Monday, April 5, 2010

Three Colours marathon

Trois Couleurs: Rouge (1994, Krzysztof Kieslowski)

All good things must come to an end. A truer statement was never made. Movie trilogies often run out of gas by the third and final instalment, which makes it very difficult to find the ones made up of three genuinely good chapters. Of course, with Polish writer director Krzysztof Kieslowski at the helm of this Three Colours trilogy, I think it could have been guessed from the outset that the game would be played differently. With Three Colours: Red , Kieslowski remains faithful to the blueprints which made the first two films successful and memorable, while adding some extra layers of character complexities and a thematic resonance that not only helps the film stand on its own, but also feel like a satisfying and logical conclusion to the trilogy.

The colour red as found on the famous French flag signifies fraternity. Friendship, understanding, respect, support, love, and all those mushy things that we all hope to give and receive from our fellow community members. But those don’t always come with the territory. They can, provided that one lives in a nice neighbourhood and is brought up by good parenting, but even those ingredients cannot guarantee that fraternity will be found and felt with every person one meets. Sometimes the bonds that tie us together have to be discovered. They have to be dug up, dusted off and given a new paint job before we can safely say that our sense of fraternity is truly there, holding us together. In essence, it has to be worked on, not only to build, but also to preserve.

Valentine, played by the indelible Irène Jacob, is a model working in France. At the start of the film, she feels alone in her apartment, what with her partner away travelling for business, although they speak by phone occasionally. She also contacts her family by phone, although communication between them is not always simple as she would like. One night while driving home after a fashion show she accidentally hits a female German Sheppard. The injured dog’s collar reveals her name, Rita, and where her owner lives. Valentine arrives soon afterwards at the home of a strange elderly man named Joseph, who seems to not care much for either the sudden appearance of Valentine or his pet’s health. Valentine's curiosity is struck upon learning that this emotionally detached man, a former judge named Joseph, listens in on the telephone conversations of those living in the surrounding neighbourhood. Out of this uncomfortable first encounter begins a simultaneously odd but almost necessary friendship. This plotline is intercut with scenes of a young judge and the soon to be expired relationship he has with his current lover.

Might there be a connection between the two storylines? Fans of Kieslowski’s work, forgive me for posing a question to which the answer should appear as clear as daylight. Knitting together stories, characters and ideas together within the same films in order to build thematic and emotional connectivity is not unheard of in a Kieslowski film. Anyone who has seen La Double Vie de Véronique (ironically enough also staring Irène Jacob) can attest to that. Just like in the case of Double Life, there are two characters who are, in some obvious and subtle ways, images on one another. While in the earlier film it was the two principal characters of Véronique and Véronika, in the case of Red it is the old and younger judge, the latter whom does not know that the former is in some ways influencing his life by listening to his telephone conversations. But Irène Jacob’s character, Valentine, is no less affected by this connection. Her relation with the older judge, Joseph, is destined to shift towards her encounter with the younger judge that we the viewers are constantly teased with throughout the film but never actually see happen until very, very later on.

Three Colours: Red is my personal favourite of the three films we’ve looked at in this trilogy marathon, but I feel as if my tongue were tied in explaining why exactly. There is a strange complexity to Red that wasn’t quite present in either Blue or White. While neither of those two films was necessarily obvious to fully dissect for the first time viewer, they both felt easier to digest for those were simply interested in enjoying good stories with good acting. With Red, Kieslowski, goes hunting for fraternity with the bizarrely constructed duo of Valentine and Joseph. There is absolutely no reason, at least on the surface, as to why they should form a bond (fraternity). She is in her heart of hearts a good person, whereas Joseph participates in an activity that would make anyone shudder. Our initial impression is that he is amoral to the bone. But just as the previous entries in the series demonstrated with their respective themes, fraternity can be found in the oddest places and between the least likely of people. Irène Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant, who plays Joseph, have some of the most unique chemistry I’ve ever seen in a film. Given the age difference, they obviously don’t have the sort of chemistry that actors portraying lovers would, but nor is it the sort of father/daughter chemistry one might expect from this sort of situation (lonely old man meets lonely young woman). It really is just a case in which two completely different souls, at different points in your lives and dealing with different personal issues coming together for reasons that are hard to understand in some ways but also quite obvious: basic human connections. As different as we are from city to city, region to region, from country to country, there is always, always, something that can tie us together.

