in Criterion Month

Three Colors: Red

Though this didn’t quite seem to be the case for Sean, for me, The Three Colors trilogy was just another one of the cinematic revelations that make this whole Criterion month worthwhile. Because I honestly don’t how long it would’ve taken me to actually sit down and watch a film made by Polish master Krzysztof Kieślowski (let alone learn to spell his name correctly without googling it). But after watching Blue, White, and Red, which are all pretty great in their own ways, I more than feel compelled to seek out other films in the director’s cannon. Though it almost feels like he was just getting started when he retired from filmmaking after completing Red, which unfortunately happened just two years before his death at the age of 56.

It’s debatable what of the three films in this trilogy are the best. I think I liked Blue a bit more than Sean did, possibly because I found its detachment to be kind of intoxicating. White I liked quite a bit too, even if it’s probably the weakest for me, just because its satirical slant didn’t quite resonate emotionally as much as the other two. That said, I realize none of these three films are intending to be tearjerkers or anything, or at least not on the surface. But whatever your preference, Red seemed to garner the most praise at the time of its release (it was nominated for best screenplay and best director at the 1994 Academy Awards), while much like its namesake, Red is definitely the warmest color of the three.

Red centers on Valentine (played by Iréne Jacob), a young model, who we see constantly on the phone with an unseen boyfriend. Much of the film keeps coming back to this phone motif, as we also follow Karin (Frederique Feder), who is also often in talks with his girlfriend and lives in an apartment across the street. His presence in the film is a bit coy, as his scenes sort of linger in the background, though he may or may not play a more prominent role in the film than it would seem. By the way, I’m being vague because for one, spoilers (not that those really matter in a 20-year-old film), but also because the film is intentionally ambiguous about who this guy really is.

The main crux of Red’s plot doesn’t really unravel until Valentine is driving home from one of her modeling gigs, and she hits a dog (played by a German Shephard). She carries the dog into her car and brings him to his owner, a crusty ex-judge named Joseph (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who doesn’t seem all that concerned about his dog’s health. Valentine then becomes further disgusted with Joseph, as it becomes apparent that he spends his retirement eavesdropping with his top of the line (for the ‘90s) telephone intercepting equipment. She then asks him to give it up and confess to spying on his neighbors, basically because it’s the right thing to do.

Now, from what I described to you so far about Red – that it’s basically about a young attractive woman meeting an old misanthropic coot, and teaching him the pleasures of altruism – sounds like the stuff of Hallmark movies. But from watching Red, in addition to Blue and White, it became apparent to me that Kieślowski is clearly not one to indulge sentimentality very easily. So it’s remarkable that this movie accomplishes what it accomplishes when no one hugs, no one falls in love, and the film’s ending is only a happy one because it narrowly avoids tragedy.

Granted, it’s debatable whether anyone does fall in love, as Roger Ebert referred Red to be an “anti-romance” (while Blue was an “anti-tragedy” and White an “anti-comedy”), because in a way Joseph and Valentine do fall in love. It’s just that Joseph was born too early and Valentine too late for actual romance to take place. And as we see this play out, the movie is stuffed with visual motifs signifying the inconveniences (big and small) that keep human beings from connecting with one another. Though there’s also a striking image early in the film that sees the camera being pulled into the telephone as we see that in a way, we’re all incredibly connected because of technology.

For that reason, Red feels like a remarkably modern film, while also being charmingly dated at the same time. The fact that Joseph spends his time spying on people that he only tangentially knows has more than a whiff of what social media would become about a decade later. Also, the fact that the film spends a decent amount of time questioning how valuable people’s privacy really is, is kind of amazing considering nobody really knew what we were in for in regard to personal privacy in relation to technology. It’s just a shame that Kieślowski didn’t live long enough to make more movies in this new, untapped future of indiscretion. Though as all three films in the Three Colors trilogy exhibit, you can never escape the past, and I hope to further explore the past works that led up to this trilogy that would serve as the director’s effortless swan song.