Three Colors: Red (Trois couleurs: Rouge) Reviews
Following on from Blue's treatment of liberty and White's examination of equality, Red completes the study of the French motto by tackling fraternity. This is played out in two distinct but complimentary ways. One is the relationship between Valentine, a beautiful model with a complicated family life, and Joseph Kern, a retired judge who spies on his neighbours by tapping their phone lines. This is the 'anti-romance' of the film, since these characters have no real reason to be connected, let alone attracted to each other. Let's face it, returning a dog you just ran over is not the greatest of ice-breakers.
If this were a Hollywood rom-com, the device of the dog would be considerably overplayed, and the opposing personalities played for (attempted) comic effect. The two would have either walked off into the sunset after much bickering, or would have fought against the world to keep their forbidden love alive. Kieslowski attempts no such nonsense; the feelings these characters have for each other is strictly platonic -- strictly fraternal.
As the characters begin to engage with each other, drawn together by the circumstance of the dog, we see the judge beginning to open up and acknowledge both his significance and his ability for empathy. His final scenes, at the fashion show and watching the TV reports, are analogous to Gene Hackman's final scenes in The Conversation, to which his character owes a debt. Both his smile at the TV and Hackman's saxophone playing are small but significant moments of triumph in surroundings which would otherwise cause despair.
The second means by which fraternity is explored is in the series of coincidences which appear throughout the film. For example, early on a man is walking across the road and drops his books. One book falls open on a certain page; he studies the words intently, and that subject comes up on his law exam, which he manages to pass. In the final act, the judge talks to Valentine about an identical experience he had as a young student, with the exact same outcome.
These kinds of coincidences suggest one of two things. Either they suggest that the characters are in some kind of intergenerational time-loop, in which the actions of one generation will be indirectly repeated, a la The Shining. Or, perhaps more likely, they suggest that these kinds of encounters happen all the time, mostly or almost always without our knowledge. They are impossible to predict or control, since they are inherent either in our cultures or in our very being.
This is the brotherhood (or sisterhood) which the film explores, people living out lives in an unconsciously similar fashion, with similar goals, needs or desires. Kieslowski doesn't attempt to tie this down to a solid definition of 'human nature' (if there is such a thing), and hence we don't get a lot of patronising platitudes about what it means to be alive. He leaves both the cause and effect of these encounters unwritten, save for hinting that our desire to connect, whatever the cause and end, can only be a good thing.
In order for this kind of premise to work, we have to believe that the people we are seeing on screen are ordinary people, as opposed to good-looking actors pretending to be normal. Kieslowski is not a documentarian, but he somehow manages to sustain all his artistic and philosophical flights of fancy by anchoring the film in a number of believable performances. Irène Jacob's dialogue is sparse and simple, with no outrageously self-indulgent metaphors which could distract from either the story or her great performance. Kieslowski has a level of artistry which offers up substance and ravishing beauty without shutting the audience out; we feel intimate with the characters, while slowly becoming aware of their greater significance.
This sense of intimacy and 'the unwritten' is bolstered by the cinematography, which is simply beautiful to behold. As with Blue and White, there is barely a shot in the film which is not covered in the colour of the title. Piotr Sobociński captures an entire spectrum of deep and passionate reds which give the film real life and glamour, which is of course in keeping with the fashion elements of the plot. Red is a symbol for many things -- love, anger, passion -- and all of these are offered up as potential candidates for the 'unwritten' force which guides the characters in the film.
Even if you're not trying to decode the meaning of a scene, every shot of the film washes over you in a wave of beauty. Whether it's the lovely external shots, showing the flat and the café, or the interior segments with all the bright lights and mirrors, there's something which will inspire and delight anyone. The camerawork is always interesting, with many long shots to give the more intimate sequences a chance to breathe and give emphasis to the smallest encounter, the kind of conversations and sweet nothings which more rapid editing would render meaningless. There is a great moment where the model and the judge are in the theatre, and he is talking about the book falling down from the balcony. The camera moves down from the balcony to the stage, mirroring the fall of the book -- a decision which illuminates what is arguably the pivotal scene of the film.
In any kind of sprawling character epic, whether it's Love Actually or Magnolia, there has to be a slightly awkward scene where all these lives are tied together so that we realise how they are all somehow connected. As has been made clear, the fact that Kieslowski does not over-elaborate on all these little connections means that the ending seems more intelligent and less contrived than its American or British equivalents. It's still slightly awkward, but it's hard to think of a better way to tie this trilogy together.