The dynamic between Valentine and Joseph would have never been the same as we see it were it not for the performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Irène Jacob. There is something so sweet and delicate about Jacob’s presence on screen that I cannot take my eyes off of her. She has magnetism that only the rarest of actors and actresses have, part of which comes from her natural beauty, but another comes from the naturalistic acting style she puts on display. The little stares, the smiles, the head shakes, everything feels perfectly natural, although who knows what was practiced and perfected by Kieslowski and the actors during rehearsals. I think that’s part of what makes great acting however, that is, the ability to make something that for all intents and purposes must have been moulded before the camera rolled look like a natural, spur of the moment act. Trintignant also gives an excellent performance as a fairly stoic man who seems to have lost the ability to stay in touch with humanity in any decent way. Their conversations together make up the best scenes in the film. Interestingly enough, their conversation scenes are quite lengthy. This may not seem like something of great importance in the grander scheme of things, but I very much enjoyed how the scenes featuring the two of them sitting and talking about life, morals and everything in between were given time to unfold. Those same scenes also include some odd comedic choices, such as Joseph offering Valentine to pull his shirt straps because it makes a funny sound, or such as when the former judge first accidentally spills some hot water on the floor and then, after hearing something from Valentine he may not like that much, seems to deliberately poor some more.

The story, the acting, the themes, all these do indeed make me love this film very much, but the same criteria resulted in me gushing over the first two movies in the trilogy. Why do I like this one more than the other two? I think what it finally boils down to is the vibe of positivity I sense when watching Red. Blue was an excellent film, but it was a sad film about a woman setting herself free of the past after tragedy, only to discover that by setting herself free she had to confront that same past. White, while boasting a charming performance by Zbigniew Zamachowski which tilted on the comedic side at times, was a revenge tale, and one that arrives at an ending I personally see as a rather dark. Red begins with some sadness and loneliness for the two principal characters, but their destined encounter brings about the best out of both of them. Even the ending, which in many ways in mired in tragedy, gives me the impression that much good has happened. Then again, it may be yet another brilliant Priesner score which has put a spell on me again. Who knows.

The Three Colours trilogy can be considered cinema in one of its purest forms. Writer director Krzysztof Kieslowski stamp is all over each instalment, each one a testament to his skill as an enigmatic storyteller. It’s something to be able to construct not merely a feast for the eyes and ears, but also to find inventive ways to convey a deeply emotional viewing experience. This is a fraternity of films that put on some of the best of filmmaking. I’d rather not even call it filmmaking, but rather film craftsmanship. Just like a good movie, so do liberty, equality and fraternity need to be crafted, otherwise they can easily wriggle and come apart. If there are any readers to this blog who rarely venture into international art house films (And it doesn’t matter for what reason. To each his or her own) but wouldn’t giving it a try if they knew where to begin, pick up the Three Colours trilogy. I can think of no better place to start.

P.S. I noticed that there is a second direct reference to Three Colours: White in this movie. For those who have seen the films, did you notice it too?


Anonymous said...

Red is always the film of the three that sneaks up and surprises me each time. I certainly think it's the most mysterious film of the three.

I think it's interesting that you like this one the most because it ends on an upbeat note. I personally gravitate towards tragedy more, which might explain why Blue is my second favorite film of all time and the two films on either side of it are also tragedies.

And yes, I noticed the connections between all three films as I watched Red. It's one of the many small joys of the series.

edgarchaput said...

I think following the relative bleakness of the first two films and the ambiguous tone with which 'Red' begins, it was nice to see Kieslowski bring things to a close with a somewhat upbeat ending (even though, without revealing what transpires in the final moments, there is a tragedy that occurs).

I think the case can be made that 'Red' possesses more qualities of a drama than any sort of sentimental upbeat stroll in the park. I wouldn't beg to disagree that much with such an opinion either, only that I find the second half of the film and the eventual fate reserved for Valentine, Karol Karol, Dominique and Julie, as well as the attitudinal shifts experienced by the old judge Joseph, lend Red's conclusion a warmer tone than that of its predecessors.