Three Colors: Red (1994)
Written by Krzysztof Kieślowski & Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski
In the excellent documentary short Krzysztof Kieślowski: I’m So-So… (available to view on The Criterion Channel), we get a small glimpse into the mind of this complex filmmaker. Kieślowski defines himself in this way: “I am a pessimist. I always imagine the worst. To me, the future is a black hole.” He further clarifies that he sees this as a good trait. I cannot disagree with him, as many of his thoughts in this short film felt like someone putting into perfect words a lot of what I have felt and have felt more intensely since 2020. (A side note, this comment on his visit to the United States made me feel like I have found yet another kindred soul in cinema: “the pursuit of empty talk combined with a very high degree of self-satisfaction.”) How does this kind of director make a movie centered on the theme of fraternity/brotherhood? He does it by focusing on how people communicate in the late 20th century.
Valentine Dussault (Irene Jacob) is a student and part-time model living in Geneva, Switzerland. Her boyfriend is in London, where she plans to meet up with him in a short while, yet he is becoming increasingly meaner & more possessive. During a photo shoot for a bubblegum brand, Valentine delivers various poses and looks; an image of her looking sad is selected as the best one. There’s also Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), a law student who lives in the same neighborhood as Valentine. We follow him for a while, and Kieślowski knows precisely what his audience is thinking: When will these two meet and eventually fall in love? Kieślowski was incredibly interested in his audience and regularly expressed disinterest in the lofty ideas of cinema many European directors had pined over in those early days of the New Wave. For the Polish filmmaker, it was about connecting with the people watching his work.
Connection is at the center of this entire film, starting with an opening shot of a phone call being placed and then a hyperkinetic journey following phone lines, descending into the ocean to track a telecommunications cable, and finally inside the wires, watching them becoming an abstracted rainbow akin to David Bowman’s hyperspeed journey beyond reality in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick was likely very proud as he cited Kieślowski’s The Dekalog as the only masterpiece in film he could think of. Another connection made through a modern form of communication. But these high-speed devices and crystal-clear displays aren’t all sunshine & roses.
Valentine accidentally hits a Belgian shepherd while driving home from a modeling gig. It tears her up to see this animal suffering because of her. She finds the owner, Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a retired judge. You might recognize Trintignant’s name and/or face. He was the male lead in Michael Haneke’s Amour, another film & another connection. Kern is strangely cold about his injured dog, which rubs Valentine the wrong way. This reaction causes her to keep Rita, the dog. After taking Rita to the veterinarian, Valentine learns the animal is pregnant with a litter. After returning home from another job, an envelope of money appears under Valentine’s door. It doesn’t take much deduction, but Kern sent it, which he confirms in a phone call. She goes to his place, wanting to give him back the difference, as Kern gave her far more than the vet visit cost. This is where the movie reveals itself for what it will be about.
After waiting outside and becoming impatient, Valentine goes into Kern’s house and discovers something he is doing secretly. Using a special device, Kern can tap into his neighbors’ conversations as they use cordless phones. He’s currently listening to a male neighbor having a sexually explicit conversation with his male lover. This neighbor is married to a woman and has multiple children. His wife is unaware of this dalliance. Valentine is alarmed and decides she should go over and let this man’s family know. The wife doesn’t know, and Valentine doesn’t tell her when she realizes the couple’s young daughter is eavesdropping on the father’s conversation via the extension.
The conversation that follows is very revealing. Kern explains that his listening or not listening & Valentine letting the family know or not know will not affect how these people’s lives turn out. This exchange returns to their initial meeting and Valentine’s moral outrage over Kern’s coldness toward his injured dog. A question is raised: In doing what we perceive to be good things, is our intent to genuinely help another or simply to boost our self-image to convince ourselves that we are a good person? Kieślowski is fascinated by raising and exploring these questions, not coming down on a definitive answer.
The director doesn’t think a single political ideology holds the answers to resolving the inner conflict of humans. I agree with him. As a self-described communist, I think that ideology possesses a fantastic framework for the inevitable next organization of humanity regarding how economies function. It certainly promotes morally good ideals of equity, but it is heavily weighted on the scientific analytic end of things and won’t ever fully provide for people’s inner worlds. Having people housed, clothed, fed, and educated is fundamental, but there will come a time when that needs to be built upon.
I’ve found the semi-regular use of psychedelics to begin to address those personal moral questions. Once upon a time, I would have claimed strident atheism, but in my “old age,” I am leaning more towards agnostic thinking. I certainly don’t believe any ancient or modern interpretations of the creative force behind the universe come anywhere close to accuracy; they each have their own charms. Whatever exists beyond the material is indescribable and unnameable based on our current perceptions. Our senses and languages are inept when attempting to define it all. It’s fun to try but ultimately pointless. In death, we may learn the truth, but maybe we won’t.
