Criterion Cuts: “Three Colors: Red”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

Today’s movie, as you might have guessed, is the third and final movie in the Three Colors trilogy. You can find the introduction and the first piece on Blueor last week’s piece on White, by clicking the links, but to summarize: the Three Colors trilogy is a loosely thematic grouping of unrelated films by Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, based around the three colors of the French flag and the three ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. The exploration of those themes, and the ways in which they are subverted and twisted to fit the intricate lives of the protagonists in the given stories, have cemented the trilogy as a modern classic of art cinema.

White was definitely a departure from Blue, being much more remote and focused on the political legacy of Kieślowski’s native Poland and it’s future. While that wasn’t bad, I admitted in that piece and admit now that I much preferred the more intimate focus of Blue, with its sole suffering protagonist and her journey into emotional recovery. What, then, can we expect from the finale? Will there be some ultimate uniting theme, or is it simply a third of a whole?

Three Colors: Red (1994)

From it’s opening shot, following the lines of a telephone call from England across the seas to Geneva, there is a firm sense that Three Colors: Red has broader, more universal aspirations than the prior two films. The camera rips across a continent and into the life of Valentine Dusot (Irene Jacob), a student and model. She’s talking to her distant boyfriend, and we are already eavesdropping in the middle of a conversation that casts him in an unflattering light. He is petulant, whining and passive aggressive about every aspect of Valentine’s life. We’re not given any context with which to balance this perception, thrust immediately into a role as the immediate voyeur.

When Valentine models, the camera swoops in and out of the room, walking the catwalk only to slip down into the crowd. Of all the films, Red is the one with the most active cinematography, a very real effort made to put the audience in a place of near-omniscient viewpoint. We are cast as the observer, peering into this world, for reasons that the film will soon make clear.

Valentine, walking down the street, crosses paths with her neighbor Auguste. The two don’t meet or acknowledge each other, but her passing interrupts his path enough that he drops his books, one falling open to a specific page. Auguste, in that moment, becomes a disconnected B thread, one the movie will revisit again and again in quiet moments during Valentine’s story. Valentine, on the other hand, continues to encounter people she draws into her story. While driving, her radio begins to emit weird noises, and in looking to adjust the radio she ends up hitting a dog.

The dog, she discovers, belongs to a man living nearby, a retired judge by the name of Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant). He dismisses Valentine and the dog when she intrudes upon his secluded home, so Valentine takes the dog to the vet and gets her patched up on her own accord. That would be that, until the dog runs away from Valentine during a walk and returns to Kern’s home. Here Valentine witnesses Kern eavesdropping on his neighbors telephones via a complex network of surveillance equipment.

Valentine's job as a model mirrors the movie's constant themes of exposure and voyeurism.

The two end up in an argument about the ethics of what Kern is doing, going so far as to have Valentine threaten to reveal his actions. When Kern doesn’t make a move to stop her, saying it would make no difference in the already-problematic lives of the people involved, she hesitates. He takes the initiative, inviting her to listen in on a call with him. Valentine overhears Auguste talking with his girlfriend Karin, finding herself quickly falling into the same trap of becoming involved and judging the people she listens to, getting into an argument with Kern about whether or not that conversation signifies a healthy relationship or not.

Kern eventually decides, through his budding friendship with Valentine, to admit his guilt to all his neighbors. He sends them all letters admitting his guilt, in an act he admits was mostly just to see how Valentine would react. Valentine, however, seems flattered at being so openly manipulated. Sure, Kern is acting incredibly reckless, but he is genuinely interested in what she thinks and feels, a sharp contrast to the repeated phone calls she has with her boyfriend. Each one he seems more suspicious of her having a life and interests, each time he needles her with guilt. Kern, at the very least, seems fascinated with her on a level more appropriate to equals.

Kern's constant challenge to standard morality echoes through the actions of all three films, not just Red.