Three Colours -- Red is not quite a perfect film. It is a little difficult to follow at times, and some of the characters are underdeveloped, such as the gentleman on the phone whom the judge suspects of smuggling heroin. It may be the case that these things all make sense on subsequent viewing, and that is reassuring because the film invites you to remain in its world until, like the characters, we realise why we were here. Like Michelangelo Antonioni or a more upbeat David Lynch, Red has a bewitching quality to it, a certain atmosphere that makes you want to go back and unravel all the little pieces. It's a really fascinating film, and a fine conclusion to Kieslowski's career.
*On my "best of the 1990s" list.
It's hard to say much about the trilogy as a whole that hasn't already been addressed. After watching Red, my appreciation for it has been bolstered significantly. These are undeniably important, powerful films - ones worth seeing for anyone who's remotely serious about movies.
Roger Ebert's essay about the trilogy, which you can find on his website, is a really great read for better understanding. It says a lot about the sway these films hold that I want to read and learn more about them, and about Krzysztof Kieslowski and about his works. They may not be entertaining, but they are inexorably unique.
"Blue" was a prime example of what I like to refer to as "La Villa Strangiato", - in honor of the Rush instrumental which took the subtitle "An Exercise in Self-Indulgence" - in that it was one of art films which meditated upon just about nothing, and while "White" was a much a tighter and more grounded film, it was still misguided, and here, if there is overt lyricism to abstract storytelling, it's rare enough for you to not notice, which isn't to say that this film doesn't still have a tendency to drag its feet, with repetitious, if not aimless filler which squanders time that could have been dedicated more towards characterization. Immediate background development is lacking, and gradual exposition is adequate enough for you to get to know these characters just fine, but considering that this film is so much more grounded than its overtly naturalist predecessors, there's no excuse for its neglecting, if not the sudden abandonment of potentially intriguing conflicts and themes which stand away from the film's central focus, yet would add to the depth of a story that, quite frankly, needs more meat. Despite not quite having the scope of "White", this film's story concept certainly has a whole lot more depth to it than the overly intimate "Blue" and the lighthearted "White", but it's still a minimalist premise that establishes only so much bite and consequence, but plenty of conventions. Even though "Blue" and "White" had the audacity to be formulaic in its attempts at being artistically offbeat, one has to figure that this film, with its being more grounded than ever, is more formulaic than ever, and sure enough, the film is predictable, as surely as it is overlong, meandering along a familiar path at what at least feels like a glacial clip. I've rambled on and on about how this film is made much more interesting than its predecessors by its all but abandoning roots of abstract lyricism, but don't go in with the hopes that dryness is abandoned, because there's still something rather subdued about Krzysztof Kieślowski's direction, which relies on quietness, if not an ethereal atmosphere over all of meditations that, while not abstract, seriously bland things up, if not dull them down. I did find myself uncovering some not-so fond memories of boredom from the arguably tedious predecessors, and although I was generally engaged, potential, no matter limited, is lost in the wake of some misguided ambitions, if not laziness. The final product runs the risk of succumbing to the mediocrity its predecessors decidedly fell to, but it achieve decency, against all expectations, and gets there partly because it remains about as aesthetically solid as its predecessors.
At the very least, this series has stood as a testament to the brilliant musical abilities of Zbigniew Preisner, whose score for "Blue" was masterful in its genuine classicalism, and whose much less sweeping score for "White" was still charming and lovely in its lightness, and although this film is still awfully quiet, it's as celebratory of Preisner's gifts as any installment, ranging from a haunting sobriety to a captivating grandness that is rare in modern classical music, let alone modern film scoring. The musical style is certainly there, and when it comes to the visual style, well, it's not too much more explored by this mostly quiet affair, arguably being the least handsome of the three films, but decidedly being handsome by its own right, regardless, with Piotr Sobociński delivering on cinematography that was, for 1994, crisp in its emphasis on spare lighting in order to tastefully compliment the heart of this human drama's tone, if not certain colors, such as - you guessed it - red. Even the visual style seems to be eager to explore the depths of this film in an artistically subtle manner, and one can understand the ambition, that is, to a certain extent, for although this story is too intimate to carry all that much dynamicity or consequence, it's still a tasteful portrait on humanity and love, and it is done justice by a script by Krzysztof Kieślowski and Piesiewicz which, for all its excesses and thinness, is more focused in its exploration of worthy themes and worthy characters. It still stands to be juicier, but the characterization of this film still manages to draw rich and relatable roles who go brought to life by a cast that has little material, but plenty of charisma, whether it be the lovely Irène Jacob, or the subtly piercing Jean-Louis Trintignant. Really, outside of the grand aesthetic aspects, where the flaws of this film stand firm, the strengths are rather subtle, but they are plentiful, and in order to save the film, if not deliver on some resonance, they need to be well-orchestrated by a director who has had a history for getting carried away with subtleties. Well, sure enough, Kieślowski, as director, cannot completely justify his thoughtful approach to everything, for material to draw upon is limited, and yet, whether it be because he's more realized in his thoughtfulness, or simply because he has more material to work with, Kieślowski proves effective more often than not, whether that be aesthetically speaking, or dramatically speaking, with heights in dramatic realization that range from tasteful to near-powerful. The film is still far from rewarding, and is not even what it could have been as a minimalist drama, but it has its moments, and enough of them to engage much more than either of its predecessors, and therefore stand as a decent, if still somewhat questionable art drama.
