“Red” the third film of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy based on (and saturated by) the colors of the French flag, which represent liberty, equality, and fraternity, This film, the one with fraternity as its theme, has been greatly admired by many critics. I recall that there was a major flap about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ruling that it could not be nominated for the “best foreign picture” award in 1994. Kieslowski, who died two years later, was nominated for the best director award, one of the rare occasions a nomination went to the director of a film not in English.
The film was shot by the Polish director in Francophone Geneva. Like most European art films since the end of the Second World War, if one had to say what it is “about,” the answer would be “alienation and failed connections.” The connections do not altogether fail, but as in Kieslowski’s “Double Life of Veronique“—which also starred Irène Jacob— the leading female character fails to recognize her match. In the earlier film it was an exact replica (both played by Jacob). In “Red,” it is potential partners (soul mates) who are out of synch.
“Synch” is the right word, because there is a very strong suggestion that Valentine (Jacob) is the “right woman” to have made the never-named retired judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant happy—had she been born earlier and he been born later. Or, perhaps she is the “right woman” for Auguste ((Jean- Pierre Lorit), the newer version, a young law student who passes an examination to become a judge over the course of the film . Although he lives across the street from Valentine, they do not meet. He is repeating the older judge’s basic life pattern with a relationship on the rocks (with a woman who provides individualized weather forecasts by telephone). As far as the viewer can tell, the younger judge knows nothing of the older one. He certainly has no inkling that he is verging on reincarnating the older judge (except that the older one is still alive), or, at least, recapitulating his mistakes.
But Valentine does not seem to me to be repeating the infidelity of the woman who broke the older judge’s heart. Nor is she evasive as the weather-service woman is. Valentine is a model. In the photo shoot she is asked to look sadder and sadder, but she does not strike me as particularly melancholic. Conscientious is an apter epitomization.
Distracted by static on her car radio one night, she accidentally hits a runaway dog. She goes to the address on its collar. The owner (Trintignant) tells her to do whatever she wants. Valentine asks, “You don’t want her?” He answers, “I want nothing,” and she snaps back “Then stop breathing.” A bracing experience, it seems, for the self-pitying older man.
After the dog runs away and returns to the “home” where his owner doesn’t care about him, Valentine drops by again. She is shocked to learn that the man spends his time eavesdropping on his neighbors’ telephone conversations. He dares her to expose him. She goes to tell one of the neighbors, but decided that doing so will cause more suffering than it allays.
When the story of a retired judge electronically eavesdropping hits the papers, she returns to reassure him that she did not report him. He smiles and tells her he knows that, because he reported himself. He is now getting bricks thrown through his windows and she helps sweep up.
Later he tells her the story of the unhappy love when he was young that embittered him. Indeed, “Red” is a very talky movie, generally telling rather than showing.
At least the main relationship in the movie is long on explanatory narration. There are also telephone conversations between Valentine and her boyfriend who is in England, and between the younger judge and the weather reporter. The one relationship that is not constituted by talk is the non-relationship between Valentine and Auguste. They are physically proximate often, but never meet, let alone connect.
Arguably, a fraternity emerges between the temporarily isolated Valentine and the permanently frozen out older judge, but it seems that there is generally a longing for connection that is not satisfied. (As I said, isn’t this the theme of most European art films?) Mostly, the characters’ connections are by cell phone and answering machine (and intercepted cell phone calls in the case of the older judge)—prototypically alienated forms of communication, typical of postmodern society.
There is a suggestion of salvation (and, indeed, election in the full Calvinist sense) in the end (for the leading characters from all three films of the trilogy).
I began writing this, planning to dismiss the film as overrated. I recognized that the two leads turned in extraordinary performances. I continue to think that the film is unnecessarily murky and far too talky. And the saturation of one color seems so 1970s (so 1970s German). . . However, it does draw the viewer in and forced me to try to figure out what Kieslowski intended. The characters have a greater hold on my imagination than I thought they did before I started writing about the film, and I have surprised myself by writing myself into the ranks of its admirers.
I still think that “Blue,” the second film in the trilogy, starring the even-more-beautiful Juliette Binoche, is the best of the three, but for those liking to try to solve puzzles of human relationships, “Red” is a worthy candidate and much less depressing. (“White” is a lightweight comedy.). Viewers wanting plots and action should avoid it.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray