FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Three Colors’ Returns to the Screen and ‘A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff’ Bows
Almost thirty years ago, the Venice Film Festival was created Three colors: blue, the first part of a trilogy that is one of the greatest cinematographic achievements of the 20th century. With Blueas well as its accompanying parts White and Redbeing re-released in brilliant new restorations, it’s a chance to appreciate what made these films so exceptional and to contemplate what we’ve lost, both artistically and politically, in the decades since.
First, an introduction: these three films take their names and color palettes from the French flag, and each is ostensibly a meditation on the concepts these colors embody: liberty, equality and fraternity. In BlueJuliette Binoche delivers one of her finest and most restrained performances as a woman trying to forge a new life after the death of her husband and young daughter in a car accident. White follows the intriguing efforts of a Polish scoundrel (Zbigniew Zamachowski) to get revenge on the French bride (Julie Delpy) who ruined his life. And Red chronicles the unlikely friendship between a model (Irène Jacob) and a retired judge (Jean-Lous Trintignant).
These prosaic descriptions of the narrative, of course, do little justice to the richness and resonance of the films, which tackle timeless themes through characters and incidents in an entirely earnest way without ever veering into pedantry or pretension. They are crafted with precision and poetry in equal measure, using cinematic technique in original and surprising ways without indulging in styling for the sake of it. And they capture, in more ways than one, a moment in real, real history where even the most jaded were tempted to think things would eventually work out.
Three colours was the premature cornerstone of the career of Polish author Krzysztof Kieslowski, who began as a documentary filmmaker under communist rule. Eventually, the story goes, he realized he could only truly access intimate truths through fiction, and his early feature films such as 1979 Camera lover and 1985 Unending engaged in social and political criticism as much as possible under the repressive regime. Kieslowski always swore he wasn’t a political filmmaker, though, and he drifted into more metaphysical territory, most clearly with the ten-episode TV series. Decalogwhich based each episode on one of the Ten Commandments, as embodied in Solidarity-era Poland.
Decalog brought Kieslowski worldwide fame, which meant access to international funding for his 1991 feature film The Double Life of Veroniqueand for the Three colours next trilogy. At the same time, the end of the Cold War opened up possibilities that had not existed until then, including filming in Paris (for Blue) and Geneva (for Red). An overnight success after thirty years, as the saying goes, Kieslowski was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay (alongside his writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz) for Red.
Kieslowski announced his retirement from film after the premiere of Red, but impossible to know if he would have held there. Less than a year after the Oscars ceremony where he lost to Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) and Quentin Tarantino (pulp Fiction), he suffered a severe heart attack and died during open-heart surgery. He was only 54 years old. (If he were alive today, he would be a year and a half older than Martin Scorsese and four years younger than Ridley Scott.)
It would be an overstatement to say that serious European art cinema died with Kieslowski, but it’s impossible to deny that it became an endangered species. The kind of cinema that dares to seriously engage with ideas, that combines philosophy and storytelling, and that refuses to wink or pander to its audience, almost never reaches American movie screens. The tradition of Bergman, Godard and Kieslowski has run out of steam. Even stalwarts such as Werner Herzog, Michael Haneke and the Dardenne brothers are likely nearing the end of their careers, with very few up-and-coming torchbearers behind the scenes.
If such successors exist, it’s almost impossible to know, because the collapse of American theatrical distribution of foreign films means that viewers unable to attend film festivals are exposed to only a slim and watered-down portion. of international cinema. Specialized streaming services like OVID and especially MUBI are doing what they can, but the prospect of Three colours movies receiving the kind of exposure today that they got in the 1990s is unimaginable. (We hate to give such credit, but Harvey Weinstein and Miramax Films have done the Lord’s work sometimes…)
If this all sounds like the ravings of an old man screaming at a cloud, I hope Kieslowski understands. He once said, in the 1995 documentary Krzystof Kieslowski: I am So-So“I have a good characteristic. I am a pessimist. I always imagine the worst. For me, the future is a black hole. This makes it all the more remarkable that the Three colours the films were meant to celebrate, or at least commemorate, a new era of European unity following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
By drawing on the ideals of the French Revolution and setting his stories in locations across Europe, Kieslowski clearly intended to communicate the renewed bonds between people previously separated by ideology. It’s never clearer than in the last moments of Redwhich I will not spoil for those who have not experienced them.
And yet here we are, three decades later, with a Russian massacre in Ukraine, a quasi-fascist regime in Hungary and Poland, and the United Kingdom literally resigning its membership of the European community. This is, for me, the most poignant aspect of revisiting these masterful films. Even a pessimist raised under the specter of totalitarian repression, whose nation had been the bloodshed of decades of war, seemed ready to acknowledge that there might be hope for the future after all. And, for a while, there were.
There may still be more, and hopefully artists worthy of the task will be there to chronicle it.
(The Three colours trilogy opens at Cinema 21 on Friday, September 2.)
ALSO THIS WEEK:
A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff: The brainchild of Portlanders Alicia Jo Rabins and Alicia Rose, this unique and never-before-seen examination of Madoff, his infamous scams, and its impact on the Jewish community has its official premiere in Portland. The fact that such a personal, original and adventurous work has been acquired for theatrical release (and on demand) is a surprisingly pleasant surprise, well deserved by the passion and intelligence that Alicias has brought to bear. A musical-documentary hybrid inspired by Rabins’ experience during a 2008 songwriting residency in New York, it’s a commentary on greed, Judaism and, well, America in general. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Rabins, Rose and producer Lara Cuddy. (Thursday, Sept. 1 at the Hollywood Theater.)
The good boss: Javier Bardem stars in this dark, unfunny Spanish comedy that embodies some of the gripes I listed above. He plays the owner of a scales factory (tense metaphors for justice and balance), who sees himself as a father figure to his workers, but is actually quite a jerk. Whether it’s seducing his young interns, treating a disgruntled ex-employee as nothing more than a nuisance, or exploiting his supposed friendship with one of his managers, Bardem’s character never does. proof of an ounce of conscience. And yet, like an unenlightened sex farce of the 1950s, we’re meant to sympathize with this harassed capitalist when all his deceptions and plots begin to unravel. Sorry, mate, it’s not even funny to laugh at your misfortune. (Opens Friday, September 2 at Living Room Theatres.)