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Non-Review Review: Three Colours Red

This week we’re taking a look at Krzysztof Kieślowski’s celebrated “Three Colours” Trilogy. We’ll be publishing reviews on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, so check back and sound off.

Three Colours Red has been described as “the best film among equals”, and it’s a position I can’t quite bring myself to disagree with. While I adore the beautiful synergy between the colour, the imagery and the mood of Three Colours Blue, I think that the final film in the trilogy perfectly captures the essence of what director Krzysztof Kieślowski seems to have been trying to accomplish. Three Colours Red beautifully ties together his central themes about the way that people relate to and interact with each other. It’s a film that works well be itself, viewed in isolation, but it’s also a fitting end to a piece of cinematic history. And, like so much of Kieślowski’s work, it’s dense without being oblique and elegant without being exclusive. For all we talk about the depth of meaning in the work, it’s just an astoundingly well-made piece of cinema.

A model citizen?

I think part of the reason I adore Three Colours Red is because it feels like it deals with cinema itself. It’s primarily a movie about voyeurism and the disconnect between individuals – about barriers that form and lock people on one side fo a window, staring in. Naturally the barrier between audience and film is being discussed as well. In a way, we’re just a voyeuristic as the judge himself. He might listen in on a funky radio gadget, but we actually stare through a screen. Kieślowski is keen to remind us of this fact, making sure that we’re watching Valentine through windows and glass doors and mirrors, as he modelling job creates an invisible barrier between her and her audience, no different than the one that exists between us and Kieślowski’s film.

The judge, using a fancy doo-hickey to eavesdrop on his neighbours, attempts to justify his behaviour by writing it off as a passive intrusion. He’s not interfering with the lives of these people, he’s merely watching. “What can we do about it?”he asks, discussing an affair in the house next door that will only end in tears for those involved. As audience members, we can’t make the film play out any different, as much as we may want to… but we continue to watch. Doesn’t that make us just as culpable and voyeuristic as the judge? Of course, we only spy on fictional people, but then… so does he. Even to him, they are little more than abstract concepts.

Touching...

These ideas and themes about social disconnect and the weird dysfunctional way that people interact have been well-seeded in the earlier two films. After all, Three Colours Blue featured a lengthy sequence in a seedy strip club (lighted so as to appear red, of course) where a dancer comments on the way that she caught her father in the audience, objectifying and watching the dancers to the point where he never even noticed his own daughter was in the club. He look, but we don’t see.

Three Colours Red is a powerful film that works really well on its own, but it works even better when compared to the original film in the trilogy. Three Colours Blue sees Kieślowski argue that “liberty” is an impossibility – and a terrifying one. In order to be free, we need to be independent of those around us, isolated and alone. Julie doesn’t find comfort in such absolute “liberty.” In contrast, it seems like “fraternity”is a mutually exclusive concept. Many of the ideas and themes from the earlier film are examined in a completely different light, as Kieślowski returns to any number of recurring images.

This should be everybody's cup of tea...

It’s fitting that Valentine is perhaps the most romantic of the leads in these three films. When she encounters the obligatory “old person at a bottle bank” motif, she is the only one of the three leads who lifts a finger to help. In the films about “liberty” and “equality”, the struggling elderly individual is left to wrestle with the problem in their own way. In contrast, the film about “fraternity” seems almost cautiously optimistic. Surely we can help one another?

In a sequence mirroring one from Three Colours Blue, Valentine discovers an animal. While Julie killed the mouse in her apartment (and its babies), Valentine instead opts to care for the wounded dog and her pups. In the first film, the animals are asked to fend for themselves. In the third film, it seems like it is possible to peacefully coexist. It almost seems like Kieślowski is asking, “if we have fraternity, the other two ideals matter relatively little.”

Two of a kind?

In fact, the movie’s coda serves to tie up the loose ends from the earlier two films, where it is implied that our leads managed to find peace not in “liberty” or “equality”, but in a bond with another human being. Julie and Olivier are together, as are Dominique and Karol. Never mind that the last movie ended with Dominique in prison – embracing her bond with Karol has allowed both of them to make some form of peace that their own experiences with “equality” never could. I’m reminded of the chorus in Julie’s symphony from the end of the first film:

And though I have all faith,

So that I can remove mountains,

If I have not love…

I am nothing.

Kieślowski is almost romantic, as love seems to conquer all. Sure, perhaps there’s a distinction to be made between love and fraternity, but they both represent a that essential entanglement between individuals, one which the director and his co-writer seem to elevate above the other two revolutionary aspirations.

They should bottle his water...

Of course, as with the other two films, Kieślowski handles his central theme in an ironic and occasionally bitter manner. This is a world where a car alarm is an inconvenient interruption, rather than a call for help. It’s a world where people are increasingly disconnected – Valentine is growing increasingly distant from a lover she communicates with over telephone. As he prepares to send off photos of her to be used as part of a national campaign, a photographer asks, “Will people recognise you?” She responds by wondering who would recognise her.