Kieślowski was labeled a “mystic” by some critics and former fans during this latter period of his career. In their opinion, he was becoming too esoteric, far too interested in the immaterial nature of life. I don’t mind it; finding ways to weave the unknown into cinema is crucial. As a creative expression, it taps into the very things that are beyond explanation. Where do the ideas we have even come from? Yes, partly inspired by personal experiences & our environment, but there is so much art that goes beyond those things. The artists who create these things often can’t fully articulate why they thought of framing a story in a certain way or why one shot set-up is more appealing to them than another. There is an unknown element that we must simply embrace and try to understand as best we can, given our limited capacity to do so.
The mystic emerges in Red as the story Kern tells Valentine of his troubled past, reflecting elements of her life and of the enigmatic Auguste, who seems entirely out of place from the rest of the film. This implies a pattern to life: people often follow pre-worn paths and make the same mistakes as those before them. The film doesn’t necessarily frame this as bad or an inability to learn but as something necessary. We have to make these mistakes because we learn something vital; it cannot be told, so we have to go through it. Kern’s final encounter with Valentine also has an air of the mystic. He comes to see her last fashion show before she hops on a ferry headed to England to finally meet up with her boyfriend. Kern stays behind to speak to her but cannot explain why he feels compelled to do this, just that he has to.
The fraternity Kieślowski is presenting is not one of an aware proletarian brotherhood. That is important, but Red is going beyond that to the fabric of why these fellowships of workers feel so natural in the first place. The fraternity experienced by the characters in Red is one of similarity in life; people realizing that the life they thought was only their own has been shared by billions since mankind came into existence. Like White, there are echoes and doubles throughout Red, reinforcing this idea. The connections explode when you begin to see them: Valentine & Auguste listen to the same music in a CD shop, music composed by Van den Budenmayer (music sung by a character played by Irene Jacob in The Dekalog [I will see this one day soon]) and this composer is an invention of Kieślowski. The final shot of Valentine parallels the bubble gum photo shoot from the opening. The most obvious connection is the finale, as all the central characters from across the Three Colors Trilogy find themselves in the same place, experiencing the same frightening incident.
This isn’t a brotherhood of being the bestest of friends. This is how I see brotherhood playing out in the Netherlands since we moved here. Not everyone will be friendly to you; in fact, very few will. If you are in a store, things are transactional. The emphasis is not on making the customer like you but on providing them with what they came in for. The same thing is seen just walking around in public. Very few strangers will speak to you; you might get a smile & a nod. That doesn’t feel friendly, and it certainly isn’t. But friendliness is not the same as brotherhood, fraternity, or connection.
There are some rather extensive and ongoing labor strikes in The Netherlands, as in the UK, France, and many other European countries. These striking workers are not all friends but they don’t need to be. They understand that we all rise when we pull each other up. For them, they have found unity. Unity is connection; it’s the most potent connection besides Love. Unity is an understanding that we don’t need to want to hang out together or give each other compliments to want each other to have a decent, happy life. Yes, commuters don’t like it if the trains aren’t running for a day or a week, but they don’t point to the workers as the problem. The people in power have no unity with the masses, and the powerful are causing this issue. The everyday people, the working class & the working poor look out for each other.
A month or two after we arrived in the Netherlands, we walked through the city center of our particular municipality and witnessed some adolescent boys, maybe 12 or 13, in a heated argument. It was clear that two of the boys were angry at each other, and the other boys were playing various roles: some were simply watching, others were arguing in favor of one angry boy or the other. What was more interesting was the outer ring of adults that had been going shopping or working in their shop that had come closer to observe. No words were spoken by them & we did not see them directly intervene. I understood that these adults were making themselves present to keep these two children from hurting each other, not to tell them to stop fighting. Conflict is inevitable and often necessary, but permanently harming another isn’t unless in self-defense cases. The adults were ready to jump in if these boys came to blows, but they would let them work out the argument themselves. This is unity. Watching out for the backs of strangers not because they were nice to you but because that is just what humans should do.
Where Blue could be considered an anti-tragedy and White an anti-comedy, Red is an anti-romance. We have all the pieces to tell a traditional love story, expecting Valentine & Auguste to meet and fall in love, but Kieślowski has no interest in telling that story. Instead, their romance is delayed and only hinted at as a possibility in the movie’s finale scene. The romance within this film is about the love story of humanity for itself. Red is concerned about people allowing themselves to be in conflict but not giving themselves over to hatred & animosity. Kern could never really be considered Valentine’s friend, but by the end of the film, it is clear that he loves & cares about her. His personality isn’t going to soften, and he won’t warm up, but he will show concern.
Things in Europe are not fantastic, and even worse in the United States from everything I can read. This sense of fraternity certainly has its limits with some people, as xenophobia is alive & well in the Netherlands and throughout Europe. That’s a problem that needs to be attended to before the current unity crumbles. The thing about these types of connections is that they have to be maintained. There will always be a natural urge to be united with your fellow man, but there are also forces that literally profit from disunity & fomenting hatred. The planet we live on may very well be dying to the point we are incapable of stopping the damage we have caused. Unity will be essential in weathering the ongoing collapse as it intensifies. Unity has to dissolve the borders that we’ve put up between ourselves. That doesn’t mean we must be friends, but we must possess a shared understanding that a rising tide lifts all ships. I cannot make a better life for myself if my brethren on this planet cannot do so as well.