Three Colours: Red
Krzysztof Kieslowski is a filmmaker whose work isn't afraid of narrative contrivance and formulaic imagery in the pursuit of metaphysical inquiry rather than easy plot denouements. Now it is a thin line in Kieslowski's oeuvre between the obvious and the obscure, where in many other directors' work the choice seems more clearly made. Anyone from Capra, Ford, Spielberg, Cameron, Besson and Lelouch are obvious filmmakers. Godard, Bunuel, Bergman, Antonioni and Resnais obscure ones. We offer this not especially as a value judgement, though there are judgements that can be offered; more to say certain filmmakers insist on absolute clarity of meaning, and others search out absolute subtlety of meaning. Often the obvious is no more than clich, but sometimes not, which is why we include Capra and Ford amongst the former. To give us an example of this notion of clarity, we can think of a very odd shot in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, and see that it appears such an anomaly in a director known for nothing if not clarity. Here Tom Hanks's character has died, and Jeremy Davies's character is coming towards the body. The next shot would at first seem to be Davies' point of view as looks at the dead Hanks and various other characters standing around, only for us to notice that amongst those characters is none other than Davies. What we took to be a point of view shot was nothing of the sort. It was an establishing shot of the space that Davies happens to be in. But it is understandable that most viewers would at first glance assume it to be a shot from Davies' perspective, because the previous image would allow us to make that assumption. It is a rare moment in Spielberg where the audience is formally surprised, uncued for the next shot. Within Spielberg's work it almost looks like a mistake, in an Angelopolous film, in a Tarkovsky, in an Antonioni, it would be a deliberate play with form: a seeking out of the obscure over the obvious.
One offers this bald dichotomy of the obscure and the obvious to try and understand that Kieslowski is a filmmaker interested in the obscure, but isn't afraid to utilise the obvious to get there, and never more so than in his final film, Three Colours: Red. The reason for this one supposes is that he seems to be a filmmaker both very interested in the audience (evident in the masterclass accompanying the Three Colours: Red DVD), but also interested in problems that escape the ready designations of film form.
If he seems to have little problem with back story revelation, turning points that provide narrative momentum, close-up inserts that reveal the categorical nature of an action, and colour symbolism that plays up unequivocally the purpose of the theme, he is also fascinated by the residual obscurity of an existence that includes the possibility of a higher being but cannot quite guarantee it, weak linkages that might be fatalistic or might be no more than coincidental, and character behaviour that seems more thematically purposeful than dramatically realised. This is perhaps quite a lot to unpack, but by going through each element one by one, we can try and comprehend why Kieslowski is, taking into account our bald binary contrast, a bi-polar filmmaker: someone constantly vacillating between the obvious and the obscure.
At one stage quite late in Red, the judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant tells central character Valentine (Irene Jacob) about his past. These are characters who have befriended each other after Valentine runs over the judge's dog and tries to return the pet to its owner. The judge, who has been wary and elliptically revealing up until this point, explains how many years earlier his lover betrayed him with another man, and only a few years ago, long after his ex-partner had died, he was the judge in a trial which ended in the man's conviction. The man was guilty, the judge explains, but even so, the judge decided to retire after this case. This is back story revelation that neatly allows for the containment of the story and the exploration of its thematic. As Kieslowski tells the tale of a woman whose boyfriend is spending a lot of time outside Geneva, and that whenever they speak on the phone he seems keen to get off it, so Kieslowski explores the problem of love as one of time and space: a parallel, secondary story explores a law student graduating whose girlfriend has taken up with another lover. As the judge explains his devastation many years before, so we notice the young man is following not only in his juridical footsteps, but in affairs of the heart also. There is the irony here of time, as if the judge knew then what he knows now he could have avoided the fate of the young man, but it is the young man living in the present who must suffer just as the judge has suffered in the past. But there is also the irony of space: the young man lives near to Valentine, and yet it is not until the end of the film, as she tries to visit her boyfriend abroad, that she comes into close contact with him as they both survive a ferry accident on the way over to England. The cruel fate of time that cannot save the judge, is matched by the possible contingenices of space that might lead to a relationship between the young lawyer and Valentine. Yet this parallelism isn't Kieslowski cross-cutting only for thematic purpose; it is contained within the story also. The judge has for years been listening in on various people's phone conversations with high-tech audio equipment, and some of these conversations concern the young student lawyer.
