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Red: A Fraternity of Strangers

You make films to give people something, to transport them somewhere else, and it doesn’t matter if you transport them to a world of intuition or a world of the intellect.

Krzysztof Kieślowski said that he did not care about cinema, only about audiences and the ways in which films could move them. Three Colors: Red (1994), his last film, is a complex parting gift. The film’s declared theme of fraternity completes the trio of ideas that structures his Three Colors trilogy; Blue (1993) considers liberty, White (1993) equality. But as in those previous installments, the treatment of the theme in Red is rather idiosyncratic. The story of young model and student Valentine (Irène Jacob), who hits a dog with her car and thus begins a strange relationship with its owner, retired judge Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), does not offer a straightforwardly heartwarming vision of humanity, nor does it clearly preach the socialist politics we may naturally associate with the titular color. However, Red ultimately culminates with a note of tentative optimism, not just for the protagonists of this film but for those of the entire trilogy.

The difficulties of interpersonal communication are conspicuous from the opening moments of the film, in which the camera races down the telephone wires under the English Channel in an exhilarating surge, only to encounter a busy signal at the other end. The chatter of mingled voices on the soundtrack in this sequence suggests a form of sociality that, even if it is unseen and mediated, is warm and lively. Belief in the sincerity of these conversations is undermined, though, by the film’s later revelation that the judge is eavesdropping on telephone calls. What he unveils, above all, is a world of deceit and loneliness, which he observes with detachment, despite the fact that the people he hears are his immediate neighbors. Valentine seems to be no exception to this dispersed social existence, constantly dashing to answer calls from her boyfriend in England, who attacks her with paranoid accusations of infidelity. The secondary characters, whose stories interweave with those of the central pair, likewise suffer fractured relationships and troubled lives. The somber atmosphere is amplified by Piotr Sobocinńki’s chiaroscuro cinematography; there is a deliberate absence of blue, which, along with the preponderance of red objects, lends a melancholic, antique quality to the images. This compounds the feeling that history is repeating itself, that time produces an accumulation of layer upon layer of variations on the same story rather than moving neatly forward.

While the film at first seems to set the judge’s perverse intrusiveness against Valentine’s clear-sighted morality, even her apparent acts of selflessness are called into question and reconfigured as solipsistic. The judge casts doubt on the motivation for her supposed good deed of rescuing the dog, opening up the question of whether such “moral” actions are really rooted in a fear of tarnishing one’s self-regard. Interviewed by Danusia Stok, Kieślowski elaborated on this theme:

There’s something beautiful in the fact that we can give something of ourselves. But if it turns out that, while giving of ourselves, we are doing so in order to have a better opinion of ourselves, then immediately there’s a blemish on this beauty. Is this beauty pure? Or is it always a little marred? That’s the question the film asks. We don’t know the answer, nor do we want to know it. We’re simply reflecting on the question once again.

This refusal to answer the question is characteristic of Kieślowski’s professed desire not to be seen as a moralist, and his rejection of the idea that politics can answer life’s most important questions. The trilogy and the earlier The Decalogue (1988)—a set of ten films he made for Polish television, contemplating each of the Ten Commandments—both take fundamental political or religious ideas as their structuring framework but blur the light and shadows in their responses to them. The unanswered question is endemic in Kieślowski’s late work, a quality that brought charges of mysticism from those who felt he was betraying his earlier social commitment in pursuit of glossy aesthetics, facilitated by the use of French funding (which began with his first feature film partially in French, 1991’s The Double Life of Véronique). In fact, Kieślowski’s move from Poland was partly motivated by his acute awareness of the limited resources available there and his wish to preserve them for filmmakers of less renown. It is certainly true that Red enjoys far more lavish production values than his early Polish work, making use of expensive locations and elaborate cinematographic techniques, such as the opening sequence with the telephone wires and the moment when the camera mimics a falling book in the theater, which are not entirely typical of his style. However, they are typical of his vision, imbuing the film with a sense of unknown forces and unknown eyes at large in a world that cannot be mastered by any of its merely human inhabitants.

This feeling of mysterious presence reflects the way Kieślowski spoke of the narrative of Red. He described the story, and particularly the “missed” relationship between Valentine and the judge, in ways that suggest that the world has a hidden design, albeit one prone to flaws. For him, “the essential question the film asks is: Is it possible to repair a mistake that was committed somewhere high above?” The idea that there is an invisible but fallible authority presiding over the world within the film naturally invites us to consider the director himself in that role. Jean-Louis Trintignant, asked why his character wants to see Valentine’s ferry ticket before she sets out for England, responded that he did not know, and moreover that he had no wish to ask Kieślowski himself, remarking, “In poetry, there are shadowy areas. You don’t understand everything, but you understand a lot, and it’s still wonderful.”

