Of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors films, Red is the most elusive. It escaped my grasp, ducking around the corners of disconnected plot details and leading us down a diversionary parallel story that finally dovetails in a twist of fate that — is it fate at all? And if so, what is so fated about it? It’s a cosmic coincidence, delivered with a transfixing sense of import. And yet this is also the most thematically blatant of the three films, a call for human connection made through a lonely man spying on his neighbors’ phone conversations.
That lonely eavesdropper is a retired judge, Joseph (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who has grown cynical about the world. We meet him through Valentine (Irène Jacob), a young model who tracks him down after accidentally hitting his dog with her car. After resisting her attempts to return the dog, he happily invites her to witness his transgression, playing for her the conversations he has secretly intercepted with his radio equipment. He dares her to expose him. She very nearly does so, but when she comes face-to-face with one family — a wife whose life would be overturned by the truth, a young daughter who has also overheard her father’s secret — she finds herself unable to. Why? Joseph believes he has proven something, perhaps reinforcing his own misanthropy, but his meeting with Valentine moves him enough that he confesses his sins, to his neighbors and the authorities.
We learn details about Valentine’s life that branch off in different directions but don’t pay off. She plays phone tag with a boyfriend living abroad. She misses some of his calls, and he misses some of hers, and we sense suspicion in his voice when he asks why she didn’t come to the phone. The film opens with one such conversation, following the signal through miles of telephone lines, but these two lovers, perhaps meaningfully, aren’t connecting. There’s another subplot involving Valentine’s brother, who has been using drugs ever since finding out his true paternity. These story threads may be thematically significant, but not clearly so.
Another loose thread, this one very important, is a parallel story about a young man, Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), who very nearly crosses paths with Valentine time after time, but they just miss each other, a few moments out of sync. The more we learn about Auguste, the more his life eerily mirrors Joseph’s. Joseph tells Valentine stories about his life: the way he answered a question on his judges’ exam and how the woman he loved broke his heart, which almost perfectly match Auguste’s experiences throughout the film. This is more than coincidence, but then what is it? Does the doubling of the two men indicate some kind of prophetic, otherworldly force? Is the old man a harbinger of future love? Or is Kieslowski toying with us? There’s something coy about the way he dangles these possibilities.
The film suggests a kind of magical realism where the magic and the realism never touch, and it’s jarring because we can never quite be sure if Kieslowski is suggesting some outside influence on his characters’ lives or just using abstractions to highlight his themes. Perhaps the director, playing God in a way that all directors do, wishes to give the embittered Joseph a second chance in the form of Auguste, offering a kind of redemption that the real world could not provide. The ending of the film, which I won’t reveal, is another clear act of director-as-God and sums up the theme of human connection by referencing the previous two films, Blue and White. It’s a closing statement of sorts, in more ways than one — this was the last film by Kieslowski, who died two years later during open-heart surgery at the age of 54 — saying about his trilogy, and perhaps about his entire world philosophy, We’re all in this together.
Watch a trailer for the movie here: