When navigating unfamiliar terrain, it helps to have a map. Perhaps that explains the popularity of the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors—newly feted by Criterion with a spectacular box set (Blu-ray or DVD; $79.95)—whose rapturous international reception in the mid-1990s marked it as a now-extinct postwar breed of film: the art-house Event Movie. Dense, abstract, indirect and ambivalent, the trilogy’s conceptually interlocking but tonally discrete parts would seem unlikely candidates for middlebrow appeal if not for their superficial organizing principle. Released just after the Maastricht Treaty, Blue, White and Red were shot respectively in France, Poland and Switzerland and premiered at Venice, Berlin and Cannes. By using a palette of dominant colors to form an emotional heat map of a newly unified Europe, Kieslowski teases viewers with the promise of steady footing, only to throw us off balance. The three colors ostensibly represent the interlocking principles symbolized by the French flag—liberté, égalité, fraternité—but Kieslowski’s prevailing concerns are the apparent incommensurability of individual experience with universal values, and the failure of grand-scale economic interdependence to foster genuine personal connection.
A former documentarian and Communist-era social realist, Kieslowski had only recently absolved himself of the responsibility of making overtly political films and announced that he would retire after completing Three Colors. (He died in 1996, at age 54.) As a gift to audiences, he structured his valedictory epic around the three most captivating French-born actresses of their generation: Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irène Jacob. Blue, which in effect belongs to Binoche, is an enigmatic experiment in radical subjectivity. The film is suffused with melancholy; at pivotal moments the music crescendos and an overpowering blue light floods the screen. Binoche’s Julie loses her husband and daughter in an auto accident, and soon thereafter decides to embrace her subsequent isolation—or is it freedom? Her husband had been composing a hymn to unified Europe, but she throws his scores into a garbage truck and sells their belongings in an ill-fated grasp at absolute independence.
In White, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), a hapless, economically liberated hairdresser, has been emasculated by European unification. His gorgeous, much younger Parisian wife (Delpy) claims that their wedding remains hopelessly unconsummated and formally requests a divorce. Karol wants to believe he’s operating on a level playing field, sexually and financially, but how can an Eastern Bloc arriviste feel at home among the luxuries of new Europe? He arranges a return trip to Poland by hiding in a suitcase, and discovers upon arrival that entrepreneurship, somehow, has become easy. Flush with ill-gotten gains, and driven by a love indistinguishable from revenge, he tries to lure his ex-bride across the crumpled Iron Curtain. White is caustic and broadly comic, insisting that capitalism, like its Soviet antithesis, is just a race to become more equal than others.
If forced to choose a standout among equals, I’d opt for Red, an obsessive and exquisite meditation on chance, synchronicity and communication. A romance fractured by time and space, it concerns the tentative intimacy forged between a Geneva runway model (Jacob) and a reclusive, seemingly misanthropic former judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) a few decades her elder, and ends by attempting a convergence between the three narratives of the trilogy.
To the uninitiated, Kieslowski’s most popular films—which also include the serialized ten-part Ten Commandments parable Decalogue—can sound forbiddingly conceptual or schematic. But Blue doesn’t end in sorrow, and even the most ardent devotees of Decalogue disagree about which film matches which biblical commandment. For this much-missed metaphysician, structure is always a feint, a promise broken on arrival. A map cannot be drawn to scale.
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You’ve seen this movie before. In Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior (Lionsgate; Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy, $39.99), two long-estranged and quietly heroic brothers (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton) are slowly but inexorably ushered into a ring by providence to battle each other for an against-all-odds shot at the world championship—all under the watchful eye of a grizzled deadbeat dad (Nick Nolte) who waits in the wings listening to Moby-Dick on tape. The genre is evergreen because the sport in question is incidental: it could be badminton as easily as drag racing. But despite its stirring adherence to a shameless and manipulative formula, Warrior is flush with fresh blood. This time, maybe the game does matter: the ring is an octagon, and the event is mixed martial arts, an extreme sport for extreme circumstances.
In the film’s telling, the players take little pleasure or pride in their athletic development; this is present-day Pennsylvania, and the only concern is cash. Conservative in theme as well as form, Warrior measures the deleterious effects of economic deprivation on blue-collar guys. One brother, a high school physics teacher, faces foreclosure on the family house and mounting medical bills for his daughter’s heart condition. When a banker offers bankruptcy as a solution, he answers, “That’s not how I do things.” The other, an Iraq War hero, needs a cash payout to fulfill a promise to support the family of a fallen marine comrade. Truth will out, but until it does he remains strong, silent and cagey.
To direct a sports movie is to operate like an athlete, improvising within a tight framework with strict rules. If the laws cannot be changed, at least the stakes can be intensified. Oscillating between Greek myth and American naturalism, Warrior is the sort of Good Movie that affords more pleasure than many great ones.