‘Red’ (R)By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 16, 1994
Not only is Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Red" the final, brilliant installment of his masterly trilogy on the colors of the French flag, it is also, he says, the final film of his career. Whatever the reasons may be for his early retirement -- he claims he wants more time to hang out and smoke cigarettes -- they cannot be found here. Somber, beautiful and playfully enigmatic, "Red" is not a movie by a filmmaker who has run out of ideas, but one by an artist at the height of his powers.
Like its predecessors "Blue" and "White," "Red" operates on several levels at once. The surface story deals with a fresh-faced, melancholy young model named Valentine (Irene Jacob), who hits a runaway dog with her car and attempts to return the animal to its home. Once she arrives at the address on its collar, though, she discovers that the owner, a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant), doesn't want the dog or, for that matter, anything else. "You don't want her?" Valentine asks. "I want nothing," he replies. "Then stop breathing," she says.
Initially, Valentine's reaction to the cynical indifference of the judge is one of pity and contempt -- especially after she discovers that he spends most of his time eavesdropping on the telephone conversations of his neighbors. Yet, as is always the case with Kieslowski, something else seems to be going on -- something ineffable and mysterious and enticingly subterranean.
Though ostensibly the film deals with the theme of fraternity (as in liberty, equality, fraternity), Kieslowski and longtime writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz seem to be more interested in its absence -- in isolation and the longing for connection. The characters here seem to hook up only when they're on the phone, and even then only intermittently. And the judge, who was burned by love when he was young and has never recovered, isn't even able to manage that.
Yet, as the film progresses, the relationship between this oddly matched pair blossoms into one of almost incomprehensible depth and tenderness. Though more than friends but less than lovers, the judge and Valentine sit and talk as the light fades in the older man's cluttered house, and, gradually, by that elusive storytelling method Kieslowski has made his specialty, it becomes clear that they are soul mates.
For the judge, Valentine represents his one true love, and Trintignant, who looks exquisitely seedy in his stubble and corduroys, invests him with a weighty sadness that masks a barely suppressed rage. This great actor's performance here is a constant revelation -- subtle, powerful and, at times, alarmingly close to the bone. And Jacob, whose Renaissance angel face radiates youthful innocence, provides the perfect counterpoint to the judge's burned-out anguish.
The depth of the friendship between these two is expressed in graceful gestures of kindness and empathy, such as when Valentine bends to sweep up the broken glass after an angry neighbor hurls a rock through the judge's window. In a gorgeous scene late in the film, Valentine says she feels "something momentous is happening around me." And because she can't quite figure out what it is, she is afraid, prompting the judge to take her hand and hold it warmly between his for a long, silent moment. "Is that better?" he asks.
Kieslowski's vision is textured with odd details and subplots that are linked to the main story by the slenderest poetic threads. In this film, there is another judge -- this one young and only recently appointed -- whose own story so closely resembles the older man's that they almost seem to be the same person.
At the end of "Red," Kieslowski makes a witty attempt to draw together the various strands of his trilogy by having characters from all three films -- including Valentine and the young judge -- appear as survivors of a ferry disaster in the English Channel. Though it's nothing more than a suggestion, Kieslowski leaves open the possibility that, once again, coincidence has brought two lives together. Because the ideas and emotions here are so dense with ambiguity, this ending seems almost too glib. At the same time, it's a droll way for Kieslowski to reveal his designing hand. This film can be read as his final statement on the redemptive power of love. It's a nice way of bowing out. Now, if we can only persuade him to change his mind.
"Red" is rated R for brief nudity and adult subject matter.
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