08 September 2013


After releasing Three Colors: Red in summer 1994, Krzysztof Kieślowski announced that he was done making movies. It took his premature death from a heart attack less than two years later to seal that promise (I am, invariably, dubious about any artist's "retirement" while they are still able-bodied and of sound mind), but even without the inescapable finality of that, Red feels awfully like a for-real final statement, as much as any other director ever put forth. It is a summing-up of both the narrative and moral universes of the Three Colors trilogy, the definitive and stentorian Statement On Europe conceived by Kieślowski and his creative right arm, co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz; it is also the most imposing and total statement of the theme that is, to some degree, the definitive concern of every one of the director's narratives. Namely, that all of us are connected by forces which we cannot perceive, understand, or name; forces which are certainly not "God", as any religion would define that term. Perhaps it is the mystical embodiment of the idea that every human action affects other humans in ways that aren't apparent, and are frequently not noticed. It is tied up with the alternate universes of Blind Chance, it is right on the surface of The Double Life of Véronique, it is buried in the shared universe of the ten chapters of Dekalog. And it is given a particularly robust workout in Red, a movie that is more or less brilliant throughout its running time, but which attains a genuinely hair-raising level of storytelling ingenuity in the film's last scene, probably the most gobsmacking part of Three Colors the first time you watch it, and still potent stuff even after three, four trips through Kieślowski's symbolic Europe.

Even setting aside the "rightness" that the director's final movie should be such a thorough working-out of his pet theme, it makes sense that Red, of all films, would adopt this perspective: in the very loose "liberté, égalité, fraternité" concept that serves as a useful launching point, if nothing else, in carving away at the films, this is the third one, the one that works through the notion of "brotherhood". Though as much as Three Colors: Blue plays with an idiosyncratic notion of "liberty", and Three Colors: White has a positively cynical notion of "equality", Red is certainly the member of the trilogy farthest away from its notional theme as the French revolutionaries would have considered it. In this context, there's absolutely no leftist connotation to "brotherhood", but a humanist one; though even the word "humanist" feels a bit inapt in talking about the exact thing that Red is going on about.

It takes place in Geneva, Switzerland, where student and model Valentine (Irène Jacob) is feeling awfully lonely about the absence of her boyfriend Michel (never seen, but often heard; I believe he is voiced, through the credits are unspecific, by Marc Autheman), though it's anybody's guess as to why: from all available evidence - all the evidence, I say - Michel is a nasty, awful little boy, suspicious at no evidence whatsoever and huffy and contemptuous when Valentine pushes back even slightly against his suspicions. At any rate, Valentine has plenty to occupy her time, such as the photography shoot for chewing gum that finds her wrapping a sweater around her neck and looking off into the middle distance, with an ineffably sad, wounded look on her face.

Clearly, they have different expectations of chewing gum in Switzerland.

One night, Valentine hits a German Shepherd with her car; the dog, Rita, has an address on its collar, and her largely responsible first act (very responsible would be to stop by the vet first) is to go to the owner, a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Later evidence allows us to identify him as a certain Joseph Kern, but in the end credits he is merely "The Judge", and there is a clear intention with which Kieślowski and Piesiewicz present the figure as not merely curmudgeonly ol' Joe Kern, but something more abstract and universal; it seems entirely fair to me to say that he is not just "the judge who appears in the movie", but "the One Who Judges", this being the most deliberately metaphysical of the Three Colors films. Lord, no, he's not a deity - to Kieślowski and Piesiewic, judging isn't a Godly act. The precise opposite: Kern's judgments have proven so implacable and severe that when we meet him, he has descended into total emotional nihilism (he doesn't visibly register any emotion upon hearing that his dog is gravely wounded), and a particularly bent form of nihilism, in which he uses a short-wave radio to eavesdrop on the telephone conversations of his neighbors. Not for any prurient reason, that we can see; apparently it simply gives him a muted form of satisfaction to know for sure that the secret lives of the people he sees during the day are just as venal, selfish, and broken as he wants to imagine. This repulses Valentine, and she storms out.

Naturally enough, she doesn't stay away, and Red plays out like every movie in which a beautiful young woman stirs the inner life of a crusty old man, except not at all like that, in fact. The convention is to call this the anti-romance of the trilogy, in fact, since the possibility of sexual tension between the two characters is so plainly impossible (even the judge himself acknowledges this, plainly, with no pathos); it is also, I do believe, an anti-thriller, as Valentine attempts to unlock the mysteries of this joyless old man and his anti-social actions, but in such a casual, even accidental way that even in the big "let me tell you of my past" scene, what matters is not the fact of the judge's history, but the fact that he's sharing it, now, with Valentine.

