Red movie review: ‘Brilliant’ Krzysztof Kieslowski film
The final film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors (“Trois couleurs”) trilogy, the 1994 release Three Colors: Red / Trois couleurs: Rouge, is almost universally acclaimed as the best of the three. For once, the general consensus is correct; but then again, if one is to believe some of the online reviews of both Red and the trilogy itself, there are plenty of people who seriously question whether or not Three Colors is superior to George Lucas’ Star Wars, Andy Wachowski and Larry [later Lana] Wachowski’sThe Matrix, and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogies.
Let me end that debate once and for all: The Three Colors trilogy is far better than those comic-book-type films. Real comparisons would be those to some of the truly great cinematic trilogies, such as Ingmar Bergman’s “Spider” (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence), or Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Alienation” (L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’eclisse).
As with the Kieslowski trilogy’s prior two films, Three Colors: Blue and Three Colors: White, Red was written by the director himself and Krzysztof Piesiewicz. It is a brilliant film, with the depth of Blue, the pathos of White, and character definitions superior to both, as Red follows the parallel lives of a small group of people in Carouge, a town just outside of Geneva.
Red movie synopsis
Red‘s main character is a beautiful brunette model, Valentine Dussault (Irène Jacob), whose (never seen) boyfriend Michel is always trying to reach her on the phone. Indeed, Red opens with Michel calling Valentine and getting a busy signal, a scene shot in a manner that recalls the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
As we get to learn more about Valentine, it becomes clear it’s one of those roles that defines an actor; the character embodies decency and goodness, while radiating love and compassion throughout the film. In that regard, Valentine is reminiscent of the role played by Setsuko Hara in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, or, more recently, Claire Danes in Anand Tucker’s Shopgirl (although Irène Jacob’s look remind me of actress Finola Hughes). Valentine is the sort of dream woman no man ever meets; not because she’s a model, but because she is almost preternaturally good.
The character whose life parallels, or rather, shadows Valentine’s is young wannabe judge Auguste Brunner (Jean-Pierre Lorit), who becomes deeply distraught after catching his girlfriend, Karin (Frédérique Feder), having sex with another man. Throughout the film, he and Valentine keep barely missing each other even though they live only a few houses away from one another.
In another plot thread, Valentine meets retired judge Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant) after accidentally hitting the man’s German shepherd, Rita. Once there, she discovers that he spies on his neighbors with high-tech surveillance equipment. The judge knows that one man is a drug dealer, while another is cheating on his wife – the latter is the same man Auguste catches having sex with his girlfriend.
Jean-Louis Trintignant: ‘Career-capping’ performance
Now, if Irène Jacob’s performance is career making, Jean-Louis Trintignant’s is career capping. After decades in French cinema, including roles in Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman, Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman, and Costa-Gavras’ Z, Trintignant is stupendous as the retired judge with numerous and highly complex personal issues. His is one of those performances whose greatness is not in scenery-chewing theatrics, but in the ability to move an audience with the slightest quiver of the face.
The judge is cold – to the point of deliberately spilling boiling water on his rug in a crude gesture of lust and impotence toward Valentine – but even when he refuses to take Rita back, we know there is something deeper and warmer in him. This side comes to full flower after Valentine nurses Rita back to health. The dog later has seven puppies that the judge grows to love.
‘Dozens of connecting details’
So does Irène Jacob’s Valentine have depths that are not all sweetness and light, for she refuses to rat out Jean-Louis Trintignant’s former judge Kern to his neighbors. She feels pity and disgust for the judge, and even becomes complicit in his crimes when he has her call the drug dealer. She wishes the man dead because of her own brother’s drug use, thus proving she is human.
Throughout Three Colors: Red there is the sense that Kern is more than mortal. We learn that, like his younger doppelgänger, Jean-Pierre Lorit’s Auguste, he too passed his judicial exams by acing a question that was revealed to him when he dropped a book. Additionally, he was cuckolded by a blond girlfriend and he took after her across the English Channel. (We also learn that Karin and her new beau – the married man – are going yachting in the Channel the same day Auguste and Valentine will take a ferry to England.)
Dozens of connecting details suffuse Red. Valentine lives near a café called Chez Joseph, then meets Joseph Kern. Auguste abandons then retrieves the dog given to him by Karin while Kern’s dog is abandoned and then embraced by him once Valentine saves it. Auguste has a photo of a dancer in his apartment; Valentine dances. The veterinarian to whom she takes Rita is named Marc, like her brother, etc.
Crucial to the tale, we also learn that Kern abused his power as a judge to get back at both his girlfriend and her lover. And despite their age difference, the judge is clearly in love with Valentine. She likely reciprocates, for she is drawn to him – especially when he reveals that he has dreamt of her at an older age, and that in the dream she is happy with someone in her life.
Later on in the film, we see a representation of their never-to-be love when Kern, inside his car, places his palm onto his window, and Valentine, outside, presses hers against his, on the glass. What is great about Red is that such a scene is not milked for melodrama.
Red = Fraternity
When Kern and Valentine are having a serious conversation inside an empty theater, that moment is leavened with two interludes of a worker looking for a cleaning woman. He interrupts their conversation twice; it seems he is angry at the cleaning woman. But when we hear them offstage, we realize he was looking for the woman to help her carry water buckets that were too heavy, which explicitly shows the fraternity implied in the film’s title, itself inspired by one of the colors of the French flag.