The way the film considers fraternity reflects this sense of a hidden pattern underlying the everyday lives of its characters. Rather than conventional brotherly loyalty or friendship, the fraternal relationship is one of uncanny resemblance in the eyes of the spectator. The film is full of doubles, echoes, and reverberations that invite us to see people, incidents, and history as part of a bigger mechanism that we intuitively discern rather than intellectually comprehend. In this respect, the film has much in common with The Double Life of Véronique, which recounts the mysterious connection between Véronique in France and Weronika in Poland, two young women with no knowledge of each other. Both Véronique and Weronika are played by Irène Jacob, and the image of the same actor in Red as Valentine, another dreamy young woman, inevitably brings with it memories of those doppelgängers. The music Valentine and Auguste both listen to in the CD shop is by the invented composer Van den Budenmayer, placing them in a constellation with Weronika and the young woman in The Decalogue: Nine, who both sing his music, and with the concerto in Blue, which makes reference to it (in reality, it is all written by Zbigniew Preisner, composer of the music for all three films in the trilogy, The Double Life of Véronique, and The Decalogue). Within Red, the parallel lives of the judge and Auguste, a young judge who does not know him, propose a form of fraternity that is rooted in similarity rather than amity. It is up to the spectator, not the characters, to consider them as kindred spirits. The film’s aesthetics reinforce the uncanny connections, with shots of the same places deliberately taken with the camera in the same position, and held so that the spectator has time, consciously or otherwise, to recognize them. The closest fraternal resemblance of all is probably the one between Valentine’s chewing gum poster and the final still shot of her being rescued, an image that suggests that time has been folded back on itself somehow, and that resemblances are not just coincidences but moments that help us glimpse hidden truths.

The final scene of Red lends the Three Colors trilogy a coherence that has so far been absent. The fleeting appearance of Julie, from Blue, in Karol and Dominique’s courtroom divorce hearing in White gives us a hint of the characters’ interconnectedness, but it seems very slight (and, indeed, Kieślowski pointed out that the trilogy involves far fewer interrelations than does The Decalogue). When we see the judge watching the television news report of the ferry accident survivors, all but one of whom are the protagonists of the trilogy, we finally learn the destiny toward which they have been moving, unwittingly, since we first set eyes on Julie in Blue. Chronologically, this is not a point of origin; it is the moment at which the trilogy’s stories converge. Intriguingly, it suggests that there has been an afterlife for characters we would conventionally have believed to be sealed off in their own finite stories. Julie and Benoît from Blue are traveling together, and Karol and Dominique from White also. Kieślowski went so far as to say that the climactic scene of Red reveals that White had a happy ending. There is an expansiveness to this vision, in which everything may or may not be connected, in which fictional characters continue to have lives in times and places that exist beyond their filmic stories, that absolutely fits with the resonant quality of Red.

The possibility of a cinematic afterlife is especially poignant in these final moments of Kieślowski’s final film. Nobody knew for certain that Red would be his last, though when he took it to the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, he declared that it would be. Asked why, he said he was tired, hated being on location, and wanted to sit in a chair in the countryside, smoking. He never quite ruled out a return, though, stating at the same press conference that he had ideas about writing a script, and also about helping younger filmmakers. His death on March 13, 1996, at the age of just fifty-five, was sadly to cut short for good the hopes of all those who wanted to see more.

Kieślowski’s legacy is not just in the films he made. He was always intensely aware that filmmaking is a collaborative creative act; he valued the words of an elderly Polish cameraman who’d observed that “the director’s a guy who helps everyone.” And it is not least through his coworkers that he continues to send ripples through European and Hollywood cinema. Before his death, he did, in fact, begin a new project, with his coscriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, a trilogy on the subject of heaven, hell, and purgatory. Only the first of these scripts was completed, and Heaven was taken up by German director Tom Tykwer, and released in 2002. (Hell, finished later by Piesiewicz, was eventually directed by Bosnian Danis Tanovic, in 2005.) The producer of the Three Colors trilogy, Marin Karmitz, went on to support Michael Haneke’s first films in French, explicitly because he hoped to foster a continuation of Kieślowski’s European vision. Preisner turned the work he was doing with Kieślowski at the time of his death into Requiem for My Friend (1998), a choral tribute to his collaborator. He and the cinematographers who also lent so much artistry to Kieślowski’s cinema have all gone on to display their talents in work with other directors.

There is no substitute for Kieślowski, though, and none for his own words. For him, cinema was limited in its possibilities. Its goal was “to capture what lies within us, but there’s no way of filming it. You can only get nearer to it.” In his films, he gets near enough to make us catch our breath.

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