DVD Review Of Red

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/28/06


  The final film of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors (Trois Couleurs) trilogy, Red (Rouge), released in 1994, is almost universally acclaimed as the best of the films. For once, the common consensus is correct. Of course, if one is to believe some of the online reviews of this film, and the whole trilogy, there are plenty of people who seriously question whether or not Three Colors is a better trilogy than the two Star Wars trilogies, that of The Matrix, or even The Lord Of The Rings. Let me end that debate, once and for all. It is far better than those comic book level films, and real comparisons need to be made with some of the truly great cinematic trilogies, such as Ingmar Bergman’s Spider trilogy, or Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Alienation trilogy (L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse).

  As with the prior two films, Red was written by Kieslowski and his writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz. It is a brilliant film, with the depth of Blue, pathos of White, and character definitions better than either prior entry. The film follows the parallel lives of a small group of people in a town just outside of Geneva, Switzerland. The main character is a beautiful brunet model named Valentine Dussault (Irène Jacob), whose boyfriend Michel is never seen, but ever calling her. The film opens with him calling her, and getting a busy signal, shot in away that recalls the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He is clearly an unstable and jealous man, who harangues Valentine, whose insecurities keep her attached to him, despite knowing, somewhere inside of her, that they are wrong for each other. Jacob is in one of those roles that defines an actor- a career making choice; even more so than her dual role in The Double Life Of Veronique. Her character seems to embody decency and goodness, and radiates love and compassion throughout the film, both visually and personally. It is the sort of role that recalls that given by Setsuko Hara in Tokyo Story, or, more recently, Claire Danes in Shopgirl (although she reminds me of British actress Finola Hughes in looks). Hers is the sort of dream woman that a man never meets; not because she’s a model, but because she is almost preternaturally good and filled with a love of life and others- even down to her name. She believes that people are not bad, merely weak.

  The character whose life parallels, or more properly shadows, Valentine’s is a young wannabe judge named Auguste Brunner (Jean Pierre Lorit). Throughout the film he and Valentine just keep missing each other, even though they live only a few houses away from each other. Valentine seems to be one of those charmed individuals to whom nothing ill can happen. We later learn that her mother cuckolded her father and her brother Marc is not her father’s son, and with this knowledge the brother turned to drug usage. Yet, Valentine is above and immune to such things, but not in a haughty, condescending way. Men seem irresistibly drawn to her. A photographer (Samuel LeBihan), who is preparing a huge billboard with her profile for a chewing gum ad that reads ‘A Breath Of Life’, has feelings for her, but she denies him, ever faithful to the suspicious Michel, whom, it seems, has met Karol Karol from White, in Poland, for he is one of the people that Karol puts up when their luggage is lost, in a scene mentioned in the prior film. He is never seen in that film either.

  Throughout the film we go back and forth between the two tales of Valentine and Auguste. His tale is a bit simpler. He drops a book while walking home one evening, just after Valentine drives by, and it turns out to be a question he will need to know to pass his judge’s exams. He does, and his blond girlfriend, Karin (Frederique Feder)- who gives people weather reports by phone, and he celebrate. Several times he comes close to meeting Valentine, such as at a record shop where he and Karin are listening to the same fictive music from a composer named Von Budenmayer as Valentine is, just a few feet away. Eventually, he catches Karin cheating on him, and is despondent, and takes his dog with him on a ferry trip across the English Channel, to put his past behind him. This will be a fateful decision, as Valentine will also end up on that trip by film’s end.

  Meanwhile, before that happens, one night she is driving her car and accidentally runs over a German Shepherd named Rita. She tries to return it to its owner, a retired judge named Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintingnant), and finds that he is a pervert, spying on his neighbors with high tech surveillance equipment. He knows that one man is cheating on his wife- it is the man Karin is cheating on Auguste with, another is a drug dealer, and he even listens in to Auguste’s and Karin’s phone conversations, knowing she is cheating on him, as well. If Jacob’s performance is career making, Trintingnant’s is career capping. After a long career in French film, such as Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman, with Brigitte Bardot- whose billboard for Contempt is seen in White, A Man And A Woman, and Z, he gives a stupendous performance as a complex man with many personal issues. It 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. He 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, and this comes to full flower after Valentine nurses Rita back to health, and the dog has seven puppies that the judge grows to love.

  So does Valentine have depths that are not all sweetness and light, for she refuses to rat Kern out to his neighbors- after she discovers that the adulterous man’s daughter eavesdrops on his phone calls and knows he’s cheating. She feels pity and disgust for Kern, and even becomes complicit in his crimes when he has her call the drug dealer, and she wishes the man dead, because of the drug usage of her brother (and proving she is human). Throughout the film there is the sense that Kern is more than mortal, for we learn that, like his younger doppelganger, Auguste, he too passed his judicial exams by acing a question that was revealed to him when he dropped a book, was cuckolded by a blond girlfriend, and he took after her across the English Channel. We learn that Karin and her new beau- the married man, are going to go yachting in the Channel the same day Auguste and Valentine will take the ferry to escape their pasts. Through her kindnesses to him, and its ameliorative effects, Kern reports his crimes to the authorities, and is sued by his neighbors. Later, at a model show, a few days before Valentine is to take the ferry to England to meet Michel, Kern tells her about his past with the blond, and how, years later, he had to sentence the man who was her lover for an accident that killed some people. He was harsher than he should have been, and put in for early retirement, ashamed at his abuse of power. There is the suggestion that the surveillance is merely his giving in to that impulse once again, for reasons that are never stated.