In contrast to Valentine’s obviously dysfunctional relationship, Auguste and Karin appear on the surface to be actually working out. Auguste is studying for an exam to become a judge, and in the course of the film it’s reveal that the page that the book fell open to when he first crossed Valentine’s path was a potentially make or break question on the exam. His first case is that of a local neighborhood against one Joseph Kern. It’s during that case that Karin meets another man, and Joseph watches as she leaves with him, out of Auguste’s life, proving him right about his assumptions of their relationship.

The core of Redis this relationship between Valentine and Kern, one that revolves mostly around their eternal disagreements about human nature. Valentine is a romantic and an optimist, Kern wracked with cynicism from years trying cases. Over the course of talking, Kern reveals events from his past, including a situation that mirrors nearly exactly that of Auguste, and how he was put in the position of judging a case involving the man his own young love ran away with. Kern’s sense of justice and moral right has long since faded to the dingiest grey, something that Valentine tries to get him to look past.

Valentine, here listening to music in the same aisle as Auguste and Karin, lives just one step away from possibilities she couldn't imagine.

At the same time, Kern encourages her not to accept this unhappy status quo. If she thinks she has something with this boyfriend of hers, she should go and find out, but otherwise get out of this unhappy holding pattern. She listens to him, and buys a ferry ticket to England. The film ends with her leaving Geneva, only for Kern to watch on TV horrified as the ferry capsizes and kills almost everyone aboard. The only survivors are an unimportant Englishman, Julie and Oliver from Blue, a reunited Karol and Dominique from White, and Valentine and Auguste, who decided to take a trip to forget his failed relationship with Karin and who fate tosses again into the path of Valentine.

The theme of Red is fraternity, but the application is actually more complex that it would initially appear, and serves in many ways as a final coda to the entire trilogy and not just the story of Valentine and Kern. Fraternity is friendship, born from the unlikely meeting of strangers and the affection that can arise even from two wildly different people. But it’s also a broader, more social sense of fraternity, an idea that there is a connectivity between all of us that plays out if a person only takes a wide enough view. In fact, one might even go so far as to call it fate.

Kieślowski was a secular filmmaker, but the Three Colors trilogy investigates the possibility of a metaphysical truth behind the world we see and know. It’s not overt, and it’s almost impossible for the people living these stories to ascertain, but it’s there. In some ways, only Kern comes closest to realizing it, with his godlike voyeur perspective. But even he’s ignorant of the significance of the other people being pulled out of the boat at the end of the film, only concerned with Valentine’s fate.

Of all three movies, Red is by far the most lush, with an emphasis on light that puts the other, still handsome movies to shame.

The real omniscience, then, belongs to us as the viewer. We see the connections, all the way from the end of Blue and the cathartic truth of the lives Julie has affected through to White and the comic traps and opportunities that separate and reunite Karol and his wife, through to Valentine and her blind dance through a dozen potential outcomes. She might have gotten on the ferry a different day. She might have broken it off with her boyfriend. She might have run into Auguste at some other point, or not at all, as the two of them occupied nearly the same space for an extended period and always just barely missed each other.

But even we as the audience, or Kieślowski as the filmmaker, can’t see and understand every story. We know these six survivors, but what of the seventh survivor? He doesn’t show up in any story, but might not his life be as intricately woven into a dozen others? And what of the hundreds who died in the ferry accident? Those are people whose stories we will never know. But they also had connections, now severed, and people left behind who much like Julie did in Blue will have to find a way to carry on.

The final truth then of fraternity isn’t just that between those we encounter, but an acknowledgement of a more cosmic fraternity. We’re all humans, we all have stories, and behind every person you see is a dozen other stories and other people, a web so intricate that any one person could never even hope to begin to see it. Whether you call it compassionate humanism or guided fate, what the Three Colors ultimately brings us to, climbing from the individual to the couple to the broadly social, is a sense of wonder: not just about who we are as individuals, but about who we are as a species, and about the miracle of life and experience.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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