Saturday, June 25, 2011

Exploring Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy: Red (1994)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Country: France/Poland/Switzerland

As I mentioned in my previous review of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, the films that make up his Three Colors trilogy can be considered as responses to specific genres. While Blue is said to be an anti-tragedy and White an anti-comedy, Red is the anti-romance – and, I believe, the film that best fulfills its designation. It certainly addresses love, but does so in a curious, indirect way, circling questions and elements of romance without ever delivering the full emotional payoff one might expect. One of the film’s relationships, between a young man named Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) who is studying to become a judge and his blonde girlfriend Karin (Frédérique Feder), is only presented in short, fleeting scenes mainly focused on him. Another is stretched thin across Europe, tying together Geneva-based model Valentine (the enchanting Irène Jacob) and Michel, a university student living in London, through increasingly fraught phone conversations. It feels like Kieslowski uses these two storylines to examine contemporary relationships – or, rather, how certain relationships were never meant to work.

But then, nestled between these ones, there is another that oddly does. This relationship is between Valentine and a retired judge marvelously portrayed by Jean-Louis Trintignant. One night, she hits a German Shepherd with her car and, after carrying the hurt animal to her backseat, brings her to the address written on her collar. At the house, Valentine has her first encounter with the judge, who reacts to her confession of the incident with indifference and lets her keep the dog. She leaves, but they will continue to meet throughout the film, usually at his home. She learns that he spends much of his time eavesdropping on his neighbors’ phone calls using a special machine, observing their lives but never interfering. Valentine disapproves, yet she doesn’t betray his secret nor sever her contact with him. Instead, through their conversations they gradually learn more about one another and the circumstances that have shaped their lives.

This odd friendship makes up the core of Red and is never anything less than fascinating thanks to Jacob and Trintignant’s nuanced performances. Even though their characters have their share of differences (not least of all in age), they nonetheless discover and build a connection between themselves based upon curiosity, recognition and respect. This is where the much-noted theme of fraternity comes into the film: both Valentine and the judge are noticeably estranged from the people in their respective lives, thus identifying with one another as fellow outsiders and kindred spirits. There is a sense of closeness and trust in their shared words and gestures that come across as more sincere and believable than a great many full-blown love affairs one is likely to see onscreen.

Throughout Red, Kieslowski conducts a subtle study of actions and reactions, exploring how chance occurrences can have significant, far-reaching consequences. There are many such causal agents put forth, ranging from a book that falls open at just the right page to a malfunctioning car radio to the convergence of a number of strangers at a court hearing. Here more than anywhere else, the line between chance and fate is blurred by intriguing details put forth by Kieslowski – most significant of which being the uncanny resemblance between events from the judge’s past and ones playing out in the present in Auguste’s life, as if the latter character were a younger mirror version of the former. Another echo is presented in the form of the old lady who struggles to put an empty bottle in a recycling bin – an image included in all of the Three Colors films. The threads of interconnectivity are more deeply woven simply by the several occasions in which Valentine and Auguste cross paths without ever actually meeting, among other similar cases of different characters’ lives overlapping and touching one another. These dovetailing, beautifully orchestrated cases of coincidence, repetition and linkage make Red seem like a more patient, mature take on Magnolia; a film that is quite comfortable with the understated manner in which it presents its deep, potentially mind-blowing ideas. The true payoff arrives in the final scene, which will really get you pondering the crazy pinball patterns your own life can take based on seemingly small events and decisions – an effect made all the more rewarding if you watch the trilogy in order.

These last few words should be devoted to the stylistic features that make Red such a pleasure to take in. With his score, Zbigniew Preisner seems to return to the majesty of Blue, but with a more subdued, ethereal approach. Regarding the cinematography, production design and set decoration, Kieslowski and his creative team have really outdone themselves in making the most of their central color. Thankfully, the use of red here isn’t overwhelming – it doesn’t flood the screen, but is instead represented by several perfectly selected objects, pieces of clothing and features of the environments. Among the most surprising aspects of the film is the pure energy of the visual style, which often reaches thrilling heights. Fast, swooping crane shots; a speeding red bowling ball’s course down a lane; the opening, kaleidoscopic depiction of a long-distance phone call that pulls you head-first into the film – such moments and more all substantially add to the experience Red provides and demonstrate the generous, inventive spirit of its key engineer, Kieslowski, in spades.

In and of itself, the film is a wonderful achievement. As the third part of the Three Colors trilogy, it is the perfect finishing chapter to a film series that will only continue to enthrall viewers with its considerable scope, intricacy and empathy.

Also posted at Row Three.

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