Near the beginning of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blue,” the first installment of his “Three Colors” trilogy (now available in a fully loaded and immaculately produced box set from Criterion), our heroine tries to commit suicide. But Julie (an extraordinary Juliette Binoche), reeling from the car accident that kills her husband and daughter, can’t swallow the pills. Rather than sink into the morass, then, “Blue” works through Julie’s grief. It’s tensely balanced between Julie’s desire to forget her past and the way in which life keeps sidling up to her. Within the conceit of the trilogy, in which each film explores one of the three colors of the French flag and the values they represent — blue/liberty, white/equality, and red/brotherhood — “Blue” is the anchor.
It’s also a reminder that Binoche is one of the best actresses we have. Gradually, the tiniest details shift; her taut neck muscles and clenched jaw give way, even if briefly, to a smile. Buoyed by Zbigniew Preisner’s score, snippets of the “Unity of Europe” piece Julie’s husband left unfinished when he died, “Blue” is torn between a history of strife and the hope for a better future. Led by Binoche, it ends up leaning toward the latter, but not without earning it first.
“White” stars Zbigniew Zamachowski as Polish immigrant Karol Karol, a man left with nothing but a two-franc coin when his French wife (Julie Delpy) divorces him for failing to consummate their marriage. Returning to Warsaw, he gets mixed up in underworld schemes and eventually a newfound, even dangerous, ambition. At moments, particularly a denouement that’s a wicked reversal of the opening scene, “White” works as a heartfelt black comedy about romance gone awry. But therein lies the rub of a trilogy — while “White” can fly solo, it also seems at odds with the tone and atmosphere of the other two films. Whether this matters to you or not depends on your temperament, but I found it distracting. Cognizant of the dissonance, I set to searching for through lines, and my reverie snapped to an end.
No such complaint need be made about “Red”: at its core is an electric and unexpected chance meeting, between a young model (Irene Jacob) and an aging, somewhat imperious judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who eavesdrops on his neighbors. Plot summary wouldn’t do the film justice — nothing much happens narratively until the film’s final moments, which tie all of the trilogy’s protagonists together through a twist of fate. But Kieslowski gets at something elusive about intimacy, about how suddenly it can develop and just as quickly disintegrate — intimacy, in “Red,” is itself a twist of fate. But if that’s all we have to hold on to, the ending suggests, if that’s what we need to survive, then so be it.