Is there not something too dramatically facile about the judge's openness at this moment, as if Kieslowski needed back story revelation to help his story along despite setting up Trintignant's character as in emotional deep-freeze? It is of course often a point of conflict that could fall under the rubric of artistic licence: a character of ineffable depths nevertheless at a certain moment is expected to express that ineffability. Dramatic facility comes into conflict with character necessity and usually for the purposes of storytelling the latter gives way to the former. The immovable object of character meets the irresistible force of narrative, and the story wins. But should it always do so? It is as if Kieslowski knew well this inevitable tension, as we may notice in the second story in his TV series the Decologue, and in some comments he makes in the book Kieslowski on Kieslowski. In the latter, the director talks of working with the actress Grazyna Szapolowska, saying that in Decalogue 6 (which was the basis of A Short Film About Love) Szapolowska reckoned there needed to be a story: "not necessarily a happy ending, but a story. She thought that we ought to introduce some sort of convention which would make it clear that this wasn't merely a harsh documentary truth about life but that this was also, as happens in stories, truth, or a concept, contained within a convention." One sees this problem of story versus character clearly in Decalogue 2, where doctor Andrzej persuades the central character to go ahead and have her lover's child because her husband is dying, even though he knows that the husband will in fact recover. He does so we may surmise not least because, as he offers in a moment of back story, he lost his entire family one evening while still at work: he came home to find there had been an explosion at his house.
Now in both Decalogue 2 and Three Colours: Red the back story revelation creates present tense motivation, and we may ask whether the needs of the latter are being fair to the demands of character. Is it an example of the convention arriving at a truth, or does it result in the obliteration of the integrity of the character? Let us say in the former it is more plausible, and in the latter more nuanced. In Decologue 2, Andrzej reveals the loss not to Dorota, the character whose husband is ill, but to the person who looks after his house. He doesn't use it as a justification for Dorota, but as a moment of reflection shared with a woman he begins to know well. Dorota remains oblivious to this fact, just as she will remain unaware that her husband is recovering as she decides to miss the last chance she has to abort the foetus. In this instance Andrzej remains a consistent character in the way he might not have done if he had revealed his past to Dorota as an act of persuasion, as a way in which to convince her to go ahead and have the child. He is not it would seem a persuasive character, but a sorrowful one, someone who appears from the very beginning to have witnessed much hurt and pain without feeling obliged to talk about it. Where we might initially recognize this to be part of a profession where many people die, and that Andrzej has always been a bachelor, later this gives way to a family past where deaths haven't only been professionally unavoidable, but personally tragic as well. His past isn't ineffable, but neither is it a commodity to use to win an argument. If he had talked about his own loss to Dorota and persuaded her consequently to have the child, it would have allowed for the convention Kieslowski talks about, but he would have sacrificed, one feels, the character to it.
