Red: Kieslowski's Third Panel

Krzysztof Kieslowski's trilogy, Trois Couleurs (Three Colors), is one of the most impressive cinematic achievements of the decade. Red, the last segment in the series that began with Blue and continued with White, is Kieslowski's crowning jewel, showing the master in complete control of his medium.

Though I prefer his Polish movies (Blind Chance, Decalogue), I have to admit that his career–and creativity–have not suffered much as a result of being in exile in France–unlike Ingmar Bergman and other emigrant directors.

An international director in the true sense of the term, Kieslowski is also one of the few filmmakers working today who makes “serious” art films–occupying the same territory that once was inhabited by Antonioni, Bergman, Resnais, Fellini and Tarkovsky. Sadly, Kieslowski has recently announced that Red would be his last picture.

Each of the three pictures in the triptych is meant to illustrate one of the French Revolution's ideals–Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The trilogy also features three of the most stunningly beautiful actresses in the French cinema–Juliette Binoche (Blue), Julie Delpy (White) and Irene Jacob (Red).

Shot back-to-back, the three pictures were shown in Europe's most prestigious film festivals: Venice, Berlin, and Cannes. Some of us were disappointed this year in Cannes, when Red, surely one of the festival's highlights, didn't win any award.

An ambitious filmmaker, Kieslowski is committed to the cinema of the mind. His movies tell unconventional, expressive stories about existential, somehow mystical issues. These themes were first explored in The Double Life of Veronique, co-written, as all of his features since 1984, by Solidarity lawyer Krzysztof Piesiewicz. A haunting parable of a young Polish singer and her mysterious French double, Double Life dazzled me and many filmgoers in 1991.

Red probes into the nature of fraternity, though brotherhood is perhaps a more accurate translation. Its heroine is Valentine (Jacob), a Geneva fashion model, who maintains a troubled relationship with her distant lover by telephone. She lives in the same neighborhood as Auguste, a young lawyer who is studying to become a judge. Valentine and Auguste live in the same area, shop in the same stores, even plans similar trips abroad, but they have never met.

One day, Valentine hits a dog that belongs to an elderly, retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a man living by himself. A relationship begins to evolve between the enterprising, refreshing Valentine and the cynical, world-weary judge, who spends all his time eavesdropping on his neighbors.

As in all of Kieslowski's work, paths cross and fate intervenes, and the happenstance of life leads into the dark and troubling nooks and crannies of people's individual dramas. The characters in his movies are linked by coincidence and cross-reference. Kieslowski's central thesis is that though people increasingly live isolated, privatized lives, they are still connected by spirit, if not materia.

Kieslowski has coaxed extraordinary performances elicited from the luminously beautiful Irene Jacob (the star of Double Life of Veronique) and veteran actor Jean-Louis Trintignant. Red also benefits from the eloquent and refined cinematography of Piotr Sobocinski. Both Blue and Red use their color to great effect, underscoring their varying emotional moods. In Red, the color suffuses almost every frame; if you look carefully, there's always a red object in the background.

Kieslowski, a master of somber moods and contemplative tonalities, imbues his movies with powerful lyrical moments and visual motifs. He constructs intricate puzzles that approximate the logic, elegance, and precision of mathematical models. But his movies also operate as religious parables, featuring his particular brand of mysticism; they are about the need for spiritual life without the need for organized religion.

The three movies are linked thematically: Each film marks a transition from isolation to communion. Blue identifies liberty with loss. The heroine is “liberated” after her husband and young daughter are killed in a car accident. Freed from familial obligations, she even tries to obliterate history–choosing to destroy her husband's magnum opus, an incomplete concerto written as a celebration of the unification of Europe.

The darkest and nastiest of the three segments, White, links equality with a vengeful husband. Karol Karol, its hairdresser hero, is humiliated by the stress of working in a foreign land; his French wife divorces him because he has been unable to consummate their marriage. White puts more weight on the human drama and has more narrative drive than either Blue or Red.

Technology abounds in all three films. In Blue, a small TV set is propped on a sick woman's pillow so that she can watch her husband and daughter's funeral; when she tells her senile mother that all attachments are “traps,” the TV beams out an image of a free fall. In Red, the telephone performs a peculiar social function, creating an invisible community of strangers.

Like Blue, Red flirts with calculated rationality. The judge not only dreams of Valentine's future happiness but in one of Kieslowski's mystical touches, the judge contrives to match her with Auguste, an image of his own younger self. Kieslowski has a taste for ironic punctuation: In Red, a rock flies through a glass window to underscore the conclusion of a rather heavy conversation.

The virtuosity of Kieslowski's camera work and the richness of his montage and mise-en-scene are evident in all three films. His strategy is to isolate people in public locales, then observe them with evocative silence and contemplation as they go about their routines.
Red weaves together such recurring threads as the imperfections of human laws, the prevalence of loss, the mystery of death, and the inevitability of resurrection. Greater than the sum of its parts, Three Colors reveals its patterns in Red, which brings back the trilogy's principals, reinforcing the notion of the filmmaker as an autonomous creator of his own universe.