Three Colours: Red (1994)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 39min

The final part of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy would also be the final film of his career. He announced his retirement after Red’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, and then two years later he passed away, leaving behind a confounding masterpiece that pays off on stylistic fascinations and fatalistic meditations threaded all through his work. The set of circumstances which bring young model Valentine to the door of Joseph, an elderly retired judge, are about as arbitrary as those which keep her separated from Auguste, the law student whose life is locked in a tangential criss-cross pattern with hers. Formal parallels abound between characters, and Kieslowski lays heavily into the dramatic irony of their hidden interconnections. Fraternity is his focus here, the third part of France’s national motto, and it is undoubtedly a powerful force within this small ensemble, pulling individuals together into an invisible club they don’t even realise they are part of.

Out of all Red’s characters, it is perhaps Joseph who possesses the clearest understanding of this fraternity. From his living room he taps the phone calls of all his neighbours so that he may spy on their private affairs, and as such it is reasonable to consider him the closest thing to an omniscient God figure, bridging gaps between strangers. At the same time though, Joseph is decidedly flawed, and just as prone to the whims of chance as anyone else. The story he tells Valentine of how he passed his studies after his dropped textbook opened to the page that would be relevant in his final exam directly mirrors what we witness happen to Auguste earlier in the film. In fact, the similarities that emerge between both men might as well make them the same person separated by a few decades, so that Valentine’s friendly relationship with Joseph essentially becomes a stand in for her potential relationship with his younger counterpart.

Irene Jacobs returns from The Double Life of Veronique to collaborate with Kieslowski once again. She plays kind and compassionate wonderfully without ever being dull to watch.
Two men associated with telephones, spending time inside these dark red offices – a superb formal connection between Joseph and Auguste.

In Kieslowski’s fluid tracking shots, he traces the gaps between both Valentine and Auguste’s paths, elegantly craning and panning his camera to observe their unwitting entwinement through the streets and shops of Paris. Virtually everything that he is formally setting up here points them in the direction of a fated relationship, and while we eagerly anticipate their eventual collision, such gratification does not come easily. In fact, it is arguable whether it comes at all. There is no logic in assuming that just because the two share similar qualities and frequently rub shoulders that they should eventually fall in love, just as there is no logic in Valentine and Joseph being born several decades apart. Perhaps if he was younger their relationship would blossom into something romantic, as it might with Auguste if she knew of his existence. Such is the nature of life’s fickle obstacles keeping us apart from our potential futures that they go entirely ignored until the right paths happen to line up, and we wonder “Where would I be if that one small thing never happened?”

A breath-taking dedication to a colour scheme – red lighting and decor dominate this film.

Despite all these missed connections between individuals, Kieslowski still delights in imbuing his film with an abundant warmth. Shades of red saturate his mise-en-scène with a deep passion, uniting each character inside the cosy embrace of his décor and lighting. In the very first shot as we speed along red telephone wires running through the ocean and ground to connect complete strangers, the colour is immediately associated with the hidden interrelations ridden all throughout the film, and it doesn’t end there. In brake lights, slot machines, wallpaper, and theatres, scarlet hues continue to dominate Kieslowski’s gorgeous compositions, and in the most striking visual display of colour in the film, it becomes the visual foundation of Valentine’s bubble gum ad, plastering her face up on billboards around the city. In returning to this image several times she becomes more than just the protagonist in our story, but also in her surroundings, unconsciously touching the lives of virtually everyone who passes by.

People passing Valentine’s poster every day on the streets, including Auguste. Fate and chance are threaded all through Kieslowski’s direction and screenplay.

Slowly, the scope of consciousness for these characters begin to expand, and as they do we find Kieslowski returning to the motif of glass, often intact when barriers remain up, and broken when individuals reach out to lives beyond their own. Specifically, it links Joseph and Auguste via smashed windows, fractured beer glasses, and broken ornaments, often being given specific focus in Kieslowski’s symbolic diversions from the main narrative. Rather than his usual cutaways though, instead he will often drift his camera away from his characters to linger on these thoughtful representations of broken boundaries.

Still, it is almost impossible for anyone living inside Kieslowski’s world to fully understand the complex connections that link them to each other, spanning beyond the peripheries of the film to glimpse characters from the rest of the Three Colours trilogy, united in the final minutes by a freak accident. Whether it is chance or fate, seeing the full structure of this interconnected fraternity might take the perspective of an all-seeing God – or at least a philosophical filmmaker with a pensive, wandering camera.

Kieslowski’s camera often dollies away from Valentine to other characters and tiny symbols – the broken glass here at the bowling alley, for example.

Three Colours: Red is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Mubi, and available to rent on iTunes.

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