In Three Colours: Red this is exactly what happens, but one needn't see this as the failure if we accept that in Red the metaphysical problem has become broader than it happens to be in Decalogue 2, and that Trintignant's judge, not even given a name, serves a function beyond character. Even though David Sterritt in Cineaste reckons that "Kieslowski's metaphysics are humanistic and psychological rather than doctrinal or theological", and says this is why it made sense for Kieslowski to spends weeks shooting the first meeting between Jacob and Trintignant, compared to Decalogue 2, Three Colours: Red looks very 'inhuman' indeed. Again, however, we don't want to insist this is a failure of sensibility, more an expansion of a problem beyond character, so that consistency of character interests Kieslowski less than contingency of event. As with all his later films, The Double Life of Veronique and The Trilogy, Kieslowski seemed to be looking for a truth greater than the characterisational, just as he left his earlier career as a documentary filmmaker behind because he couldn't show a couple making love, or someone dying, as one could in a fictional work. It is as if in these late films the characters became secondary to the metaphysical, as if guided by a force stronger than the characterisational. Obviously this was present in a couple of his eighties features also. Blind Chance offered different outcomes based on the tiniest of details long before the butterfly effect became popularised in films like Run, Lola, Run and Sliding Doors, and No End focuses on a woman grieving her husband who appears to her as a ghost in a film which bears no more than synopsizing similarities with that famous Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze film.
In the late films, though, it is as if form dictates content, as Kieslowski needed to find a means by which to contain the characters in a perspective greater than their own agency. Again some people will say this wasn't new: Kieslowski has talked at length about the use of filters in one of the films adapted from the Decalogue: A Short Film About Killing, a film that captures well the brutal pointlessness of the state putting to death a man who is being executed for having done exactly the same thing. Kieslowski films it not so much as an eye for an eye as an act of tautological stupidity. Yet for all the filter effects, the story remains grounded. The later films seems to want to take metaphysical flight, and hope to find in obliqueness of character, in colour usage, in framing and the significance of the coincidental, a chance to sacrifice character to thematic exploration.
Here in Three Colours:Red Kieslowski takes as his theme fraternity, and what it means to be connected to other human beings, by opening with an image of telephone information crossing the channel under the sea. Throughout the film there are telephone conversations between various characters, and a number of them between Valentine and her boyfriend, who's working in London. Numerous others are overheard by the judge, through his eavesdropping equipment. Yet for all the telecommunication, where is the connection Kieslowski asks? The discussions between Valentine and her partner are frustrated accounts of not just physical distance, but it seems emotional distance on his part too. He seems to want to get off the line while Valentine still wants to talk, and later, when he wonders where she's been as he shows signs of jealousy, it makes them no more connected. The judge gets to justify his misery by listening to the betrayals and lies of others, all thanks to the wonderful advances in technology. Here we might note that Kieslowski's theme is 'telefraternity', a communications system that doesn't actually lead to much communication and brotherly love, but instead disconnection and frustration. This thematic exploration is more important than the embodiment of characterisation, evident in a moment where Valentine talks to her family on the phone - the family relationship contained by the means of communication as the family remain disembodied voices.
From this perspective the only true relationship in the film is between the judge and Valentine, and Kieslowski relies on the exploration of theme to justify the attachment of character. These are people who bond partly on the basis that they're characters who meet in person, who connect with the minimum means of technological complication. Indeed, it is after Valentine shows dismay at the judge's eavesdropping that he tells the police, and while we might wonder whether this volte face after years of listening in to other people's conversations isn't too abrupt, it finds its justification in the means by which Valentine and the judge are communicating. Does the reality of this exchange between them in person allow the judge to realise that he is allowing the indirect means of communication to shape his ever more acerbic view of the world? Valentine is both persuasive and performative. Her despair is real both in the sense of being believable and also actual: the judge can see it with his own eyes; not merely hear it through the airwaves. When Jean Baudrillard in Fragments talks of "the incredible neurotic complexity of millions of scattered individuals and the exponential sum of all these problems," and notes "today we have exchanged primary cannibalism. We have moved into the stage of virtual cruelty", few characters have pursued this virtual cruelty with such single-mindedness as the judge. Valentine's tender dismay, however, is a bit like a kiss of real life against the virtual. Kieslowski might have said that "does the judge even exist?" in an interview quoted by Slavoj Zizek in The Fright of Real Tears, but what interests us here is how he does so because Valentine exists very much for him: she is not a partial, vocalised figure, but an embodied being of the flesh.
