Easily the most productive thing I did during my week of temporary bachelorhood was visit ye olde local video store to rent Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors. Each film – Blue, White, and Red – represents an aspect of the tricolor French flag: liberté, egalité, fraternité. The colors appear symbolically throughout, often used enigmatically but also with a welcome subtlety. Despite the abstract concept Kieslowski deals with people – real, fully drawn characters, their relationships, and emotions. Liberté is explored via isolation; egalité is a battle of mutual humiliation; and Red finds fraternité that begins with invasions of privacy.
Part of the joy for me in Three Colors (besides the three beautiful women cast in each movie) is that composed music is significant in Kieslowski’s world. It isn’t used as window dressing or in a cheaply manipulative way; unhinged psychopaths aren’t the only ones who appreciate Bach or the Symphonie fantastique. Zbigniew Preisner's scores are woven into the fabric of the films as an important part of people’s lives.
Juliette Binoche’s husband in Blue is a composer who is considered a national treasure. When he dies in a car wreck, his death is mourned by an entire country awaiting his next work. (Whether Boulez would have allowed another composer – and a tonal one! – such ascendancy in France without towing the avant-garde line doesn’t come up in the film.) Binoche’s character tries to block out music as part of the isolation she builds to hold off - or hold in - her grief. The music invades her attempted solitude, and eventually becomes an agent for her future healing.
Irène Jacob’s character in Red is moved to tears by music she comes across on the radio, eventually finding the recording in a store. The music – by a fictional Dutch composer Van den Budenmayer* – is a connection she shares (unbeknownst to her) with an eavesdropping former judge whom she befriends. The character Valentin is a kind of stand-in for open-hearted innocence that Kieslowski suggests is an integral aspect (buried under deep cynicism in the judge) of fraternité. When the music affects her, it touches that part in all of us.
Classical music has less of a direct role in White, though the main composition – a tango for string sextet (reminiscent in spirit and scoring of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir of Florence) – gives a vital clue to Kieslowski’s approach to the concept of egalité.
* Kieslowski and Preisner invented Van den Budenmayer as an in-joke, making him Dutch simply because they liked Holland. Apparently Kieslowski was always pleased when people asked where they could find recordings of Van den Budenmayer’s music, and Preisner actually fielded allegations that he had plagiarized the composer he helped make up.