Three Colours: Red - A celluloid poemby Mallika Bhaumik June 10 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 9 mins, 40 secs
Mallika Bhaumik reviews Krztysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours Red and reads the auteur’s mind while elucidating her own thoughts about it.
After watching Krztysztof Kieślowski’s 'Three Colours: Red' I needed some 'me time' to ponder and marvel at the intricate layers of emotion that slowly unveiled and the elfin touch of poetry that laced the hemline of the film. As the movie slowly sank in, I realized that it will remain a very special one for me and few images (Joseph Kern's house and the iron gate being one) will stay with me for long.
It is no secret that the trilogy of blue white and red is a kind of homage to a country the Polish director fell in love with. Red is the final film of Kieślowski’s much acclaimed 'Three colours' trilogy and the last one of his illustrious career as well. It is a highly subtle film exploring the myriad shades of human emotions and the perplexing themes of fate and love, on an almost platonic level, despite the connotation of the colour red.
The protagonist is a young woman, Valentine; a fashion model (played by Irene Jacob) that accidentally injures the pet dog of a grumpy retired judge, Joseph Kern (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant). She carries the injured animal to the address listed in her collar and finds the owner indifferent to the suffering of the animal. He even asks her to keep the dog as a pet. Joseph Kern lives as a recluse and views the world and his work as a cynic and a frustrated romantic man.
Valentine takes the dog Rita to a vet and learns that she is pregnant and carries it to her home and nurses it back to good health. However the dog runs back to her old master's house and Valentine goes back there in search of Rita and accidentally unveils the dark secret of Kern, his habit of tapping the telephone lines of his neighbors. Valentine is aghast to know of his habit. Kern however remains unapologetic. Valentine leaves his place in disgust. Later she finds that Kern has been booked with the charge of spying. She also learns after meeting him for the third time, that it was he himself, who confessed to practicing such an illegal and immoral act.
Though vastly different, they tend to influence each other in strange ways and an unusual friendship blooms, which brings about a change in the way they see life. Kern confesses his illegal activity in writing and waits for court proceedings against him. Kieslowski shows the variegated hues of human relationships and what occasionally could or should be sacrificed in order to be with a kindred soul.
Red plays with the idea of foreshadowing in a very literal sense. A shot of Valentine used for a billboard (A breath of life) presages something that later happens to her in real life. The moment freezes the idea that the trilogy attempts to convey, that of the strange twist of life and destiny. A brief but important concluding scene of the movie brings about a clever and interesting closure by tying the three unrelated films and the ideas woven there in.
Kieślowski’s cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski describes Kieślowski’s method: “Instead of forewarning of some future happening, we designed later scenes to show that some earlier, apparently casual events, were important to the story.” Kieślowski himself elaborated, “In Red, particularly, we wanted the viewer to think backwards, to make associations with things he had already seen without noticing. But we tried to build up these signs, particularly in Red, so the viewer would realize that what he sees here, he has already seen, and would register that in some part of his subconscious. Many of the signs will not get through to him, but we let them build up so that at least some do, so that he understands the principle.”
Along with the friendship that sprouts and gradually grows between Valentine and Joseph Kern, the director shows a parallel story, that of Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorie), which often crisscrosses its path with the one of Valentine's. Often these two characters are present in the same frame without being conscious of the other, their respective lives coming close yet not touching and some viewers might try to connect the dots without being aware of it. Thus we are left wondering till the last scene as to whether they will eventually know each other/meet each other/love each other while we savor the vignettes of their separate lives.
Thus while Valentine drives through a road, Auguste is seen crossing the same road and some papers fall off his hands, which become instrumental to push him towards taking the Law exam and to become a judge that he eventually becomes. Similarly in other scenes we find their presence overlapping. When Valentine rushes out to stop the honking of her car, Auguste looks out of his apartment window to see his girlfriend Karin coming and gets ready to open the door for her or when Valentine walks out of the judge's house we find Auguste dropping off Karin and in fact Valentine hears their private communication in the retired judge's home, since he was into tapping telecommunication of his neighbors. She hears that they were planning to go bowling and she herself ends up going there later that night. It is as if by a twist of fate that they do not meet in spite of their proximity and fate becomes another unseen character that plays its role in the movie.
