Demystifying Three Colors: Red

Essay by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997


Maybe you're the woman I never met.

"Red" is the triumphant conclusion to Kieslowski's "Three Colours Trilogy", a point of convergence for the three sets of characters in the series. It is the warmest of all three films, and indeed this also stems from the main theme of the colour red of the French flag-- fraternity (or friendship). On a deeper level, it is a film about the invisible connections that intertwine our lives, the nexi that are not always apparent, similar to Kieslowski's earlier film "The Double Life of Veronique". This theme is best summarized by the opening sequence, which makes the technology of the telephone transparent to the viewer. We see a phone being picked up in the film's setting, Geneva, and a number is dialed. The camera then races along the invisible network of wiring, through several switches, along an undersea cable, and re-emerging in England.

From the opening scenes until the very end where all the seemingly loose elements converge, the colour red pops up like an eyesore, and this imagery even extends to the characters themselves: Valentine (Irene Jacob), Auguste Bruner (Jean Pierre Lorit), and Joseph Kern, a retiRED judge (Jean-Louis Trintigant).

Irene Jacob brings a warm wide-eyed innocence to her role as Valentine, a student and part-time model. She is in love with an emotionally distant man, Michel, who is residing in England. He is constantly suspicious of her, and tries to control her actions, such as telling her when to go to sleep. Valentine lives across the street from a young law student studying to be a judge, Auguste, who is in love with a woman who provides personalized weather forecasts over the telephone. Throughout the film, Valentine and Auguste rub shoulders, yet never meet in a string of missed opportunities. One night, while Valentine is driving home, she is distracted by her malfunctioning radio and accidentally runs over a German Shepherd named Rita. From this accident, a chain of events is strung together, beginning with the meeting between Joseph and Valentine to the meeting between Valentine and Auguste during a disaster at sea. Like life itself, the well-crafted plot takes many twists and turns and is unpredictable.

Back to the theme of connections, there are many connections apparent as you watch the film. Valentine's picture for the chewing gum ad is exactly the same as the final image of the newscast after she has met Auguste and been rescued from the ferry sinking; however, the context is different in each image. There is the growing friendship between Joseph and Valentine, a friendship that is mutually beneficial-- Joseph finally sees the possibilities in playing an active role in shaping the events around him and not being resigned to let fate dictate his lonely existence; Valentine sees that she is not as lonely as she thinks she is, allowing her to let go of her fruitless relationship with Michel.

How do you know all this?
It wasn't too hard to guess.

The theme of connections also brings to mind the parallel between Auguste and Joseph-- are they one and the same, only separated by thirty-five years? While Auguste is crossing the street one night, the elastic holding his books together snaps, and the books fall onto the street. One book falls open on a certain page, which he reads, and his subsequent exam asks a question relevant to that material. The same thing happened to the older judge, only thirty-five years earlier and in an auditorium. Auguste decides whether or not to go bowling with his girlfriend by flipping a coin. As Joseph eavesdrops on their conversation, he too flips a coin, perhaps out of habit? After Rita is run over, Joseph gives his dog away to Valentine-- until it returns on its own. After Auguste is heartbroken, he abandons his dog on a curbside. Joseph was betrayed by the woman he loved thirty-five years prior, a fate that Auguste experiences in the present. Both judges chase their loves across the English channel in an ill-fated attempt to win them back. However, whereas Joseph never falls in love again after his betrayal thirty-five years prior, Auguste meets Valentine and redeems them both.

Another question raised by the character of the retired judge: is Joseph Kern God? Like God, he is omni-present. He sees and knows all, primarily through his eavesdropping of his neighbours' telephone conversations. Like God in the Old Testament, he is a judging and a punishing figure that seeks to right the wrongs of the world. He also orchestrates the fateful meeting between Valentine and Auguste-- he suggests to Valentine that she take the ferry instead of flying to England.

Why did you pick up Rita?
Because I'd run her over. She was bleeding.
Otherwise you'd have felt guilty. You'd have dreamt of a dog with a crushed skull.
Yes.
So who did you do it for?

Consistent with the characterizations of "Blue" and "White", the character of Valentine, at least initially, focuses more on her own concerns than those of others. Similarly, Julie of "Blue" was dedicated to the false goal of liberation and Karol of "White" pursued the goal of being more equal than Dominique-- goals which became hollow and isolated them. Valentine starts off as a person who does things primarily to make herself feel better, and not out of fraternity. She is disturbed by a newspaper story about her brother, a heroin addict, because she feels it is a reflection on her. She takes Rita to see a veterinarian so she can put her mind at ease. When she first learns of the eavesdropping of Joseph, she goes to the house of a married man who speaks to his homosexual lover on the phone, determined to expose the retired judge's voyeurism. However, when she gets there, Valentine meets the man's loving wife and sees that the daughter is listening in on the conversation also-- thereby realizing that she could do more harm than good by trying to put her mind at ease. Valentine in these instances is acting impulsively, putting her own moral slant on the situations around her and trying to correct them-- judging. But in the end, Valentine learns to do acts of kindness out of fraternity-- evidenced by her helping the old lady at the recycling bin.