If the theme is the problem of communicating within a world of telecommunications, indicating an audio problematic, equally Kieslowski explores the problem of distance through colour. The operative colour here is obviously red, and the film constantly presents us with a single colour that calls into question the notion of verisimilitude. This is a filter effect by other means. If Kieslowski can say in Kieskowski on Kieslowski that in A Short Film About Killing, "because of the filters, because of that different, very cold colour, the world becomes far crueller than it really is", and of The Double Life of Veronique that much of the warmth comes "from the dominant colour, namely this shade of gold", then what about the colour coding evident in Red? To show its specific use let us take a scene quite early in the film where the camera opens on a high angled shot of a red car turning into a street, and we see as it does so a character coming out of a flat next to a red jeep. Then the camera follows the character walking the dog, before craning up again and towards a red cafe sign before entering Valentine's apartment, where we see a red rocking chair, red books, red apples, a red lamp etc. This is clearly colour predomination, and a film that colour predominates would seem to be searching out a different aesthetic from the realistic. Colour predominant films include the constantly blue-tinged Diva, and Le Samourai, the blue-focused Blue Velvet and of course the blue in Kieslowski's Three Colours: Blue. Then there is predominance of white in Three Colours: White, and the white on white interiors in Catherine Breillat's Romance, where the white clothes match the white walls and white bed sheets. One might think also of the red in Red Sorghum or Raise the Red Lantern, or for that matter the prefiguring use of red in Don't Look Now, re-utilised in We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Colour predominance seems slightly different from the colourist preoccupations of filmmakers like Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray and Vincent Minnelli, who would use rich, exuberant colour often aligned to melodramatic events, and we see its continuation in Tim Burton, Pedro Almodovar and the Zhang Yimou of Hero and The House of Flying Daggers. In these films one colour doesn't dominate: several do, and create a visual vitality. Colour predominance on the other hand often gives the film an uncanny sense of claustrophobia, a quiet visual consistency that makes the image more subdued than hectic. It can give us a sense neither of a realistic world, where the colours are often drained, or a fantastic world, where the colours are often pushed to extremes as in the musical, but a world that is plausible but off-centre. In Three Colours: Red there is a brief scene where Valentine has a ballet lesson and her red skirt is matched by the floors and walls of the studio. The scene comes immediately after Valentine has done a photo shoot where she has been wearing red against a red backdrop, and that will go on to become a huge poster seen all over Geneva. It is as though she is in a world preordained by a colour which is stronger than her own agency: as if it is not the question: "what is one's favourite colour", but the filmmaker offering it instead as an external dictate: red is your favourite colour. Clearly it is a colour she must like, otherwise why does it feature so strongly in her own flat, and why does she wear red so often? Yet Kieslowski also wants it to be a colour beyond consciousness, since of course in the scene we've quoted she can hardly dictate the colour of a car that turns the corner and another across the road. As in most colour predominant films, it is usually a combination of colour agency and colour contingency: a choice of colour in terms of what the character wears and how they might decorate their interior space, but broadened out to incorporate elements in their life that they have no control over.
But why do we talk of distance through colour, especially when red is so bold and would seem active rather than passive, a colour that doesn't retreat, like blue and grey, but advances, like yellow? Yet perhaps where the bright colour mixes of Ray and Almodovar suggest advance, the monochromic emphasis on one colour, no matter the colour, indicates a certain aloofness. Maybe it is because where manifold colour indicates a world of hope, the emphasis on one colour indicates a fatalistic universe. During a moment of apparent optimism in Three Colours: Red, Valentine wins playing a one-armed bandit. Three red cherries come up, and as they does so a man comes over to her and says that it was bad luck. There is no explanation for this as Valentine replies she thinks she knows why she has won, but from our perspective it might seem as though this persistent presence of red is catching her in a trap, rather as John Baxter in Don't Look Now can't see that the flashes of red are harbingers of things to come when he gets killed by the dwarf in the red coat at the end of the film, or the way melancholic blue will trap Jef Costello in his fate in the conclusion to Le Samourai. Valentine's luck seems also to encapsulate her within a colour fatalism. Yet at the end of Three Colours: Red Valentine will not die. Nevertheless, the flashes of red as she embarks on the ship, and especially the final moment where she proves to be one of the few survivors, indicates a fatalistic existence that need not in this instance end in her demise, but will perhaps indicate instead her possible future. She is freeze-framed on television as the judge realises Valentine has survived the ferry sinking that has taken the lives of almost everybody on board. The freeze-frame is almost identical to the huge poster we've seen earlier in the film where the image of Valentine modelling has been blown up to billboard size. Next to her is a character who she doesn't know, but whom we have seen throughout the film: the young judge Auguste.
