You can't get much of a feel for any of the films in Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski's three-colors trilogy from an examination of their respective plots. It would be like trying to guess the color of a man's eyes by looking at his skeleton.
Red is the final installment in Kieslowski's triptych (it follows 1993's Blue, with Juliette Binoche and Benoit Regent, and last year's White, with Zbigniew Zamachowski and Julie Delpy). Each of the three is loosely based on one of the ideals of the French Revolution A liberty, equality, and fraternity. So loosely, in fact, that some of Kieslowski's detractors have labeled the whole trilogy concept little more than an elaborate marketing gimmick.
To each his own. What one critic labels "scam" another considers "genius." While I really wouldn't want to defend Kieslowski in a courtroom against charges of pretentiousness and artifice, neither would I want to prosecute him for fraudulent moviemaking. Kieslowski is more impressionist than realist; Red is more tone poem than novel.
What story exists is set in motion when Valentine, a twentysomething Geneva fashion model (played to melancholy perfection by the softly luminous Irene Jacob), hits a dog with her car. The wounded German shepherd belongs to a crusty, reclusive, misanthropic retired judge. (The illustrious French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the judge's role with compelling gravity and restraint.) While not readily apparent, the young woman and the old man share some significant common ground. Both have loved and lost (the judge smarts from a romantic betrayal suffered decades earlier; the model's boyfriend lives in England and does not reciprocate her affection) and both battle paralyzing guilt. Her brother is an incorrigible drug addict; the judge regrets sentencing to prison scores of people for whom he felt a profound empathy. "In their place, I'd lie, I'd cheat, I'd steal," he admits.
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Both model and judge have become emotionally isolated. Kieslowski takes great pains to define the spaces between characters who have painted themselves into spiritual corners. Valentine's contact with her absent lover is limited to the telephone. The judge lives alone and spends a lot of time on the telephone, as well -- eavesdropping on his neighbors via a wiretap. But when Valentine returns the injured dog to its owner, a spark of connection crackles between the winsome model and the cranky, cynical old man. He cajoles and provokes; she sees through the verbal abuse and returns fire in her own kinder, gentler way. Ever so slowly they draw each other out of their respective shells. The two form a strong bond that, were it not for their age difference, might evolve from platonic friendship into romantic love.
Meanwhile a diligent young law student named Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) prepares for exams to become a judge. He and Valentine live in apartments a few doors apart from one another but never have spoken in spite of the fact that they probably pass each other every day. Auguste has a girlfriend who is cheating on him. When he finds out about the affair, the resultant grief threatens to consume him just as the elder judge's did. The young man's life eerily parallels the judge's, and the suspicion grows that he and Valentine are meant for each other. But will destiny intervene and introduce Valentine into Auguste's life in time to save him from the older man's fate?
Red turns on chance. Valentine's collision with the dog gets the narrative rolling; the series of near-meetings between Valentine and Auguste seems to suggest a higher authority at work, an invisible hand guiding the characters' lives. A freak accident in the final act not only tidily closes Red, but also serves as a postscript for Blue and White, even as it links the three installments.
In the words of Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, whom Kieslowski quotes in the press notes for the movie, "The book of fate is always open in the middle." Krzysztof Kieslowski is one of the few filmmakers alive today who understand that book well enough to add a few pages of his own. And he underlines them in Red.