What about Rita?
She is a very intelligent dog. Take her.
You don't want her?
I want nothing.
Then stop breathing.
Good idea.

The characters are emotionally distanced from the events around them. This is represented by both windows and telephones. As for windows, Joseph is seen watching the world outside through the windows of his house. Auguste watches his girlfriend betraying him through a bedroom window, and then later sees her through a window in a restaurant. There are many shots where there is a window between the camera and the principal action. For the character of Joseph, the windows represent the cynicism he feels and the emotional detachment he has from the world outside as a result of his betrayal in the past. The window is a physical barrier that separates him from the harsh environment and prevents him from interacting with it, yet he can see what is going on. In his first meeting with Valentine, he feels powerless against the forces of Fate.

However, as he becomes more involved with the world outside, windows begin breaking. His first step in reaching out, by telling the neighbours and the police that he is eavesdropping on phone conversations, gains Valentine's friendship and helps him find the strength to begin shaping the events around him. It is here that his neighbours begin throwing rocks at his house, breaking the windows. When Joseph ventures out his house, probably for the first time in a long while, to see Valentine's fashion show and reveals to Valentine the story of his betrayal thirty-five years prior, a thunderstorm breaks a window in the auditorium, allowing the rain and the wind to come in. In the final shot of the film, after Joseph learns that Valentine has survived the disaster and found Auguste, he looks through a broken window in his house, and sees that the world outside is not immutable as he thought it was. As an interesting sidenote, before Valentine leaves on her fateful trip, Joseph phones up Auguste's ex-girlfriend to find out the weather forecast for the English Channel. The weather will be fine she says, but like life itself, the weather ends up being completely unpredictable.

I didn't tell you. By telephone it may be easier. It was really great. We'd never made love so well, so long.

Telephones allow the characters to interact with one another without any emotional involvement. Though it avoids them from feeling pain, it also leads to shallow relationships. Valentine's relationship with the suspicious and dominating Michel. Auguste's doomed relationship with his girlfriend. Joseph's fascination with eavesdropping on his neighbours' phone conversations. Like the windows and the televisions in "Blue", telephones are actually a prison of sorts. They allow relationships to exist and transcend distances, yet the relationships that result are not sustainable. For Kieslowski, relationships that arise from an artificial connection, such as telephone lines, will fail. Only the relationships with a basis in the physical or metaphysical world survive.

As I said earlier, "Red" is the warmest film in the entire trilogy and it is filled with some truly great moments. When Valentine tells Joseph about her brother for the first time, natural light comes through the window at the right angle and 'warms' up the scene as they speak. The fashion show that Joseph attends features a beautiful tracking shot of Valentine on the runway, as her profile is illuminated by hundreds of flashbulbs. The edge-of-your-seat denouement when Joseph watches a newscast from the ferry sinking in which Valentine and Auguste may have perished in.

It is this final scene where the trilogy also comes together as a whole and the unifying message is revealed. Sure, the old lady trying to drop a bottle into a recycling bin shows up one last time (and being consistent to the theme of fraternity, Valentine actually helps her). But it is in the newscast of the disaster where Julie (Juliette Binoche) and Olivier (Benoit Regent) of "Blue" and Karol (Zbiegniew Zamachowski) and Dominique (Julie Delpy) of "White" are united with Valentine and Auguste. It is these six characters (plus an unnamed English barkeep) that survive the storm. Why do they survive and so many others (1430 to be exact) perish? "Blue" may have been about the false goal of liberty "White" may have been about the false goal of equality, but if all three films are examined as a whole, the common unifying element is love. By embracing love, Julie is able to re-connect with the world she has tried so hard to shut out. Karol and Dominique find that they still love each other after their futile attempts to be more 'equal' than the other-- and indeed it seems they finally do become a couple again evidenced by their appearance on the ferry. And of course, by allowing himself to feel love again, even though it may be platonic, Joseph breaks down his self-imposed isolation and helps put a chain of events in place leading to Valentine and Auguste finally meeting. Thus, it is love that saves all the principals of the trilogy from the trials and tribulations which they face, which is fitting considering the theme of "Red". Perhaps it is best summed up by the lyrics of the "Concert for Unity" that Julie wrote in "Blue":

And though I have all faith,
So that I can remove mountains,
If I have not love...
I am nothing.

"Red" was Kieslowski's very last film. He announced his retirement after this film was completed, the crowning achievement of a quarter-century of film-making. If Kieslowski will be remembered for anything, it will be the well-written and well-directed intellectual puzzle called "Red".

Krzysztof Kieslowski 27/6/41 - 13/3/96


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