College is a time in which we leave our parents behind and start making those crucial first steps toward adulthood and independence. We begin to develop our own opinions and get exposed to ideas we previously hadn't come across. We think we know who we are before we head off to college, but that four-year crucible profoundly shapes the course of our life -- often without us ever knowing it.
When I went off to film school in 1993, I knew I liked movies. They were an escape from a small town that didn't have a lot else to offer, and so I tried to see films that went beyond the obvious mainstream fare. But still, my choices were limited. Going to Los Angeles for college, I expected to get a full education in the history of film, but one development that I couldn't have anticipated was the arrival of three new foreign films that got me hooked on the arthouse for good. They were Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Blue," "White" and "Red," better known as the "Three Colors" trilogy. They changed my life.
In 1992, Kieslowski already enjoyed a sizable international reputation. A Polish documentary filmmaker who had moved on to features, he had directed "The Decalogue," a series of 10 one-hour films that corresponded to the Ten Commandments, and "The Double Life of Veronique," which won Irene Jacob the Best Actress prize at Cannes in 1991. But the "Three Colors" films would cement that reputation and enhance it, each movie representing a color in the French flag. "Blue" (which stood for liberty) starred Juliette Binoche as a woman who survives a car accident that claimed her composer husband and young child. "White" (equality) cast Zbigniew Zamachowski as a recently married loser whose beautiful wife (Julie Delpy) dumps him, sending him on a path to enact an unlikely revenge. And "Red" (fraternity) brought back Jacob to play a model who becomes the unlikely friend of a bitter, retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant).
Released in '92 and '93, the "Three Colors" trilogy succeeded as sensitive, thoughtful artistic statements. But they also became arthouse hits by utilizing two very accessible tools: a high-concept narrative hook and beautiful actresses in the lead roles. Especially in retrospect, it was perfect that Miramax released the three films (as well as "Veronique") in the U.S. Harvey and Bob Weinstein had gotten into foreign films as teens by seeing "The 400 Blows" in the theater, thinking it was porn, and they knew how to make art films sexy to American audiences. (Posters like this always work.)
While the gorgeous actresses probably helped spark my interest, the movies' accessible marketing was probably even more important. These weren't scary foreign movies; they were films based around easy-to-understand thematic hooks. (Kieslowski had already shown a knack for this with the conceit behind "The Decalogue.") But marketing only gets you so far if the films aren't good, and the "Three Colors" trilogy was quite good. I haven't seen any of these movies in about 10 years, but I still recall the aching hurt of "Blue," the tart black comedy of "White," and the majestic grandeur of "Red." Seeing each of these in the theater on a couple different occasions, they seemed to suggest that the world of towering international filmmakers weren't a thing of the past. Fellini, Antonioni and Bergman were dead or fading away, but we had Kieslowski and his mysterious, deeply human films that rippled with ideas and emotion. My film school friends and I were too young to have been around for the French New Wave, but "Three Colors" gave us plenty to pore over. Sure, snob appeal was probably part of it, but the truth is his movies simply seemed deeper and more interesting than just about anything else around at the time. They may not have been masterpieces, but they had layers to them that invited (and rewarded) repeat viewings.
Criterion today released the "Three Colors" trilogy in a big box set, and like a lot of purported cinematic landmarks it's being hailed and ridiculed in equal measure. Were the movies really that good? Or were they just symptomatic of Miramax's success at bringing middlebrow arthouse movies to the masses? It's been so long since I've seen them that I can't say for sure. But I know that I'm eternally grateful to Kieslowski, who died in 1996 after announcing he was retiring from filmmaking. He made movies that engaged the eye and the mind. (They were a pleasure for the ear, too, thanks to frequent Kieslowski collaborator, composer Zbigniew Preisner.) Too pretentious? Too precious? Too mannered? Oh, maybe. But a part of me holds onto the feeling that Kieslowski stirred in me so long ago. I went to Los Angeles to find movies that could transport me. His films did just that. More importantly, they instilled in me a belief that this is what movies really ought to do. Too bad so few films -- arthouse or otherwise -- ever do.