We already knew this would be Krzysztof Kieslowski’s last film, because he had said as much after its premiere. Two years later, a heart attack killed him. The Polish director received a lot of praise (and several Oscar nominations) for this one, his final chapter in a trilogy based on the colors of the French flag and the ideals of France after the 1789 revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity. Obviously, these ideals have become universal. They are supposed to be what binds us together in Europe, but they are frequently challenged.
Valentine Dussault (Irène Jacob) is a student and part-time model in Geneva. One evening, she’s distracted while driving and accidentally hits a dog. She learns the identity of the owner and takes the dog to him, but he doesn’t seem very interested. Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintigant) is a retired judge and he tells Valentine that the dog ran away and she can keep her. After taking the dog to a vet, Valentine receives a bill and Joseph pays her; after all, the dog ran away again, straight back home to the judge.
Valentine learns that Joseph has a peculiar hobby; he’s eavesdropping on his neighbor’s phone conversations with his mistress. Initially upset, Valentine walks over to tell the neighbor’s family, but hesitates when she understands that the young daughter already knows what her father is up to. Instead, Valentine chooses to continue her conversations with Joseph…
A subplot emerges
The theme of Red is fraternity and the relationship between Valentine and Joseph is front and center, even if there’s a subplot that eventually emerges as more significant than we first realize. That story introduces us to a young law student (Jean-Pierre Lorit) who’s about to become a judge, but his love affair with a woman (Frederique Feder) doesn’t work out, and his reaction to that fact is far from reasonable. The film portrays a friendship that crosses borders, but also shows what role fate and chance play in these people’s lives and how they are connected to each other. The film is engaging and beautifully done, and some of the scenes and conversations are outstanding, as the characters learn from each other… but on the whole it’s an uneven experience, which is true for all chapters in Kieslowski’s trilogy.
In the end, we realize that one of the details that make this a powerful film is that the director ties all the threads together from the two predecessors and reintroduce the characters (and actors) from them – that’s an almost sentimental aspect, which I don’t mind… but it doesn’t really contribute to make this film the masterpiece some critics considered it to be. As in the other movies, the chosen color, red, plays a visually striking part, providing a warmth and intimacy to the friendship between the judge and the student, as well as a memorable backdrop to Valentine’s dramatic photo shoots.
Both Jacob and Trintignant are very good; Kieslowski has written rich, solid characters for all three films and hired gifted French and Polish actors to bring them alive. In the end, there’s a disaster with the trilogy’s characters, symbols of Europe’s ideals, complex but heartfelt, as survivors. It’s almost like a message for future generations – let’s make sure those values live on.
Red 1994-Switzerland-France-Poland. 99 min. Color. Produced by Marin Karmitz. Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Cinematography: Piotr Sobocinski. Music: Zbigniew Preisner. Cast: Irène Jacob (Valentine Dussault), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Joseph Kern), Frederique Feder (Karin), Jean-Pierre Lorit, Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy.
Last word: “[Kieslowski] started as a documentary filmmaker, but then realized what he really wanted to film was the intimacy of people. I think he viewed his camera as a microscope and always wanted his actors to feel a kind of tension, as if they are dealing with and risking a lot. He would observe everything during rehearsal and have you use the most minute detail when he filmed. He never used a monitor, which really surprised Jean-Louis Trintignant, because Krzysztof was always kneeling just out of frame under the camera, watching us so closely.” (Jacob, The Hollywood Interview)