(Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski, France/Switzerland/Poland, 1994)
The Human Connection
Having tackled liberty and equality in films Blue and White respectively, director Krzysztof Kieslowski ends his Three Colors trilogy by challenging the ideal of fraternity with Red. And, like those first two films, this last installment (also his last film) doesn’t so much simply celebrate this quality present in the rouge stripe of the French flag as it turns the notion on its head, dissects it, and offers an alternate conclusion on what human connection looks like in the modern world. In matters of form, Red continues its predecessors’ extensive use of its titular color scheme – vibrant, deep shades of red pop against the dreary hues of a cloud-covered Geneva and engulf entire frames in seas of crimson whether on a massive billboard or the interior design of a theatre – thus rendering it a dazzling work of beautiful artistry. Yet, with respect to its content, this third entry stands out as the trilogy’s heart and soul.
Given the intricate construction of these three related films, this may have been intentional on Kieslowski’s part – blue and white are often cool, distant, and even melancholy colors. Thus, Blue and White both kept viewers somewhat at a distance. Conversely, the warmth and liveliness of the color red can be felt throughout all of Red making it at once the most accessible of the three and arguably the most engaging. The bond that forms between the young model Valentine (Irène Jacob) and the retired judge Joseph (Jean-Louis Trintignant), however quickly it manifests over the film’s brief runtime, feels genuinely heartfelt and thoroughly humane. The film moves along with a gripping brio as each scene unfolds exposing the secrets that these two characters keep whilst maintaining a parallel story that cleverly plays out in the present yet mirrors the history of the jaded former judge.
We meet Joseph almost by accident after Valentine hits his canine companion in the road. Mortified by her reckless deed (and, we learn later, motivated by the prospect of guilt) finds the dog’s owner’s home to return the injured animal. Initially met with a cold indifference from this recluse, Valentine encounters him again when the dog runs away from her and finds its way home. She soon discovers this enigmatic figure has resorted to listening to his neighbors’ phone conversations for his sole contact with humanity. The act is deplorable and unjust to this outsider, but the ethics of this activity become muddled for Valentine as the identities and double lives of these individuals surface through the overheard conversations. The man gives her two opportunities to rectify the situation (to expose one man’s adultery and another man’s involvement in the local drug trade), but he remains surprised when she leaves just as sure of her opinion on the matter as when she arrived.
The paths of these two inevitably cross again, but in a manner unexpected by both Valentine and Kieslowski’s audience. With a setup this intriguing in its potential auditory voyeurism, Joseph’s mid-film public confession of his illicit pastime effectively severing the man’s one-sided connection with his neighbors allows Kieslowski to take his narrative in a new direction. In hopes of vindicating herself after reading of the charges in the newspaper, Valentine returns to Joseph’s home only to find that he turned himself in. What begins as a rather awkward interchange at the man’s insistence that he ceased eavesdropping at her request rapidly evolves into the beginning of a friendship as Joseph peels back the layers of Valentine’s troubled personal life and she willingly entertains his musings about his past.
Kieslowski’s film is primarily concerned with this bond that ultimately leads the aging Joseph to emerge from the hermitage of his home to attend one of Valentine’s fashion shows. The kindness shown to him by this unassuming young woman proves paramount in the change that occurs within Joseph. At the end of her show, he bestows a thoughtful gift upon her and reveals the source of the bitterness that has soured his relationships for many years. The only woman he ever loved – overtly reminiscent of the bubbly, blond telephonic meteorologist Karin (Frederique Feder) – betrayed his trust and found love in another man’s arms. Never able to experience closure, his former lover tragically died in an accident on the English Channel. Joseph’s revelation beautifully unites this primary narrative with the peripheral story of Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) and Karin’s doomed relationship.
Red, then, is all about connections. Kieslowski hints as much with the film’s thrilling opening sequence that tracks a telephone call by sending the camera on a rollercoaster ride on the electrical wires that make this telephonic connection possible. The filmmaker uses this everyday, household device as his chosen symbol for human connectivity: Joseph interacts with the world through these intimate exchanges via the phone, Valentine’s strained relationships (with her untrusting and accusatory long-distance boyfriend and her estranged brother) exist exclusively over the phone, and the two protagonists begin their friendship due to its effects. Interestingly, Red makes the case that relationships cannot survive through this medium alone (a point that feels even more prescient today with the explosion of the Internet and social media). Conversations over the phone keep the film’s characters at a distance; most obviously in Valentine’s relationship with her boyfriend, but also present in the overheard conversations that reveal an extra-marital affair, a mother’s feigned ailments to capture the attention of her distant daughter, and the dealings of a local heroin kingpin. The only relationship that survives over the course of the film is the one formed through face-to-face human contact between Joseph and Valentine.
Moreover, it seems fitting that this theme should be the focus of Red as it is also the film that ties the Three Colors trilogy together both literally in its narrative, cohesive finale and cinematically by carrying the artistic thread that ran through all three films – meditations on the traditional French values embodied in the nation’s flag and Kieslowski’s bold cinematographic style and colorful aesthetic. The film ends with a tragic ferry accident on the English Channel and the survival of the major characters from each of the three films providing a definitive, albeit somewhat ambiguous conclusion for these individuals through whom Kieslowski explores the meaning of liberty, equality, and fraternity in contemporary society. Years later, it remains one of the most poignant depictions of the notion that everyone is connected – a motif that bogged down many films in the decade that followed that unnecessarily resorted to narrative contrivances and over-generalized characterizations. Kieslowski achieves the same end but in a manner more beautiful and heartfelt. Joseph nervously watches his television until his fears are subsided by the report that Valentine is counted amongst the survivors. Relieved, he smiles delicately for the first time standing at an open window facing the world. The need for human connection does not escape him. She gives him a reason to keep breathing.