The credits seem to only recognise Valentine by name. Even the voyeuristic judge (named as Joseph Kern) is credited only as “the judge.”People don’t feel real to one another anymore. They are just abstract concepts, recognised by their functions or roles. Indeed, the judge is only able to indulge his voyeuristic tendencies because modern society is so disconnected we all seem to communicate by the phone rather than in person.

If you've got a better French film, I'm all ears...

In one of his wonderful touches, Kieślowski makes sure that his two leads seldom speak on the same level, as if mocking the idea that they could stand side-by-side. In a way, this feels like a more biting commentary of “equality” than even Three Colours White, as the story wonders how people can ever truly relate to one another with all these arbitrary distinctions between them. “Deciding what is true and what isn’t now seems to me a lack of modesty,” he reflects, acknowledging a very human flaw that made impossible the sort of objective judgment his job required.

In one of the film’s best moments, the judge remarks how he came to hear a case involving the man who ran off with the woman he loved – a situation where it was clearly impossible for the character to transcend his human flaws enough to execute the function of his judicial role. After all, “the system”is operated by human beings, with all their horrible human flaws. We create all these arbitrary distinctions in rank and social standing between people, with only dehumanises them further. Kieślowski offers us a pretty cynical look at fraternity. And, yet…

I see the signs...

And, yet, there seems to be the slightest hint of hope peeking out from behind Kieślowski’s cynical set-up. For all his inability to relate to other people, the judge seems to aspire to make that connection. He clearly makes that sort of connection with Valentine – perhaps too late in life. He remarks, “Maybe you’re the woman I never met.” It’s the judge who confesses to the police, after spending time with Valentine. Even before that, he keeps his gate and his door unlocked, as if hoping the outside world might reach in and dare to touch him.

“Don’t close the door!” he yells after Valentine after their first conversation, which is hardly as friendly as the ones that would follow. When the neighbours throw stones through his windows, he collects the rocks like trophies on a piano, staring through the broken glass. The screen seperating him from the world, insulating him, has been broken – and perhaps a bit of him is touched by that. If he is a stand-in the film-going audience, the drama around him has finally managed to cross the threshold and engage him. The barrier is shattered.

Don't judge him...

There’s an almost romantic feeling to the film, one that seems to border on optimistic. Of course, in any other movie, this would be bleak cynicism. However, measured against the standards of the earlier two instalments, it’s positively heartwarming. I think there’s something touching about the fact that this was Kieślowski’s last film, and the fact that the optimism here feels well-earned, rather than shoe-horned in to make us all feel a little better.

Peter Bradshaw once remarked that the films are “set somewhere which looks like the real world, but isn’t”, and we see evidence of that here. We watch the judge’s youthful romance play out almost exactly as he narrates it… but it’s not a flashback. It’s actually happening right now, in the present. Of course, this isn’t literally the judge, it’s a student named Auguste. However, he seems trapped in the life that the judge lived, right down to a freak turn of luck that gives him the answer that allows him to pass the test to become a judge. History is literally repeating itself, and so we’re allowed a curiously optimistic ending to an otherwise twisted and bitter saga – all without feeling like that much of a copout.

Life is but a poor player who struts and frets...

It seems, in this fictional world, certain events will act themselves out, time and time again, as if in search of the one right outcome. So our protagonists are all confronted with the “elderly person at the bottle bank” dilemma, until that bottle finally gets itself into that damn bottle bank. Here, the judge might lament that Valentine was the right woman who arrived far too late, the movie implies that she arrived in the life of Auguste at just the right moment. Perhaps this young man won’t grow up bitter and alone.

Here, the judge’s past is played out again (even with a cute little dog), while the viewer hopes that this time it might somehow work itself out – that he might somehow meet Valentine when he was younger and thus avoid becoming the jaded and cynical loner that he ultimately grew into. Similarly, the film ends bringing the characters from all three films together at last, in the most horrible of circumstances. That’s the thing about stories – they aren’t confined by things like time and space and probability. That said, I do find it interesting that virtually every major character in the film had decided to get the hell out of continental Europe. Given how cruel Kieślowski’s narratives can be, that seems like a relatively sane option.

Life is the grandest theatre...

As usual, Kieślowski has a wonderful eye and an amazing style. The colour saturates the frames, and the movie looks genuinely exquisite. The soundtrack from Zbigniew Preisner perfectly captures the mood. Here, it seems like Kieślowski is energised by the idea of tying everything all together. There’s a genuinely breathtaking moment as the camera sweeps through a theatre, acting out a story the judge is telling as he’s telling it. It’s one of those rare perfect cinematic moments, much like Julie’s real-time updating of the soundtrack in the first film. Hell, even the breaking storm – the logical progression from the blue skies in the first film and the clouds in the second – is handled with wonderful skill.

Three Colours Red is, to put it simply, a beautiful film. It’s probably the best French film I have ever seen, and one of my favourite films of the nineties. If you haven’t seen it already, do yourself a favour and rent it now. Or, better yet, pick up the entire trilogy with it.

Read our reviews of the complete Three Colours trilogy:

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