Auguste's life, apart from running parallel to Valentine's, has an uncanny semblance to the life of Joseph Kern. As an unusual friendship blooms between Valentine and Kern, we are shown the ups and downs of Auguste's life and it leaves us wondering as to what are these dots that connect Joseph Kern and Auguste. The question often peeps in our mind is whether he is a younger version of the elderly judge?
Joseph Kern is the most ambiguous character of the film, his stoicism and detachment bordering on being the Supreme creator at times while his immoral act of listening to the private conversation of his neighbors being most disgusting at other times. We find our judgment of him oscillating like a clock's pendulum. Finally when he opens up to Valentine we come to know how he acquitted a sailor, who, he realized later, was guilty, but the sailor led a peaceful happy life with children and grand children and along with Valentine we realize that he did what was good for the acquitted. The judge says that to decide what is truth is actually a lack of modesty bordering on vanity.
Kern is reticent to speak about his love life but finally he does, during a storm tossed evening when he goes to watch Valentine's fashion show as well as say goodbye to her before her sail to England. The tragic end of his love life is strangely similar to the tragic twist in Auguste's love life as he witnesses his beautiful blonde girlfriend Karin making love with another man. Both of them have dogs as a pet and both of them cleared the Law exam following a strange coincidence of notes falling down from their hand and the important portion (being highlighted) coming to their attention.
In fact none other than Auguste would handle the hearing of Kern, which would be his first case as a judge. His fountain pen would come to use while that of Kern's is no longer in use. Kern tells Valentine that he has not met anyone like her in his youth and as if to rewrite his life anew, Auguste meets Valentine in the final scene and we get an inkling that Valentine would be spending her life with him, thus making the dream of Kern come true that Valentine is waking up happily in her mid forties or fifties, beside someone she loves. Kieślowski himself had said, "The essential question the film asked is: is it possible to repair a mistake, which was committed somewhere high above?"
Technically Red is nothing short of iconic, with the director’s chief collaborator and a seminal cinematographer in his own right, Piotr Sobocinski returning after Blue and White were shot by Slawomir Idziak and Edward Kloniski. From the red billboard to the crimson cherries in the slot machine, Red remains brilliant in appeal.
Joseph Kern craves for a beautiful light which is why he asks Valentine to sit for a while when she comes to his place for the second time. The next time Valentine sees a glimpse of sunset, just as she enters his place and while talking, as the fuse of the light bulb goes off, Kern immediately changes it and Valentine's face is flooded with a beautiful light from the lamp. Valentine becomes a symbol of light and hope for him. Her appearance, attractive yet innocent, stylish yet sensitive, fills up the screen and the life of the lonely cynical judge. She believes in innate goodness of human beings and that moves Kern, who wants nothing from life not even his pet dog. Her presence lights up his life and he seeks the path of truth and redemption.
In very subtle ways, the director has created some profound soul searching moments. Kern asks Valentine as to why she took in Rita and she replies since she had hit her but Kern goes on to point that it was done to pacify her conscience more than anything else. Men are selfish and any act of kindness is also tinged with the raw emotion of self-satisfaction and clearance of conscience, which he himself later does when he writes, confessing about his illegal habit of spying on his neighbors’ conversations. Her ‘pity’, which was actually 'disgust' propels him to save himself from committing the same crime of encroaching into the lives of others without their knowledge. A theme of forgiveness and redemption lifts the movie to a higher plane than being mere stylish.
The final scene of the film is a testimony of Kieślowski’s world-view, that there are unseen dots that simply connect within and beyond the world we sense, which is that the world is ripe with relationships waiting to be born. In these three films, he brilliantly makes visible a world of interconnected humans. In doing so, he has created three masterpieces that set him in the top rank of filmmakers, despite his tragically short feature film career. In fact Red's theme of interconnectivity is an echo from an earlier film 'The double life of Veronique' played by the same actress, Irene Jacob.
Telephone communication is important throughout the movie starting from the call Valentine receives from her unfeeling boyfriend, to Kern's eavesdropping, to Auguste's not getting the line of his girlfriend who gives a weather forecast via telephone. Another is broken glass, when Kern reveals his eavesdropping, his neighbors throw rocks through his windows, and at the end of the film, Kern watches Valentine and Auguste on the news while viewing the outside world through broken glass.
That was perhaps the director himself who viewed the world through a broken glass and announced his retirement with this brilliant film. He died shortly after his retirement. The movie expectedly won some of the most coveted and prestigious awards but for me, it will remain as a celluloid poem that is hauntingly beautiful.