Three Colours: Red (1994) – Paths and Possibilities
By Jonathan McCalmont’s Criticism
As the dust settled and the cordite faded from the air, the instigators of the French revolution held aloft the severed heads of their old oppressors and proclaimed a new age of humanity; an age in which people would be governed not by the supposedly divine whim of royal genetics but by reason and the principles of the enlightenment. Principles such as Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Over two hundred years later, the polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski decided to devote a trilogy of films to the question of what these hallowed values mean to the modern world. The results are far from a glowing endorsement.
In Blue, Kieslowski renders liberty as an icy internal exile from those who would love us. In White, he reinvents equality as a bitter and demented desire to get even. In these two films we see Kieslowski’s belief that, rather than founding a new society, the values of the enlightenment now serve to drive us apart. Given this pessimistic assessment of the first two revolutionary values, it is surprising to discover in Three Colours: Red an exploration of the concept of Fraternity that is both upbeat in tone and resoundingly hopeful in outlook. For Kieslowski, Liberty and Equality are virtues that drive us into the isolation of individualism while Fraternity, the sense of a common bond between all people, is the value that conspires to bring us together despite ourselves.
We open, as in the previous films, on images from the technological underworld. In Blue, it was the dripping break-line that would lead to a fatal car crash. In White, it was a conveyor belt carrying a Polish man fleeing France. Somewhat tellingly, in Red, the underworld we see is a world of telecommunication cables that criss-cross the world, allowing the possibility of immediate communication with anyone who happens to have a phone. Even when not in use, these cables sit under the ground and beneath the seas waiting for us to reach out and call someone. It is this sense of hidden possibility that underpins the film’s devilishly complex plot.
Valentine (Irene Jacob) is a model living in Switzerland. As a successful model her face appears regularly on television and on an immense poster advertising chewing gum. However, despite living her life in the public eye, her day-to-day existence is remarkably isolated in so far as her most meaningful relationship is with the disembodied but controlling voice of a businessman who works in another country. One night, as Valentine is driving home, she hits a dog. Prostrate with guilt, Valentine drives the dog to the address on its collar only to discover that the dog’s owner is completely uninterested in the fate of his pet. In fact, the old man does not seem to care about anything. Shocked by the old man’s absolute indifference, Valentine adopts the animal, prompting howls of outrage from her disembodied lover who takes issue with Valentine’s decision to acquire a dog despite the fact that he is never actually in the flat with Valentine.
Time passes and Valentine is drawn again and again to the old man’s side. She soon discovers that he (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a retired judge who now spends all of his time eavesdropping on his neighbours. Outraged, Valentine threatens to turn the man in but she soon realises that she does not have the heart to reveal another person’s secrets to their family. The judge is a man who hears all but says nothing… he is surrounded by people and yet he is utterly alone. He is privy to every secret and yet he feels nothing.
Realising that the judge’s indifference is born of the same impotence she felt when trying to denounce him to his neighbours, Valentine’s attitude towards the judge begins to soften and she soon finds herself joining him as he dips into the lives of the people around him.
The plot’s complexity stems from the fact that many of the lives that Valentine and the judge dip into are either directly connected to theirs (as in the case of a nearby drug dealer who sold the drugs that lead to Valentine’s brother becoming a junkie) or weirdly reiterative of mistakes that they have made in the past (as in the case of a young judge who discovers that his lover is cheating on him). By dipping in and out of these various lives without much structure or purpose, Kieslowski creates an incredibly vivid impression of the social world that surrounds us. Like Valentine and the judge, we may well be isolated individuals but this isolation is the product of a deliberate choice. We could just as easily break the exile and choose to become involved in the lives of others. The lines of communication are open and waiting.
In amongst all of these criss-crossing lives and stories is the question of Valentine’s love life. As in the other films in the series, Kieslowski attaches enough traditional genre hooks to his protagonist that one cannot help but be lured into expecting the plot of the film to follow traditional genre lines. In the case of Blue, the tropes attached to Julie are those of the tragedy, in White they are those of the comedy and in Red they are those of the romance. Kieslowski positions Valentine as the protagonist in a romance by making it clear from the get go that she is trapped in a really unpleasant relationship with a controlling man who is never there. From this starting point, Kieslowski introduces us to the judge, whose relationship with Valentine proves to be transformative for both parties. Were this a standard romance then we would be rooting for Valentine and the judge to get together but Kieslowski interferes with this expectation by introducing the figure of the young jurist. The young jurist lives near Valentine and is going through many of the same things that the judge went through as a younger man meaning that we wind up seeing him as a sort of emotional placeholder for the judge himself. However, despite the plot of the film flirting with the idea of Valentine getting it together with either the judge or his young doppelganger, Kieslowski steadfastly refuses to surrender to our genre-based expectations: The judge is not looking to get involved with anyone and Valentine and the young jurist simply never meet despite their paths criss-crossing through out the film.
By dangling the possibility of Valentine finding someone before us and manipulating us into caring about the state of her love life, Kieslowski is making a point about the contingent nature of human relationships: The potential for love and friendship is everywhere around us, we just need to find the right reason to stumble into it. This contingency is reinforced throughout the film by having characters continuously meet and miss each other due to completely random factors. In fact, entire plot of Red hinges on a run-over dog and a ferry that capsizes in a storm.
One of the criss-crossing sub-plots of Red involves a woman who has set up a special phone line allowing people to receive bespoke weather forecasts along the entire length of their travel itineraries. This undeniably useful service involves the forecaster attempting to wrestle an outcome from an almost impossibly large maelstrom of conflicting possibilities. The hopeful nature of the new business stands in stark contrast with the difficulty of the task and as a neat symbolic representation of human social interaction: For Kieslowski, fraternity is like the weather; it surrounds us and it shapes us but we live our lives ignorant of its rules and oblivious to the possibilities it contains. This vision of human relationships as products of chaos and ignorance chimes nicely with the trilogy’s presentation of Liberty and Equality as sources of conflict and self-imposed isolation. It also serves to set up a final sequence that serves as a gleeful response to the difficulty and misery of the trilogy as a whole.
Having decided to join her hideously disembodied lover, a hopeful Valentine decides to take the ferry to Britain. We then learn that the ferry has capsized resulting in the death of all but a handful of the ship’s hundreds of passengers. As the judge sits horrified before the television, the news slowly reveals the identities of the survivors. They include not only the protagonists of White and Blue, but also their significant others. They also include Valentine and the young jurist who are seen huddling together for warmth with the ferry in the background.
Having teased us with the possibility of Valentine finding someone and rebuked us for our genre-affected presuppositions, Kieslowski concludes his trilogy by showing us that there is hope. That chance and ignorance can result in the formation of new bonds and the creation of new loves. Of course, Kieslowski subtly undermines this upbeat ending by having all of the trilogy’s characters turn up in the same place and at the same time (thereby suggesting that love and friendship are either so unlikely as to be miraculous or mere dramatic conceits invented in order to pander to an audience’s sentiments) but the message from this film and the trilogy as a whole is loud and clear: Values cannot bring people together. Values, according to these films, are things that people use to force themselves into entrenched positions that allow them to remain blind to the possibility of friendship, love and togetherness. To pursue Liberty, Equality or Fraternity is to blind oneself to the reality that these things already surround us. Forever out of sight and yet forever present in the bones of the Earth, the values of the French revolution remain tangible forces in our lives so long as we do not explicitly hunt them down. In order to find Liberty, Equality and Fraternity one need only surrender oneself to the whims of the universe and the bountiful chaos that surrounds us.