- Three Colors: Red (1994) movie review: Screenwriter-director Krzysztof Kieslowski and co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz’s third and final Three Colors film is a cinematic triumph.
- Veteran Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman, Z) delivers a “career-capping performance” as a lonely, embittered former judge, while Irène Jacob delivers a “career-making” one as the personification of (however imperfect) Goodness.
- Red was shortlisted for three Academy Awards: Best Director, Original Screenplay, and Cinematography. It had been deemed ineligible in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Three Colors: Red (1994) review: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s psychological/metaphysical romantic drama is the best entry in the trilogy
The final entry in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy, the 1994 drama Three Colors: Red / Trois couleurs: Rouge is almost universally acclaimed as the best one. And for once, the general consensus is correct.
In fact, “Three Colors” – Red was preceded by Blue and White – can be compared to some of the truly great cinematic troikas, such as Ingmar Bergman’s “Spider” trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Alienation” trilogy (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse).
As was the case in the previous two entries, Red was written by the director himself and Krzysztof Piesiewicz. It features 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.
‘Preternaturally good’ heroine
The main character in Red is a beautiful brunette model, Valentine Dussault (Irène Jacob), whose (never seen) boyfriend Michel is always trying to reach her on the phone. Indeed, the film 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 looks remind me of Finola Hughes): She 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 Red, Auguste 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.
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 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.
Red movie connections
So does Irène Jacob’s Valentine have depths that are not all sweetness and light, for she refuses to rat out 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 Red there is the sense that Kern is more than mortal. We learn that, like his younger doppelgänger 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.
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 Blue (for liberty), Julie (Juliette Binoche) doesn’t see the woman, as she is freely daydreaming. In 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.
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 (Binoche and Benoît Régent), White’s Karol and Dominique (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.
There is a bit of a stretch in the fact that we have seen the stories of six of the seven survivors, but then isn’t Krzysztof Kieslowski allowed to extrapolate backwards? If one were to see the survivors of any tragedy, wouldn’t it be apropos to explore their stories?
Red 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.
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 Blue, Sobocinski’s Red hues are more subtle and every bit as effective in the way they saturate the screen. Besides, throughout Red there is a sharp angularity and poetic visual rhyming effect that recalls Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, such as shots of the eave of a roof or the sun slowly dipping behind a mountain.
There is also a bravura sequence where we see Valentine first enter Kern’s home. We hear her footsteps as the camera peers 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 Blue, so subversive as a tango in White – is quite understated here. In Red, the visuals dominate.
‘Art at its best’
In sum, Red is a great finale to a great trilogy whose weakest segment, White, is still an excellent film. Like the “Three Colors” trilogy itself, Red has its place in cinema history.
The final Three Colors entry 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’s so complex, in fact, that even a detailed syllabus could not do it justice, as Red is linear in spots yet intuitive throughout.
One could easily see Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film going off tangentially to follow any of a dozen minor characters, while its thrust – even if not the film itself – would have been preserved intact.
Either way, Red would have remained a great work because 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 its greatness. Thus, Red is art at its best.
Three Colors: Red / Trois couleurs: Rouge (movie 1994) cast & crew
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.
“Three Colors: Red (Movie 1994): Brilliant Trilogy Finale” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes © Alt Film Guide.
“Three Colors: Red (Movie 1994): Brilliant Trilogy Finale” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“Three Colors: Red (1994): Brilliant Trilogy Finale” notes
Jean-Pierre Lorit, Frédérique Feder, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Irène Jacob Three Colors: Red movie images: Miramax Films.
“Three Colors: Red (1994): Brilliant Trilogy Finale” last updated in November 2023.