The first non-English-language film I ever saw in a cinema was Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Red, when it finally snuck into our local Johannesburg arthouse, some months after the critical hype from abroad had subsided.

It was, perhaps, an ambitious gamble by my parents, considering that I was 11 years old, and that none of us had seen the preceding two titles in Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy (receiving a 4K re-release in US cinemas this summer). But I was already serious about film, and my parents rightly reasoned that my horizons could then stand to be expanded: cue an unlikely family cinema outing to a pensive, melancholic study of the simultaneous human need for distance and connection, of aural voyeurism and ambiguous altruism, of lost dogs and missed chances and mass tragedy, of the creviced stories in Jean-Louis Trintignant’s face and the monetised model freshness of Irene Jacob’s.

The gamble paid off. I was oddly mesmerised by the film, even if I’m sure some of its darker, more perverse adult nuances must have escaped me. Kieślowski’s visual storytelling, however, did not. From that whooshing formal coup at the very outset of the film, as we dart along the cord of a landline phone, diving headlong into the massed cables and undersea tracks that connect it to the other end of the call, I was enthralled by a film that used image and sound in ways I had never previously seen or considered, in which each frame could be read for meaning both separate from and adjacent to the words being said on screen, in which the fundamental visual cue of colour begged (right there in the title) to be identified and interpreted. I may have been slightly perplexed by a coda that called back to characters from two films I hadn’t seen, but that was righted easily enough in the following months: Three Colours: Blue and Three Colours: White transfixed me in much the same way, pulling in a pre-teen would-be cinephile with cinematic language that more than compensated for a foreign tongue.

I’ve revisited Kieślowski’s trilogy repeatedly over the years – finally having a big-screen reunion with Red last year, in the appropriately unfamiliar environs of Egypt’s El Gouna film festival – and re-experienced that initial little rush of discovery each time, in a way I feel I owe to my younger self. That’s despite the fact that films, exquisitely conceived and constructed as they are, are not nearly as alien or mysterious as I once thought: their mise-en-scène is often immaculately classical, their dramatic pivots and reversals neat and sometimes rather literary, their visual symbolism – beginning with that Tricoleur-referencing colour code – unapologetically direct.

But there’s intractable, intangible emotion beneath all these systems and keys. Each film in the trilogy cultivates its own pervading surge of feeling: like Kieślowski’s sprawling Dekalog project of the 80s, the Three Colours films use chaptered stories and thematic structures to notionally organise the unruly, irregular ways in which we love, hurt and understand each other, and ourselves.

Blue, with Juliette Binoche’s precise, porcelain, set-to-shatter performance as a young widow at its centre, is the most plainly devastating of the three, though its plangent portrait of grief gradually turns into a symphonic paean to human collaboration and community – with a hefty assist from Zbigniew Preisner’s soaring all-timer of a score. White, the scabrously funny one, once left me coolest, though as I aged I came to see the poetry and truth in its revenge-to-ruin-to-reconcilation relationship arc: it’s a romantic comedy of sorts which believes not in soulmates but the mates we’re given. But it’s still Red, if only out of first-love loyalty, that moves me most, its study of unifying loneliness, hope and hard-won, oddly matched friendship as subtly complicated as its rouged aesthetic is saturated and blatant.

Perhaps by happy accident, my parents selected a near-textbook gateway into world cinema studies for the interested but unpracticed viewer: three films that are easy but not facile to read, that reward multiple viewings and differing angles. There’s a reason they cropped up again for me as taught texts in university film studies, and once more at postgraduate film school: I can only assume they do still. Had Kieślowski not died, aged just 54, in 1996 – exactly a year after Red’s surprise windfall of Oscar nominations brought him unprecedented mainstream recognition – he might well have gone on to make numerous other robust, rewarding works. (In the 2000s, Tom Tykwer’s Heaven and Danis Tanović’s Hell – both drawn from Kieślowski scripts for a second trilogy he never got to shoot – hinted at what might have been, minus the late auteur’s crisp formal authority.)

But the odds would have been against him making anything quite so canonical as those three, or quite so popular: now returning to cinemas in pristine restorations, the Three Colours films stand as a reminder of an era when the arthouse circuit still yielded event films on the regular – franchises, even, with shared characters and overlapping narratives a million miles from the Marvel multiverse. They weren’t even genre-crossover entertainments but interior, intellectual character studies, breaking out of special-interest circles into the comparatively middlebrow mainstream. It’s hard to think of a recent world-cinema endeavour roughly equivalent to Kieślowski’s career-crowning triptych, and harder still to imagine such films today being widely and universal seen in cinemas, where they might catch a curious young viewer unawares.

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By akagami