Brow Beat

The Incredible Music of “Three Colors”

A still of Juliette Binoche in ‘Blue’.

Yesterday, Slate published a piece by Dan Kois about Krzysztof Kieslowski’s acclaimed “Three Colors” trilogy. Kois argues that White, the overlooked middle entry, is Kieslowski’s “finest film.” Like many viewers, I’ve always favored Red. But I found myself thinking less about which of the films I preferred, and more about how great all the music was—from the “Song for the Unification of Europe,” which plays a major role in Blue, to the great tango music in White, and finally, above all, to the gorgeous music that plays at the close of Red.

So perhaps it’s unsurprising to learn that Kieslowski worked unusually closely with his composer, Zbigniew Preisner. “Preisner, in an interview on the Criterion discs, talks about how involved he was in the filmmaking,” Kois told me in an email.

Unlike most film-score situations, in which the director takes a mostly-final cut to a composer and says “I’ll be back in a month for the music,” Preisner and Kieslowski worked together throughout scriptwriting and storyboarding, especially in the scenes in which Julie and Olivier work their way through Patrice’s “Song for the Unification of Europe.” Though they’re of course a shorthand, filmified version of the process of composing a song, I love that the film takes the time to show that alchemy happening.

What’s more, Patrice is not the only imaginary composer in the film. Years before, apparently, Kieslowski and Preisner invented another composer, whom they called Van den Budenmayer. According to one website, Kieslowski had wanted to use some music by Wagner, “but this proved too expensive to license.” So he and Preisner created an imaginary Dutch composer (they both liked Holland, Preisner says). When they made Blue, Preisner composed an important piece, “Funeral Music,” as den Budenmayer, which Patrice references in his “Song for the Unification of Europe.” (A den Budenmayer piece first appeared in The Decalogue; he is also credited for music in The Double Life of Véronique.)  

Kieslowski was reportedly contacted by the Oxford University Press for information about Van den Budenmayer when the publisher was updating its music encyclopedia; the editors wished to know about this “late 18th-century Dutch composer.” Despite—or perhaps because of—his fictitious nature, knowing about den Budenmayer deepens the experience of Blue in particular. As Kois pointed out to me in his email, “Funeral Music”

is heard in the film over a crackly portable TV set as Julie watches her husband’s and daughter’s funeral while she recuperates in the hospital. Several years later, Binoche says in a commentary on the Blue disc, she listened to that music again, as it was played at Kieslowski’s funeral in Poland.