This is where the third important element comes in. Just as we've indicated the importance of the audio as the telefraternal and the significance of colour, how can we ignore Kieslowski's interest in the contingent, and the manner in which it ties together the other two? Some of the coincidences are story specific: when Valentine runs over the judge's dog it allows for the characters to meet after Valentine traces the owner. But most of the coincidences are what could be called theme specific: they don't so much generate narrative event; more allusive possibilities. The director says in Kieslowski on Kieslowskithat "Someone brought someone to life at the wrong moment. Valentine should have been called to life forty years earlier or the judge forty years later and then they'd have constituted a good pair...that's the theory of two halves of an apple. If you cut one apple in half and cut another identical one, the half of the one apple will never fit the half of the other. You have to put together the halves of the same apple to make the apple whole" But Kieslowski also says that a young character who in many ways resembles the judge, and who lives near Valentine and like the judge when he was a young man has a girlfriend who cheats on him, is a "variation on the judge's life forty years later." It is of course this young man, Auguste, a person who has recently passed his final law exam, whom we see next to her in the freeze frame, and we surmise that though she thought she was going to London to see her boyfriend, fate dictates that she will get together with a man who resembles the judge forty years after the event.
However, one wouldn't want to be too insistent on turning these thematic echoes into categorical plot points. Kieslowski reckons the film is in the "conditional mood", and adds that maybe "we'll never be sure whether Auguste really does exist or whether he's only a variation of the judge's life forty years later." When at one moment in Kieslowski on Kieslowski the director says "I've got an increasingly strong feeling that all we really care about is ourselves. Even when we notice other people we're still thinking of ourselves," we might wonder how Kieslowski achieves the melancholy of such a statement. As he adds that this is one of the subjects of Red, the question we're more interested in is how does it become part of Kieslowski's narrative form and the stylistic content as Kieslowski proposes that the film isn't only in the conditional, but also muses over the potentially solipsistic. How do the two terms come together to achieve the solipsistic conditional, a subjunctive subjective mood? Maybe they do so through atomisation, through the film's interest in showing lives that are indirect rather than direct. If the judge forty years earlier lost his lover to another man and lives in the present through eavesdropping; Auguste also loses his lover to another as he focuses on his law career, while Valentine relies on brief telephone conversations with her boyfriend to keep the relationship active. Even one of the people the judge has been listening in on, lives his emotional life through telecommunications rather than with his family - he has a male lover to whom he constantly speaks with on the phone. In the physical absence of others, can our affections be anything but solipsistic, and does Kieslowski not expand this feeling into form and content?
For example, if lives are tenuously connected, why not attenuate these links further by indicating that the reality of others doesn't exist at all, that other people are figments of our emotional imagination? But equally, as Kieslowski says in relation to The Double Life of Veronique, "what interested me about Veronique were the parallels, the fact that one has the feeling that she isn't alone in the world." When throughout the Three ColoursTrilogy Kieslowski shows an old woman trying to put a bottle into the recycling bin, the shot implies an empathic care for the other, but also at the same time it reflects the emotional pain and confusion of the central characters, and the sense that one will also at some stage be in the same position as this ageing figure. This would be an example of the solipsistic conditional. One's gaze settles on another and suggests a care for oneself through this care of another.