In the end, the film drags its feet quite a bit to say only so much about its characters, and to have only so much meat to a story concept whose familiarity and blandly, if not dully subdued approach bring momentum to a crawl, but don't bring the final product to the mediocrity that claimed its predecessors, for there is enough magnificence to Zbigniew Preisner's score, handsomeness to Piotr Sobociński's cinematography, focus to Krzysztof Kieślowski's and Piesiewicz's script, grace to Irène Jacob's and Jean-Louis Trintignant's acting, and realized thoughtfulness to Kieślowski's direction to make "Three Colors: Red" an unsurprisingly improvable, yet surprisingly fair conclusion to Kieślowski's otherwise flat trilogy.
2.5/5 - Fair
Out of the three films, I think that "Three Colors: Red" is the most immediately relatable but at the same time also the most cryptic (the questionable actions of the retired judge). We can relate with the adventurous Valentine because, unconsciously, we are also her because by any chance our car may ran over a dog and find out that the wounded animal has a name tag with an address in it, we will immediately return it to the owner, which in this case is the judge. This is how Valentine and the mysterious judge met, therefore forming a bond forged out of curiosity and developed out of the immediacy of human connection.
For some filmmakers, with this kind of characters, a twenty-something girl and a sixty-something man, it's enough grounds to create a relatively pretentious romance. But Kieslowski, himself about to reach sixty years of existence himself (which he never did when he suddenly died in 1996) by the time this film, his last one, was released, knows better by instead playing this type of character relationship with dramatic assurance, wisdom and lots of heart. Of course, it's not without a hint of tragedy and a sense of isolation, which both "Three Colors: Blue" and "Three Colors: White" has finely established in different perspectives.
But aside from this filmic relationship, Kieslowski also has something much trickier to pull off: how to coherently tie up the three films while also giving his current characters enough breathing space to wrap up their own situation.
On one side, we have the budding emotional involvement between Valentine and the privacy-invading judge. On the other, there's also a young judge named Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), whose life, in many ways, closely mirrors that of the judge's and who's currently involved in a run-of-the-mill romance with a personal weather reporter.
At surface viewing, "Three Colors: Red" may look like your typical film by way of how it tackles love and existence at different viewpoints, sometimes in bliss, sometimes in pain. But Kieslowski has created his characters to fit an urgent inevitability to unconsciously interconnect. In this idea of intertwining of fates, Kieslowski has already gave us a tease by mistakenly letting Julie (from "Three Colors: Blue") enter the courtroom where the divorce trial between Karol and Dominique is taking place in the beginning of "Three Colors: White". There's also the hunched old lady (who appeared in all three films) immersed in a mundane difficulty: The camera and the characters always catch her laboriously trying to put an empty bottle inside a trash bin; a prominent figure in the whole trilogy that has been, in a way, the barometer of the protagonists' characters. (Julie merely looked at her in puzzled sadness while Karol minutely smirked at her predicament. Only Valentine has the basic courtesy to help her put the bottle in the bin).
In this film, it has truly, as they say, come in full circle.
But not in the way how a generic ensemble film may. Sure, the film may have discoursed about the general outlook of love by way of those two (bliss and pain) extremes, but the film is a minuscule observation of love and life at the same time as it is a far-reaching, 'what if' meditation on time . In the end, "Three Colors: Red" relies on the singular choices and plans of its characters instead of giving the responsibility to an invisibly omniscient hand to move the likes of Valentine and the judge as if indifferent chess pieces. And for that, the film was uniquely pragmatic.
After 'liberty' and 'equality' were tackled through individualistic perspectives by way of Julie and Karol in the two previous films, "Three Colors: Red" was able to brilliantly put these stories, stories of people striving through all too human flaws, in a holistic harmony even in the midst of a tragedy. This may very well be the significance of 'fraternity' in the whole film, but "Three Colors: Red" is also quite aware of another infinitely more transcendent thing: destiny. Again, with its fascinating visionary depth and articulate human drama, "Three Colors: Red" is the best film in the trilogy, and is also a fitting swan song for Krzysztof Kieslowski, who sadly passed away far too soon.