Red (1994)

The third film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy, Red portrays a movement from cynicism to hopeful innocence, from death to life, and ultimately, from isolation to connection. Yet this movement appears in a universe where it is difficult to determine the difference between fated events on the one hand, and the utter randomness of Lady Luck on the other. This ambiguity brings a freshness and vitality to the proceedings where lesser films are crushed as the gears of plot groan into motion.

Red introduces us to Valentine (Irene Jacob), currently living in Geneva apart from her busy and brusque boyfriend Michel. She’s a model who’s just agreed to a photo shoot for a bubble gum company, part of an ad campaign creatively titled “A Breath of Life.” One cannot help but appreciate the characteristic underplayed Kieslowskian humor here. One night while driving home, Valentine runs over a dog, Rita, and upon returning her to the address on the collar, meets with a rather unpleasant old man (a retired judge, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) who tells her she can do what she wants with his severely injured pet. Valentine, befuddled and hurt by his insensitivity, fires back a penetrating question about whether his daughter would merit the same concern, and storms off to get the dog medical attention. The film follows both the developing relationship between Valentine and the judge, as well as a parallel story of sorts with a young law student and his girlfriend. There are three strange, and what might be considered throwaway moments that help to bring the film and its concerns into focus.

The first takes place early on, the day after Valentine’s initial meeting with the judge. She has since brought the dog home from the vet, and as is her habit every morning, she heads down to the corner store and plays a single coin in the slot machine. She’s prepared to lose, which as we see in an earlier scene, seems to indicate all is right with the world. Yet on this day, three cherries come up, many coins fall out, and Valentine is left nonplussed. After a moment’s reflection, she notes to the store keeper in a rather dour way that she’s pretty sure she knows why this happened (a reference to the incident the night before). Why so gloomy though? A scene like this flies in the face of common human experience. Most of us, when presented with large amounts of money, tend to be pleased rather than distressed.

By including this strange reaction, Kieslowski sets us up for the ambiguity between fate and freedom. Valentine’s reaction points out that all is not well in her world. Something is amiss, though even she can’t be completely sure of the exact cause yet. The slot machine victory seems like a fluke, but do we really know that? For Valentine, the corresponding event of hitting a dog also seems fairly random, yet what if it isn’t? What appear to be chance events in the lives of these characters are actually leading to greater things far beyond what they can imagine. Valentine seems to recognize this, even as she cringes at what the consequences might be.

The second strange moment comes not long after. Rita is healed, so Valentine decides to take her for a walk, letting her loose in the park. Rita immediately dashes off, while Valentine gives chase into a church where the Mass is being given. It’s a comic scene to be sure, as Valentine asks the priest at the altar if he’s seen her lost dog. Yet, is it wise to think of it as just that, or is something more going on? It seems such a strange moment, but I have too great a respect for Kieslowski to believe he just chose that location at random. Placing the scene in context, the dog ultimately leads Valentine back to the judge’s home, where they have the first of their three lengthy conversations. Thus, in the midst of this journey to solidify the central relationship of the film, Kieslowski has his heroine stop in a religious service. That he makes it a comic scene takes a little of the pretentiousness out of the moment, all the while leaving its significance. God’s presence is hinted at even in this simple transitional moment. All the while the main characters simply act and react as they normally would. For Valentine, that means following Rita until she makes sure the dog is safe. What we have here then is a recognition of transcendence in the midst of the common reactions of regular people. Yet while we have a hint here at who might be guiding or at least overseeing these events, one cannot help but wonder if the path leads anywhere in particular.

Finally, in a moment near the end of the film, Valentine invites the judge (now, safe to say, her friend) to a fashion show in which she’s modeling. He lingers afterward, hoping to speak with her, and as she walks out, still on stage, she sees him in the seats and moves in his direction. As they approach one another, she on stage, he in the seats, Kieslowski places his camera on her from an extremely high angle, causing her to tower above the judge in quite an extreme way. The moment is visually notable, allowing us to identify first with the judges lowliness and humility in her presence. Before he looked upon her with suspicion, anger, and pride, having no time to even answer the door or look at her when she left. Now though, he comes to her, waits for her long after the show ends, and places her on a pedestal. She has come to represent life, innocence, and community for him, things that have become realities in his life through her presence in it.

These three moments might be considered throwaways in a movie like this. They are certainly too brief to be considered on par with the first lengthy conversation between the judge and Valentine, a scene that crackles with tension and emotional power. Yet, the moments noted here are illustrative of Kieslowski’s work, in which no moment is random, no camera move left unconsidered. Yet somehow, even with such precision evident in his work, Kieslowski is also able to open us up to an unseen world that is far greater and more mysterious than a few words here can begin to comprehend.

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2 thoughts on “Red (1994)

  1. Terrific write-up, John, on the film that happens to be my personal favorite of the Three Colors trilogy. It’s been a little while since my last viewing, but I’ll admit that I don’t remember paying particular attention to these scenes, other than wondering about Valentine’s reaction to the slot machine. I love how you’ve highlighted these three “small” moments.

  2. Thanks Diane. Those scenes really struck me this time through, mostly in puzzling ways. And as I thought a bit about them, it seemed to me they each revealed something meaningful about the film. And I get the sense that I could choose any scene in Red and do the same thing, which is one of the reasons I love Kieslowski so much.

    I’ve always considered Blue my favorite, but I suspect this is the first time I feel like I get Red in some sense. I took to Blue pretty easily, but both White and Red have needed further viewings to open up. Making myself write something down about Red helped the process along with “getting” it. I watched White not too long ago and wish I would have written something about it when it was fresher in my mind. No doubt that would help me to get a better handle on what he’s doing in the that film as well. I find the more I write about something, the more focused it becomes in my mind. I can’t just sit back and “think” it all.

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