Movie Review – ‘Three Colors: Red’ (1994)

Posted on by Dave

Three Colors: Red (Trois Couleurs: Rouge), 1994
Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski
Written by Krysztof Piesiewicz and Krzysztof Kieślowski

By Erik Noonan

An Unlikely Tenderness

With Red, the final installment of his Three Colors series, and his last film, director Krzysztof Kieślowski completed an inquiry into the symbolism of the French tricolor. This picture dramatizes the concept of Brotherhood as an encounter between Beauty and Truth: up-and-coming model Valentine Dussaut (Irène Jacob) meets retired judge Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant). The only events that happen in Red are moments, and they take place between pauses in a chance conversation between two lonely and vulnerable people, who have nothing in common except empathy – hers intact, his badly damaged.

Valentine runs over a dog named Rita and brings her to her owner in the Carouge area of Geneva. No one answers, the door is open, so she enters, wakes Joseph where he is dozing over a radio, and asks if she should take Rita to the vet. He claims not to care, so Valentine has Rita bandaged. Joseph sends Valentine money to cover the cost, but overcompensates her, and when Rita gets better she runs away. Valentine goes back to Carouge and finds her at Joseph’s, gives Joseph his change and discovers him eavesdropping on his neighbors. He dares her to turn him in; she enters a neighbor’s house but loses her nerve, leaves, returns to Kern’s house, and tells him to stop spying on people. Joseph guesses her brother’s situation and she leaves, telling him that Rita is pregnant, and saying: “I can only feel pity for you.”

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Joseph writes to his neighbors and confesses, and Valentine reads the story in the newspaper, returns to his house, and swears that she has not told anyone. He tells her he turned himself in, invites her inside and shows her Rita’s litter of puppies. He tells her he thought about what she said and knows that it wasn’t pity she felt, but disgust. She asks his advice: should she visit her boyfriend in London, and leave her brother behind? He says she can’t live her brother’s life for him.  It’s Joseph’s birthday. They drink peach brandy. He tells her of a man he acquitted on this day long ago, whom he later realized had been innocent, but who raised a family and lived in peace after his acquittal. She says, “You did what you had to. And you did the right thing. Don’t you understand? You saved him.” Joseph wonders how many more people he might have been able to help in this way if he had judged other cases differently. He now feels that deciding true and false is a lack of humility. Valentine says: “Vanity.” Joseph agrees. He tells her he dreamt about her.

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They meet once more, when she invites him to attend a fashion show she’s walking in, and they stay after and talk in the empty theater. She is leaving for London tomorrow, they say goodbye, she wants to know if she was alone in his dream about her future, or if someone was at her side. He says someone else was there. She asks, “Who are you?” and he replies, “A retired judge.” He says, “Maybe you’re the woman I never met.” He describes his lost love and tells the story of another case from after she’d died, in which he found the man who stole her guilty of several people’s deaths. After that, Joseph says, he put in for an early retirement. She says she will visit him on her return from England. Her ferry capsizes in the Channel, and the film closes on Joseph, exhaustion and relief on his face, watching news footage of a few passengers being rescued, including Valentine.

The characters’ actions reveal their states of mind without explanation. Joseph tries to get Valentine to incriminate him, and turns himself in afterwards, for example. A lot of this movie is about a young woman’s relationships with the men in her life. Having seen her little brother’s picture in the paper in connection with a drug bust, Valentine calls him at home and asks if their mother saw it too. He says he doesn’t think so. They say goodbye, and she begs her coldly jealous boyfriend, “Call me, Michel. Please.” The phone rings, she picks up, a male voice says, “Valentine! Did you see the photo?” It’s the photographer, who has a crush on her, asking if she’s seen the billboard from their fashion shoot. She says, “Oh, it’s you, Jacques. No, I forgot. It’s been a hard day.” He invites her bowling, and she goes.

The dialogue shows Joseph’s disappointment, bitterness, cynicism and self-loathing: “I’ve been doing this my whole life.” “What were you, a cop?” “Worse! A judge.” And: “If I ever have to go to court, are there still judges like you?” “You won’t go to court. Justice doesn’t deal with the innocent.” Meanwhile, Valentine’s optimism asserts itself: Joseph says, “I don’t know whether I was on the good or the bad side. At least here I know where the truth is. My point of view is better than in a courtroom.” And Valentine replies, “No. Everyone has the right to a private life.” The neighbors throw a rock through the window, and this beautiful conversation follows:

VALENTINE: You’re not afraid?

JOSEPH: I wonder what I’d do in their place. The same thing.

VALENTINE: You’d throw stones?

JOSEPH: In their place? Of course. And that goes for everyone judged. Given their lives, I would steal, I’d kill, I’d lie. Of course I would. All that because I wasn’t in their shoes, but mine.

VALENTINE: Is there someone you love? Have you ever loved?

JOSEPH: Yesterday I dreamt . . . I dreamt of you. You were forty or fifty years old, and you were happy.

VALENTINE: Do your dreams come true?

JOSEPH: It’s been years since I dreamt something nice.

In this reversal of roles, even though Beauty poses the questions and Truth has to answer them, the characters both remain faithful to their personalities: Valentine’s directness is very much hers, and Joseph’s harsh evasions likewise come from his own life.

Between these meetings, an unreal plot unfolds, as Valentine’s neighbor Auguste Bruneur (Jean-Pierre Lorit) lives out Joseph’s stories of his own life as a younger man – from dropping a book that opens on a page containing the question he will be asked on an exam, to seeing his love Karin (Frédérique Feder) betray him with another man. Auguste drives a red car and wears a red shirt, part of the scenery himself, a strange living copy of his elder prototype, acting out another man’s destiny, boarding the same ferry as Valentine, surviving the wreck too.

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This piece doesn’t dwell on the cityscape, there are no “money shots,” there’s no sublimity, Kieślowski shunned the propaganda in the panorama, the vistas are closed off by corners and slopes. The surroundings are only there as a backdrop of the human drama, and Kieślowski has a way of making a location feel like a set, along with the sonic motifs of newspapers, prop plane noise, and radio and TV static. There are magnificent crane shots and pans, from street-level to apartment interiors and back, and from loge to orchestra pit. Zbigniew Preisner’s score floats between themes that wrap us in mystery and serenity. There are characters from Kieślowski’s earlier Three Colors films Blue and White, and ideas from Tramway, A Short Film About Killing, A Short Film About Love, and The Double Life of Véronique.

In this movie released the year after the EU was formed, Kieślowski’s curiosity about a foreign way of life produced two characters that represent the foundations of bourgeois Western European society as seen by someone who worked for most of his life in Communist Poland. Because this picture comes from a real interest in how someone else might happen to live day by day so as to become an archetypal personality of their place and time, we’re not exposed to the director’s own hangups; instead Kieślowski lets us in on his curiosity, and we watch an idea come to life, in scenes that hold the attention of a great many people, since they concern us so intimately.

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