After completing 1994's Red, the third and final installment of his celebrated Three Colors trilogy, director Krzysztof Kieslowski announced an early retirement at 53, much to the dismay of his admirers around the world. Though he died shortly afterward, leaving traces of another high-concept trilogy behind him–the first, Heaven, was faithfully adapted last year by Tom Tykwer–the final shots in Red now seem like the logical endpoint of a career that circled obsessively around capital-letter themes of Fate, Morality, and cosmic Coincidence. Few directors have been so controlled (or controlling) in their effects as Kieslowski was, both in the internal signs, symbols, and color schemes that recur in his work, and in the impossible connections that bind unrelated characters and events, bringing a magical order to a seemingly random universe. Once a director becomes God, what could he possibly do for an encore? Nothing happens by accident in a Kieslowski film, especially in the ornate Colors trilogy, which acts like a sealed (and, at times, airless) passageway into one man's singular vision, inviting the viewer to puzzle out meanings that have already been programmed into the work. Fortunately, Kieslowski had a mind well worth accessing, a prismatic and visually sophisticated sensibility consumed with the mysteries and poignant truths of human behavior. Much like 1988's The Decalogue, Kieslowski's astounding 10-part meditation on the Ten Commandments, Three Colors takes broad concepts into a more intimate and personal realm, demonstrating their relevance to ordinary individuals. Inspired by the colors and concepts of the French flag (Blue for "liberty," White for "equality," Red for "fraternity"), the films each start with a character who withdraws from life after losing everything that was once important, only to be pulled back into society by unexpected forces, mostly from within. In Blue, the most visually ravishing and emotionally oblique of the three, Juliette Binoche is dealt the cruelest sort of freedom when she loses her composer husband and her daughter in a car accident. Struck numb by shock and grief, so much so that she never cries over their deaths, Binoche sells off all her possessions and tries to live in anonymity, sealing herself into a Paris apartment without any contact with remaining family members and acquaintances. But as old feelings and responsibilities bubble to the surface (expressed most strongly in passages from her husband's final, uncompleted composition), she finds it increasingly difficult to live out a ghostly existence. As she recovers her humanity, Blue considers Binoche's mourning process with a kind of sympathetic, non-judgmental curiosity, looking at her strange and myopic actions without always making her rationale clear. Kieslowski uses the same approach to briskly comic effect in the underrated White, which follows a revenge scheme so elaborate that only in the end do its shaggy-dog qualities finally gel into a master plan. Supremely winning as its put-upon hero, Zbigniew Zamachowski stars as a Damon Runyon type who suffers heartbreak and humiliation when his chilly wife (Julie Delpy) sues him for divorce and leaves him a penniless beggar in a subway tunnel. After a fellow Pole agrees to smuggle him back to Warsaw inside a large suitcase, a hilariously wayward journey in and of itself, Zamachowski secretly plots to get even with her and regain his dignity. A perfect break between its more austere bookends, White tends to get overlooked because of its modesty, but Kieslowski's lightness of touch leads to a surprisingly affecting ending that stresses the "equality" theme in terms of matrimony. Though Kieslowski and longtime screenwriting partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz designed the three films to work well enough on their own, Red wrangles them together in a richly harmonious whole, creating an intersection where all of the trilogy's characters collide. A memorably crusty Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Kieslowski's surrogate, a retired judge who taps his neighbors' phone conversations, presiding over their lives and manipulating them to his own sad end. When model Irène Jacob accidentally hits his dog with her car, Trintignant responds with indifference, but after discovering his secret hobby, Jacob overcomes her initial revulsion and the two embark on a warm friendship that links his past with her future. With daunting scope and ambition, Red opens up several lines of communication–between past and present, unrelated people and events, and one film in the trilogy and another–under the banner of "fraternity," closing with a gesture that affirms Kieslowski's passion for his creations and his command as a storyteller. The long-awaited DVD release of Three Colors pays homage to his immense achievement with a generous selection of supplements, but its producers could have used a sliver of his imagination and conceptual coherence. Even Kieslowski's most slavish devotees will likely grow tired of these discs' interchangeable talking-head featurettes, which recycle the same sycophantic group of academics and collaborators. Only Kieslowski himself, sitting in front of a flatbed machine for a series of eight-minute segments for French television (here titled "Krzysztof Kieslowski's Cinema Lesson"), seems to fully understand what he's done.
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