Being anti-genre, Red has much more interesting things to do with its plot than just tell a story, and one of the things that makes it so damn incredible to watch (it's the primary reason I often flirt with calling it my favorite of the three, though I almost invariably go back to Blue) is how it's most interested in using plot as a means of expressing theme. For there's another whole narrative thread happening alongside all the stuff I just recapped: in her building, Valentine has a neighbor she's never met, Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit). He's a law student right on the cusp of graduating and becoming a judge himself, and he's in love with Karin (Frédérique Feder), one of the neighbors that Kern spies on - indeed, the Karin/Auguste affair is one of his favorite subjects to haughtily act superior about. Throughout the whole movie, Auguste and Valentine keep almost crossing paths, in a way that would be unabashedly, appallingly contrived if Red were any kind of naturalistic or even honestly representational narrative, which it's not. The film wants us to take Valentine and Auguste as "real" (much like it does with the even more obviously symbolic The Judge), but what happens to them as "not real", representative instead of the human condition of missing connections and not noticing the person around you from moment to moment, even when it's the same person perpetually in the corner of your eye.

The driving energy of Red is coincidence, in its most denotative possible meaning. Things happening at the same time; things overlapping. The film does not posit a God as such (God as such is not typically a very noteworthy figure in Kieślowski's cinema), though it has a guiding intelligence, one directed less at the characters than at the viewers: it's not as important that they understand the unlikely connections drawing their lives together, as it is that we see and recognise them. Red isn't attempting to teach the character lessons about brotherhood, but the viewer. That lesson being, we're all part of the same society, from a sufficient remove, and our lives are all intertwined in ways that, often, nobody will ever notice or care about; but they are intertwined nonetheless. Every beat of the story is built on this precept. There are obvious gestures, like the old woman that Valentine helps with her recycling, after Julie in Blue and Karol in White both ignored her (the fact that the same woman can be in Paris and Geneva for no obvious reason is proof enough that Red cares more about its audience than its cast), a straightforward symbol of Helping Each Other. Or the looming fact of Joseph Kern and Auguste living parallel lives, and in essence living the same life at different moments in time, just like Jacob herself did as Véronique and Weronika three years prior; a great film would have used this as a means of elucidating the character of Kern, or Kern and Auguste, if it was sassy, but Red decides to be more than great, and uses this metaphysical doubling to especially elucidate its themes and emotions, separate from the level of character. The judge never realises that the young man he's so indifferent towards "is" himself; it sounds corny when I type it, but in practice, it surely isn't, any more than it's corny that that having a young version of the judge running around allows the universe (that is, Kieślowski and Piesiewicz) to permit the pairing of the judge and Valentine that he eulogises as having been the one thing that could have saved him from the misanthropy that characterised his whole life.

Red operates largely on the level of metaphor, is what I'm saying. And I took my damn time to say it, but some movies you don't want to let slip by so easily, some trilogies especially. Three Colors is an easy thing to feel, a hard thing to parse, and a damn hard thing to explain, because it operates at such an intuitive level: you watch the film, you immediately comprehend that it is proclaiming that it is a great tragedy of our species that we do not more readily allow ourselves to feel with other people (and this is, in varied iterations, the idea behind each of the films), but the brilliance of the filmmaking and writing is that this happens almost subliminally, through Zbigniew Preisner's wonderful, wonderful music, through the manipulations and repetitions of imagery and the incredibly controlled use of lighting (Red was shot by Piotr Sobociński, incidentally; I would have felt terrible not bringing it up, because it is a neat mingling of the Expressionism of Blue with the realism of White, and the visceral beauty of both), and the way that people have an eerie tendency to feel like themselves and the aspect of 1990s Europe that they represent. From its hugely symbolic opening telephone call (we track along and occasionally inside the the wires connecting a phone in England and a phone in Geneva - phones being one of the main motifs in this most motivistic of films) to its even more symbolic final scene (where a terrible tragedy unites the various Embodied Aspects of Europe the trilogy has devised into one place and moment), Red wants more than anything to be Kieślowski ultimate, comprehensive statement on how life works at that one moment in history, what the human cost of that moment is, and how we might be able to be our best selves and make that place at that moment unified and well. It's nothing short of astonishing that the director was actually able to carry such a thing off, and no better swan song to such a rich, weighty career has yet been filmed.


¬Will Ross said...

Tim, your formatting! Look out!

Tim said...

I see it, and I have no fucking clue. I think the better part of valor is to try to fix it tomorrow, when I am a bit more alert.