It comes however in the film's visual style too, with the judge's house and Valentine's apartments both imbued with a reddish colour scheme that would suggest these are characters who, had they been closer in age, might be together, as Kieslowski indicates. The spaces they live in don't clash in our minds, but coalesce, as if they are somehow already living together in a conditional world elsewhere. Equally one might include Auguste also - whose apartment isn't too dissimilar from Valentine's, and who of course lives nearby. Central to the problematic of Three Colours: Red - which covers fraternity, where Blue utilised liberty and White, egalitarianism - is what the fraternal means. It seems to be not about the milk of human kindness, but closer to emotional coincidence. When Auguste's girlfriend gives him a beautiful pen after he passes his law exams it is a lovely gesture - but that's perhaps all it is as he will soon find out she is sleeping with another man. They are in very different emotional worlds. On the other hand, would Valentine have connected with the judge's loneliness if she hadn't been feeling her own? Kieslowski searches out the film's subject through both visual and emotional contingencies, through looking to explore a theme through a narrative of chance contained clearly by a high degree of narrative and stylistic manipulation, and arrives at a complex ethics.
In Kieslowski on Kieslowski, the director comments on the puppeteer he employed in The Double Life of Veronique, Bruce Schwartz. "He animated these dolls and immediately, within the space of a second, a whole new world appeared. He's exceptional in that unlike most puppeteers, who usually hide their hands in gloves, or use strings, sticks or whatever, he does the opposite; he shows you his hands." For Kieslowski this notion of manipulation from above is "extremely moving" and on this point he coincides with the great German writer Kleist. In The Fright of Real Tears, Zizek talks of Kleist and his essay on Marionette theatre, and details how Kleist encountered a shattering spiritual crisis on reading Kant. Zizek explains that for Kant "direct access to the noumenal [the none-phenomenal] domain would deprive us of the very 'spontaneity' which forms the kernel of transcendental freedom: it would turn us into lifeless automota, or, to put in modern-day terms, into 'thinking' machines." Kant explains this by suggesting our lives would be like a "puppet show, everything would gesticulate well but no life would be found in the figures." Kleist on the other hand admires "the bliss and grace of marionettes, the creatures who are directly guided by it. For Kleist, marionettes display the perfection of spontaneous, unconscious movement: they have only one centre of gravity, their movements are controlled from only one point." There is something here that touches upon the issue from whence we started: that Kieslowski is a director who is neither given to clarity of meaning nor subtlety of meaning. He is instead interested in accessing the noumenal domain, the sense that there is an element within the characters themselves which can be accessed more directly than going through the usual realistic channels: that in some way, like Kleist's marionettes, the feet never quite touch the ground, because they are somehow guided by a higher force.
This means that Kieslowski works with a combination of the obvious and the obscure to search out this space, and there are numerous shots in Three Colours Red that are one or the other. The reaction shots to the dog, Auguste throwing his books into the air after passing his exams, the moment when Valentine sits pensively in the car and sentimental strings are heard, and the moment of will she or won't she when it looks like Valentine will tell the judge's neighbours that he has been eavesdropping on their conversations; these are all obvious moments. Yet Kieslowski asks them to serve some vaguer goal. What he wants to do it seems is find a way in which character agency and narrative event remain slightly removed from each other, whether it is the moment where we see Valentine almost running over Auguste but instead running over the judge's dog, or the notion that though Valentine goes to England to meet her boyfriend we might wonder whether the love affair won't continue with her boyfriend, but will now be with Auguste. "What else is there other than emotions" Kieslowski says, "what is important? Only that. I play on them so that people should hate or love my characters." But one might add that he expects us to love or hate them, to feel for them, not so much as narrow characters, but as broader, indefinite entities, and his play with cause and effect is as present as his play on the emotions. It keeps his work searching and undogmatic, while at the same time indicating he is a filmmaker as puppeteer, his characters, in the best sense, mannequins in the hands of a metaphysician.
© Tony McKibbin