The fraternity ideal also reveals itself in another scene that links the Three Colors films: that’s when an old woman is seen trying to put a bottle in a recycle container. In Three Colors: Blue (for liberty), Julie (Juliette Binoche) does not see the woman, as she is freely daydreaming. In Three Colors: White (for equality) Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) sees the woman but smiles cruelly, for he sees she is as pathetic as he is. Yet, in Red, the concept of fraternity is played out as Valentine helps the old lady push the bottle in.
That scene also furthers the concept of doubling throughout the trilogy, for punishing his ex-lover’s lover is not the only time the judge regretted his decisions on the bench. Thirty-five years earlier, he had let a guilty man go free. The man straightened his life out, but the judge remained disturbed by his charity.
As Red reaches its conclusion, Kern appears to sense that Valentine’s ferry trip will be her destiny, for good or ill. He is right. During a storm, the boat, carrying 1,435 passengers, sinks. Also killed on their yacht, are Karin and her lover.
Seven newborn and reborn
There are only seven survivors from the ferry, reborn just as Rita’s seven puppies are newborn: an unseen English barman named Steve Killian, and the three main couples from the trilogy – Blue‘s Julie and Olivier (Juliette Binoche and Benoît Régent), White‘s Karol and Dominique (Zbigniew Zamachowski and Julie Delpy), and Red‘s Valentine and Auguste, who, in newsreel footage we and Kern see on his television, are finally about to meet.
Red then ends with a shot of Kern looking out a broken window from his home (after the outraged neighbors decide to exact vengeance for his spying). A single tear rolls down his face – reminiscent of Julie’s lone tear at the end of Blue and Karol’s tears at the end of White.
‘Great finale to a great trilogy’
In Three Colors: Red, Piotr Sobocinski’s cinematography is more compelling and ethereal than Sven Nykvist’s similarly red-obsessed camera work in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries & Whispers. Though not as emotionally intense as his work in Three Colors: Blue, Sobocinski’s Red hues are more subtle and every bit as effective in the way they saturate the film. Besides, throughout Red there is a sharp angularity and poetic visual rhyming effect that recalls Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, such as shots of the sun slowly dipping behind a mountain or of the eave of a roof.
There is also a bravura sequence where we see Irène Jacob’s Valentine first enter the home of Jean-Louis Trintignant’s Kern. We hear her footsteps and see the camera peer down halls. It seems to be a subjective shot from Valentine’s point of view, but it’s not, for we soon see her enter from the right side of the frame. Later on, a similar shot details Kern’s reactions after Valentine leaves him one night; that’s when he decides to turn himself in for his spying.
In another instance, we see Valentine’s face half-reflected in glass at Kern’s home, recalling a similar shot in Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin. That moment demonstrates Valentine’s duality, for while she refuses to listen to Kern’s eavesdropping – by covering her ears – she also refuses to stop him and wishes the drug dealer dead.
Zbigniew Preisner’s music, so powerful and dramatic in Three Colors: Blue, so subversive as a tango in Three Colors: White, is quite understated here. In Red, the visuals dominate.
In sum, Red is a great finale to a great trilogy whose weakest segment, White, is nevertheless an excellent film. Yes, there is a bit of a stretch in the fact that we have seen the stories of six of the seven survivors, but then is not Krzysztof Kieslowski allowed to extrapolate backwards? If one were to see the survivors of any tragedy, would it not be apropos to explore their stories? Additionally, given the time frames of the three films, the ending of Red could have happened before the ending of White, since that film takes place over the longest span of time – almost two years.
Three Colors: Red DVD
The Three Colors: Red DVD, part of Miramax’s Three Colors boxed set, offers many features. Its one drawback is the lack of an English-language soundtrack; the trilogy’s titles are available only with subtitles. The DVD’s featurette, “Insights into Trois couleurs: Rouge,” features Irène Jacob discussing Krzysztof Kieslowski. Jacob also does selected scenes commentary, and there are a few other extras, including a “Cinema Lesson” by Kieslowski.
Krzysztof Kieslowski scholar and hagiographer Annette Insdorf, who appears in the featurettes accompanying all three films, likewise does the Red commentary (as she did on Blue and White). One key problem is that besides being terminally p.c., Insdorf is terribly condescending in her explanations of the most obvious bits of symbolism.
‘Art at its best’
But no amount of bad commentary can deny Three Colors: Red — or Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy – its place in cinema history. It is the sort of artwork that if you ask, “What is it about?” you will not get a reply in a sentence or two, for this is a complex tale that has not been dumbed down à la Hollywood; it is so complex, in fact, that even a detailed syllabus could not do it justice for Red is linear in spots, yet intuitive throughout. One could easily see it going off tangentially to follow any of a dozen minor characters, and the thrust of the film – even if not the film itself – would have been preserved intact.
Either way, Red would have remained a great work for there is an undeniable immanence to greatness. That is a fact few critics are able to grasp. The greatness of Red, and to a certain extent of the whole Three Colors trilogy, is that such intellectual grasping is unnecessary to feel greatness. Thus, Red is art at its best.
Three Colors: Red / Trois couleurs: Rouge (1994)
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieslowski & Krzysztof Piesiewicz.
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant. Irène Jacob. Jean-Pierre Lorit. Frédérique Feder. Samuel Le Bihan.
Cameos: Juliette Binoche. Julie Delpy. Benoît Régent. Zbigniew Zamachowski.
Cinematography: Piotr Sobocinski. Film Editing: Jacques Witta. Music: Zbigniew Preisner. Production Design: Claude Lenoir. Producer: Marin Karmitz.
© Dan Schneider
Note: This review of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Red is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text, which can be read in its original form here. The views expressed in this Red review are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
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Jean-Louis Trintignant and Irène Jacob Three Colors: Red images: Miramax Films.