of main character’s name (love).
Trilogy As One
The Three Colours trilogy, despite being divided into different parts, is one long story. From the beginning that was Kieślowski’s goal, thus every film contains many elements which connect to the other parts of the trilogy. In Blue, Julie’s chandelier with the blue crystals evokes positive memories which happened in her life before the accident. In White, Karol steals the rococo figure of Marianne (the national personification of the French republic) from the museum, which later constantly reminds him of Dominique and his ultimate goal. In Red, the judge’s fountain pen, which accompanied him throughout his law career, stops working at the crucial point of the plot when he writes a letter to the police denouncing himself as a spy, making him finish the writing using a pencil. Every character mentioned above owns an item that reminds them of their past. By evoking memories related to the object, each character is able to move forward.
Another similar motif is the films’ mockery of French motto. Blue presents a story of a woman that never wanted to be free yet was left isolated and depressed after losing everyone dear to her. White focuses on the life of a Polish man who is fixated on getting even with his ex-wife, but to achieve it, he’s breaking the law and blaming his feigned death on her. Red, the film about the fraternity, constantly presents its characters as being unable to share a private bond with one another or not allowing them to ever meet at all.
The characters from all different parts have been uniting on the screen of each movie as the background characters. The last scene of Red captures all characters together (not being aware of each other) as the only survivors from the ship accident.
Kieślowski’s experience in directing documentary allowed him to master the way of following the story of a common citizen surrounded by authorities in the administration of state or law. Colours in the trilogy enhance the character’s emotions, signifies the important parts of the scene and works as a plot device. Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy not only enables its viewers to question the importance of the French nationalist motto and the meaning of each colour from the trilogy, but also presents the struggles of normal citizens, their private life, and their seamless endeavours with the law and politics.
Even though the director states that the meaning of colour and films relations to the French flag is not important for the plot and the message delivered through the trilogy. It is evident that Kieślowski’s directing decisions were not a mere coincidence, but meticulously devised with strategic forethought. The filmmaker delivers a fitting epilogue to his career by narrating parallel stories in a common timeline but tying these streams of tales in a seemingly simple but a profound knot, thus highlighting the human values and everyday struggles of commoners by using three colours.
Renata Bernard, Steven Woodward, Krzysztof Kieślowski: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2016).
Paul Coates, ‘Kieślowski and the Antipolitics of Color: A Reading of the Three Colors Trilogy’ in Cinema Journal, 41 (No. 2, Winter 2002), pp. 41-66.
Paul Coates, ‘Towards Three Colours’ in The Red and the White: The Cinema of People's Poland (London, New York: Wallflower Press, 2005), pp. 209-224.
Joanna Dovalis & John Izod, ‘Grieving, Therapy, Cinema, and Kieślowski’s Trois Couleurs: Blanc’ in Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche, 2 (No. 3, 2008), pp. 39-57.
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Krzysztof Kieślowski, ‘Three Colours’ in Kieślowski on Kieślowski (ed.) Danusia Stok (London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1993), pp. 212-227.
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Alissa Wilkinson, ‘Political movies are hard to pull off. The films of Krzysztof Kieślowski hold the key’ in Vox.com (27.09.2016). Available at: https://www.vox.com/2016/9/27/13012144/Kieślowski-political-films-decalogue-three-colors-veronique (Accessed: 30.05.2020).
Slavoj Zizek, The Fright of Real Tears. Krzysztof Kieślowski between Theory and Post-Theory (Suffolk, British Film Institute, 2001).