As the dust settled and the cordite faded from the air, the instigators of the French revolution held aloft the severed heads of their old oppressors and proclaimed a new age of humanity; an age in which people would be governed not by the supposedly divine whim of royal genetics but by reason and the principles of the enlightenment. Principles such as Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Over two hundred years later, the polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski decided to devote a trilogy of films to the question of what these hallowed values mean to the modern world. The results are far from a glowing endorsement.
In Blue, Kieslowski renders liberty as an icy internal exile from those who would love us. In White, he reinvents equality as a bitter and demented desire to get even. In these two films we see Kieslowski’s belief that, rather than founding a new society, the values of the enlightenment now serve to drive us apart. Given this pessimistic assessment of the first two revolutionary values, it is surprising to discover in Three Colours: Red an exploration of the concept of Fraternity that is both upbeat in tone and resoundingly hopeful in outlook. For Kieslowski, Liberty and Equality are virtues that drive us into the isolation of individualism while Fraternity, the sense of a common bond between all people, is the value that conspires to bring us together despite ourselves.
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There are words that yield far more easily to the lips than they do to the mind. Every day, we reach for a set of shared values and concepts which, laid down in another place and another time, no longer seem as well defined as they used to be. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy springs from a desire for clarification, to return to the revolutionary French values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity and ask: What do they mean for us today?
Three Colours: White is the second film in the trilogy and its conceptual slipperiness reflects the fact that equality is one of our least understood values. We all want to live in an equal society but do we really understand what equality entails and where in our society should the value of equality assert itself? Does a commitment to equality entail a commitment to equality of outcomes or of opportunities? Or are we talking instead about the creation of a society in which everyone is equally happy and/or equally miserable? Three Colours: White explores the dubious morality of a pursuit of emotional parity.
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We are, according to existentialism, hopelessly free. Jean-Paul Sartre argued that, in the absence of God and the sort of meaningful meta-narratives that give life an objective meaning and purpose, we are free to define our own natures: ‘To Do is To Be’ because ‘Existence Precedes Essence’. The problem is that freedom is a double-edged sword and while the death of God may well have done away with all limitations on our freedom, it has also served to render all of our choices meaningless. Indeed, if all paths are open to us and equally inviting then there is no correct path to take and so every decision we do make is tainted by the knowledge that all of our choices are effectively meaningless and arbitrary.
Freedom’s double edge so concerned Sartre that he wrote a short pamphlet entitled Existentialism is a Humanism (1946) addressing the charge that existentialism is a gloomy credo. The pamphlet ends with a barnstorming rant against Christianity:
This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realise himself as truly human (…) In this sense, existentialism is optimistic, it is a doctrine of action, and it is only by self-deception, by confusing their own despair with ours that Christians can describe us as without hope.
Barnstorming though it may be, this rant is hardly convincing as the vision of human nature that Sartre describes is one of perpetual vertigo and while ridding ourselves of the tyrannical sky-pixie is no bad thing, Sartre seems to have saddled us with another form of tyranny: The tyranny of responsibility for ourselves and the tyranny of endless choice.
This tension within the concept of freedom is beautifully demonstrated by Krzysztof Kieslowski in Three Colours: Blue, the first of a trilogy of films interrogating the values of the French Revolution (Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite).
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