Three Colors: Red November 29, 2016
Perhaps there will never be as ambitious a cinematic statement as Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy. With each film (1993’s Blue and 1994’s White and Red) liberally representing the political ideals of the French Republic with oft-ironic poeticism, few sagas have managed to come together as cohesively — or as brilliantly — as Kieślowski’s project so elegiacally does.
By 1994, it was well established that Kieślowski, less than two decades into his career, was an iconoclast to be revered in the same way you might Ingmar Bergman or Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The maker behind some of the most challenging movies ever made up until that point — his Dekalog (1988) series, comprising a dectet of one-hour features based upon the Ten Commandments, still stands as being among film’s most aspirational affirmations — Kieślowski’s very name was synonymous with casual zeal to be delivered with atmospheric beauty. To devise a movie characterized by comparably grandiose drive would be a difficult fulfillment for any major director to attain. But not for Kieślowski. His talents, like his very own cinematic Leonardo da Vinci, reliably could be as boldly escapist as they could be formidable and deeply philosophical.
During the post-production of Red, widely regarded as the greatest accomplishment of the Three Colors trilogy, Kieślowski announced his retirement at the ripe age of fifty-four. Not that he was tired of creating — it was that he felt that all that he could achieve had been achieved already, and that “to read and smoke” until his death was more preferable a living to keeping his creative juices flowing to their very last drop.
But that retirement was cut relatively short in 1996 when he unexpectedly died following emergency open-heart surgery. In effect was his legacy not given the chance to marinate. Had he lived longer, appreciation might have risen and longing for additional works from the maestro might have been a possibility. But he remains to be a cult figure swimming under the metaphorical yachts being sailed by an array of more internationally beloved auteurs, hungry to escape the waters holding him back but nonetheless tirelessly trapped by an undertow keeping him obscure.
If his oeuvre were distinguished in being more openly accessible, perhaps he’d be as expansively revered as François Truffaut. But a filmmaker as inherently curious as Kieślowski wouldn’t much seem himself if easygoing diversion were the first thing on the mind — to provoke, and to stimulate, go better with his name than popcorn baiting simplicity. And yet the Three Colors nevertheless wears a sort of affecting passion that makes it as much popcorn baiting as Kieślowski could ever manage. Especially Red, which is so intoxicatingly exuberant and so concretely emotional that few pictures in the history of cinema have managed to be as simultaneously immediate and distinctly alien.
Like its predecessors, Red is very much “anti” in terms of its genre. Whereas Blue is anti-tragedy and White is anti-comedy, Red is anti-romance, always enticing genre ready happenstances but readily sending our optimisms away as soon as something tender begins to develop in the air. In it, “romance” exists between two anti-couples, one between a pair separated by age and ethics, and another between a twosome that have never met but are perfect for one another.
Red finds its protagonist in Valentine Dussault (Irène Jacob), a part-time model and university student who finds herself at an existential crossroads after she meets Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a hermit of a former judge. Brought together by circumstance — she inadvertently runs over his dog during a quiet weekday evening — Valentine, despite near instantaneously deciding that neither have much in common and that he’s mostly a misanthropic, unapproachable shell of a man, eventually warms to him after discovering that he’s been recording the conversations of neighbors and outright strangers for years. Not because she agrees with his illegal methodologies of healing his emotional numbness, but because she’s compelled to try to understand why his compulsive interest in the lives of others intrigues him so. (And she’s compelled herself eventually, anyway, by the unpredictable interconnectedness that turns out to lie between so many members of society.)
Valentine and Joseph’s relationship is one that proves to never cease in its interest. Though they initially appear to live on opposite ends of the Earth, they, like us, turn out to be surprisingly similar in their yearnings and their quandaries of emptiness. Valentine is young and beautiful but longs for a meaningful sort of love and a more direct mission in life. Stuck in a controlling long-distance relationship and not so sure where the next few years will professionally take her, she finds solace in Joseph, who’s damaged by a lost love who didn’t love him as much as he loved her and by a legal occupation that caused him to decide so many fates that he's become effectively unable to see himself as a socially capable member of society.
Many revelations are thrust forward and many epiphanies are felt — but most investing in Red is its haunting proclamation that we are all connected, whether those connections are found in close relations or are found merely in passing. We’re most affected by the nonexistent relationship between Valentine and Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), who live generally closely to one another, would make for a terrific couple, but might not ever meet. (They eventually do, but only out of an ingenious climax that ties the trilogy together with a cerebral twist.) Through this potentiality do we wonder how many people there are that could change our lives that we’ll never have the opportunity to meet, how many people there are that rest in close proximity to us but will never be recognized as anything but, at most, a nameless, familiar face.
In direct contrast to his big ideas and his intricate storytelling rituals, though, Red is corporeal and always hot to the touch — it’s an authentic, human character study spotlessly performed (Jacob, like in her previous Kieślowski collaboration, 1991’s The Double Life of Veronique, is exquisitely gorgeous and wondrously emotive) and stunningly stylized and photographed (the red of the title is always a richly presented color). I prefer Blue, the Juliette Binoche starrer tragic enough to elicit almost scarily genuine despair. But Red is a staggering achievement all the same — this is one of cinema’s finest swan songs. A