Wednesday, March 28, 2012

100 Movies - No. 89: Three Colors Red

89. Three Colors Red (1994)
Drama, Mystery, Romance, 99 minutes, French Language
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski
Starring Irene Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Jean-Pierre Lorit

There's a scene in the closing minutes of Three Colors Red which unites the whole trilogy. It's possible to view Red without seeing Blue and White, but the impact of that breathtaking scene will be lessened if you don't understand its full significance. Red is such an interesting film and I would like to discuss it in detail. This review contains major spoilers so please consider watching the entire 288-minute trilogy in order before you read the remainder of my thoughts.

I remember being happy that Forrest Gump won the Best Picture Oscar in 1994, but I have since realized that there were at least three better films that year. The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction were two of them, and the other was Three Colors Red. The film was nominated for three Oscars; Best Director, Cinematography and Original Screenplay. It was never likely that a foreign language film would win in those categories, but the nominations were significant.

Director Krzysztof Kieslowski first teamed up with actress Irene Jacob in The Double Life of Veronique and the two films are thematically similar. Both stories reflect on destiny, life, love, opportunities, connections and cause and effect. They are thoughtful observations and you'll get the most out of them if you are the kind of person who likes to consider the meaning of life and our very existence.

Three Colors Red opens with a phone call and we see a depiction of the call being connected. The camera takes us inside the telephone wires and rushes us through pipes and across water. Valentine (Jacob) lives in Geneva and is talking to her boyfriend who is working in England. We never see his face, but his voice tells us what we need to know. He's deeply insecure and suspicious and it's clear that Valentine deserves someone more trusting and loving.

Another man (Lorit) is shown hurrying across a street. We will later discover that his name is Auguste and that he's studying to become a judge. When he drops his books, one falls open. The text on that page includes the information required to answer a question on his upcoming examination. Has Fate intervened in his life, or is it just a coincidence?

Valentine is distracted by the radio while she is driving and hears a bump. She's horrified to find that she's hit a dog. The collar has the name of the dog, Rita, and an address tag, so she carefully puts Rita in her car and drives to the owner's house. His name is Joseph (Trintignant) and he appears indifferent to the plight of Rita, so Valentine takes her to a vet. For any animal lovers out there, Rita makes a full recovery.

Valentine works as a model and we are shown her being photographed for a chewing gum ad. The campaign is entitled a breath of life. After choosing between dozens of possible photos, she chooses the one that will be placed on a giant billboard.

Rita runs away the first time Valentine walks her and leads her back to Joseph. Was Fate involved once again? Valentine talks to Joseph and we learn that he's a retired judge. He spends his time eavesdropping on his neighbors, using all kinds of electrical equipment. Who is the judge? Why is he listening? What made him retire? He's a complicated man, but Valentine's initial reaction is one of disgust. She tells him to stop listening. He informs her that he's been listening his entire life.

There's a big difference between Valentine and Joseph. She is almost unbelievably good. All of her actions suggest that she believes other people are basically good. Watch how she helps an old woman place a bottle in a recycling bin to appreciate how Valentine's first instinct is always to help others. Joseph is extremely bitter and cynical. He believes that the majority of people are bad. However, he can see Valentine for what she truly is.

As the plot unfolds, Joseph is seen in court. This time it's as a defendant and we learn that he wrote letters to all of his neighbors and the police informing them of his illegal surveillance. Valentine sees the story in a newspaper and visits Joseph again. He informs her that her words had prompted him to write the letters. Why would he do that? When she asks whether she would find a judge like him if she were ever in court, he replies:

"You'll never be taken to court. The courts don't deal with the innocent."

That's exactly what Valentine is - an innocent. Does she represent something else? She continues to develop her relationship with Joseph by inviting him to attend a fashion show. It's clear that he doesn't leave the house often. It's as if Valentine is giving him the opportunity to start his life all over again. After the show, the two have a long conversation.

In this long conversation, it becomes clear why Joseph is so bitter. He was jilted as a young man and eventually found himself in the position of having to rule on a trial involving his girlfriend's lover. He found the man guilty, and believes it was the correct decision, but he still asked for early retirement. He's never really recovered from that incident and never found love again.

Remember Auguste, the young aspiring judge I mentioned earlier? His life appears to be on the same path that Joseph's followed. He's been jilted and has become bitter. He also doesn't seem to care much about his dog. It's as if he is afraid of even getting close to an animal in case he is betrayed. Joseph clearly regrets not meeting someone like Valentine earlier in his life. Romance isn't possible between them now, but does Joseph try to place Valentine and Auguste in a position to discover each other? When she decides to travel to England, he suggests taking the ferry. Auguste is on the same ferry. Is Joseph a representation of Fate or even God?

The conclusion to the film, and to the whole trilogy, is simply stunning. If you have read this far, I'm hoping that you have already seen the trilogy. If you haven't, this is your final chance to avoid a major spoiler.

Joseph looks at his newspaper and discovers that Valentine's ferry has been involved in an accident. The television provides more information about the event. Only seven people have survived the accident and six are known to us. The first two are Julie and Olivier, who we met in Three Colors Blue. The next couple are Karol and Dominique from Three Colors White. The final survivors are Auguste and Valentine, who are apparently discovering each other for the first time despite living in the same street.

Perhaps even more haunting is the still of Valentine's face as she is rescued. A passing stranger is wearing a red jacket and the shot looks almost identical to the one taken for the chewing gum ad. This suggests all kinds of connections and possibilities so make of it what you will. Whatever you think, I believe it's a stroke of genius to end the film in such a way.

Director Krzysztof Kieslowski died in 1996 at the age of 54 and I often wonder what he would have gone on to achieve. Irene Jacob worked with him on just two films, but would we have been given a few more magical collaborations? We will never know. I can't recommend Kieslowski highly enough. His films are full of beauty and possibilities. Although this review focuses on Three Colors Red, the entire trilogy is a must-own if you enjoy pondering the mysteries of life. It's my favorite trilogy and that's saying a lot.

Criterion issued a Blu-ray version of the Three Colors Trilogy in November, 2011. Each film has newly-recorded special features and includes in-depth video essays exploring the themes. It's a fantastic package to own if you are a fan of Kieslowski or foreign language films in general.

If you like Three Colors Red:

As mentioned above, Kieslowski's Three Colors Blue and Three Colors White are a vital part of the trilogy and give added meaning to Three Colors Red. If you enjoyed Irene Jacob's performance, you'll almost certainly like The Double Life of Veronique.

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  1. The Colors trilogy is really an amazing accomplishment. Each film works wonderfully on it's own, but seeing them together is just amazing. You've captured "Red" very well. Great review, I enjoyed your musings on the significance of the characters.

  2. Yes, Three Colors and The Double Life of Veronique were shot beautifully. I love the scene which ties Three Colors together. I'm glad you enjoyed the review. I rarely give away so much, but it would be boring to review Red without going into some detail.

  3. Nice review,I think Red is a great summary to the trilogy and the best one in terms of presenting Kieslowski's FATE theme.

  4. Thanks David. Red is the strongest entry and wraps things up well. I find it fascinating. Blue is close to perfect too, with White just behind. It has to be my favorite trilogy.