  The scene also clearly reveals that he is in love with Valentine, despite their age difference, and she likely reciprocates, for she is drawn to him- especially when he reveals that he has dreamt of her, at an older age, and is happy with someone in her life. Later, after they leave the theater, we see a representation of their love never to be as their insuperable intimacy is displayed 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 the film is that a scene like that, or the one inside, earlier, is not milked for melodrama. When the two converse inside, the moment of seriousness is leavened with two interludes of a theater worker looking for a cleaning woman. He interrupts their conversation twice, and it seems he is angry at the cleaning woman, butt when we hear them offstage it is clear he was looking for her to help her carry water buckets that were too heavy for her, which explicitly shows the fraternity the film’s title implies, for the red in the French flag represents that ideal. That ideal also reveals itself in another scene that links the three films of the trilogy. In all of the films there is a scene of an old woman trying to put a bottle in a recycle container. In Blue (Bleu, for liberty), Julie does not see the woman, as she is freely daydreaming. In White (Blanc, for equality) Karol 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.

  The scene also furthers the concept of doubling throughout the series, for sentencing his ex-lover’s lover is not the only time the judge regretted his choice of sentencing. He had earlier in his career- thirty-five years earlier, let a guilty man go. The man straightened his life out, but for some reason the judge was disturbed by his charity. He seems to sense that the ferry trip by Valentine will be her destiny, for good or ill. It is, for during a storm the boat, with 1435 passengers, sinks. Also killed, on their yacht, are Karin and her lover. There are only seven survivors from the ferry, reborn just as the seven puppies are newborn- an unseen English barman named Steve Killian, and the three main couples from the trilogy- Julie and Olivier (Juliette Binoche and Benoît Régent) from Blue, Karol and Dominique (Zbigniew Zamachowski and Julie Delpy) from White, and Valentine and Auguste, who, in newsreel footage we and Kern see on his television, finally meet. The film then 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, with a single tear rolling down his face, reminiscent of Julie’s lone tear at the end of Blue, and Karol’s tears ending White.

  This is a great film, and a great end to a great trilogy whose weakest film, White, is still an excellent film. Yes, there is a bit of a stretch in the fact that six of the seven survivors we have seen the stories of, but then is not Kieslowski allowed to extrapolate backwards? If one were to see the survivors of any tragedy, would it not be apropos to explore their stories and how they ended up in the same place? The fact is we do not know how Killian nor the other four characters from the trilogy ended up on the ferry, and contrary to many reviews and criticisms of the film, while we know Julie and Olivier ended up a couple by the end of Blue, we do not know if Dominique and Karol from White have reconciled, for they are not seen together, and give the time frames of the three films, the ending of Red could take place before the ending of White, because that film takes place over the longest span of time- almost two years.

  The cinematography by Piotr Sobocinski is more compelling and ethereal than the similarly red obsessed camera work in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries And Whispers. It is not as emotionally intense as the camera work in Blue, but it is more subtle, and every bit as effective as it saturates this film. There is a sharp angularity and poetic visual rhyming effect throughout this film that recalls Antonioni films- such as shots of the sun slowly dipping behind a mountain and the eave of a roof. There is also a bravura sequence where we see Valentine first enter Kern’s home. We hear her footsteps and see the camera peer 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, a similar shot details Kern’s reactions after Valentine left him one night, and he decided to turn himself in. The music of Zbigniew Preisner, so powerful and dramatic in Blue, so subversive as a tango in White, really is understated here, as visuals dominate. There is a great shot of Valentine’s face half reflected in glass, at Kern’s home that recalls a similar shot in Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin, and shows her duality, as well, for while she refuses to listen to Kern’s eavesdropping, by covering her ears, she does refuse to stop him, and wishes the drug dealer dead. She is not an idealized goddess.

  The DVD, part of a Three Colors boxed set put out by Miramax, has many features, although its one drawback is the lack of an English dubbed soundtrack; it’s available only in subtitles. The featurette is called Insights Into Trois Coleurs- Rouge; there’s a conversation with Irene Jacob on director Krzysztof Kieslowski; Jacob does selected scenes commentary; there are some other features; and a ‘Cinema Lesson’ from Kieslowski. Kieslowski scholar and hagiographer Annette Insdorf, who appears in all three films’ featurettes, likewise does the film commentary for this film, as well as on Blue and White. While not quite as condescending a commentary as in Blue, it’s still not a good commentary, and on par with White’s mediocre one. The problem is that Insdorf is terminally PC, and so condescending in her explanations of the most manifest bits of symbolism. She also has an annoying habit of mispronouncing names in the most precious way, such as pronouncing Krzysztof Kieslowski’s name as Chistoff, rather than Kristoff, with the r sound.

  But no amount of bad commentary can deny this film, nor trilogy, its place in cinema history. It is the sort of art that if you ask, ‘What is it about?’, it cannot be answered in a sentence or two. Dozens of small details suffuse it. 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 then embraced by him once Valentine saves it; Auguste has a photo of a dancer in his apartment, and Valentine dances; the veterinarian she takes Rita to is named Marc, like her brother, etc. This is a tale that is not so dumbed down, ala Hollywood films, that even a detailed syllabus could justice it. It is linear in spots, yet intuitive throughout. One could easily see it going off tangentially to follow any of a dozen minor characters, and the thrust of the film would have remained intact, even though it would have been a wholly different film. Still, it would have been a great film, for there is an undeniable immanence to greatness, and this fact is something that few critics can grasp. The greatness of Red, and to an extent, the whole Three Colors trilogy, is that such intellectual grasping is not necessary to feel greatness. Thus, art at its best.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]

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