Movie Review Roulette #3: Three Colors: Red
Few things fascinate me more than human connectivity. We take friends and loved ones for granted. It’s easy to view friendship and simply something we do because we have to with the people we have around.
Perhaps we think that way because the alternative can feel cosmically overwhelming. Think of the people who matter most to you. Imagine, then, how many things could have happened in both your lifetimes that could have prevented your meeting. Look at the details of human lives, and little events take on a cosmic significance.
For example: I almost died when I was born. My lungs burst. I only survived because a specialist from another hospital stopped by on his way to his vacation home in Cape Cod. Everyone who knows me only knows me because of that doctor. Who knows what the path that lead him into my hospital room looked like? Threads weaving in and out. It’s a humbling thought.
It’s so easy to see our lives as linear that we forget how much chance factors in. It can be terrifying to think about, sort of like how the vastness of space can be too much to comprehend. But it can also be beautiful, like life imagined as a tapestry.
That’s the approach Krzysztof Kieslowski took with his magnificent Three Colors: Red, the last film in his legendary Three Colors trilogy. If we are guilty of viewing our own lives as linear, films are doubly guilty of this. But Three Colors: Red is disinterested in plot markers and heroic narratives. It is about the cords that connect us to other people.
Three Colors: Red shares a bond in my heart with my favorite film of recent years, Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The Tree of Life attempted to tell the story of the universe by focusing on the lives of a single family. Red searches for how one person fits into the narrative of humanity. It quickly finds that just one person fits into so many stories that it can be overwhelming for us, and perhaps to them if they stop to look.
The person at its heart is Clementine, played by Irene Jacob. Clementine is a model. She’s recently landed a notable job for a chewing gum ad campaign. Her face is going to be on billboards around Geneva. Things are going well.
But her boyfriend is distant. She calls him, tells him she misses him, that she loves him. He responds with irritation.
We wait for any of this to develop into a plot. None comes. This isn’t a movie about arcs. It’s a movie about the rhythms and melodies of lives.
While driving, she hits a dog. She finds the owner, who seems he couldn’t care less. She leaves his house, is upset, and goes back to confront him. She catches him listening in to his neighbors’ phone calls. She is appalled.
Tellingly, she still listens to his explanation.
His interest in his neighbors’ calls isn’t perverted voyeurism, but a fascination with the facades of humanity. One of his neighbors is a drug lord. Another has been carrying on an affair with a mistress. The judge hasn’t the heart to tell the man’s wife. It would destroy the family, and besides, the man’s little daughter knows already.
He is a man without facades, because he doesn’t have a public face. He doesn’t leave his home. He’s the sort of man who wouldn’t comprehend why someone might be upset that he doesn’t care much for his dog. He listens to others phone calls because that’s the closest thing he has to conversations.
The judge, develops a friendship with Clementine. I’ve seen criticisms of the film that find their friendship to be a stretch. But I buy it. It never pushes into romantic territory. It is a different sort of electricity, rooted in empathy. Clementine feels unmoored from humanity. In the judge, she sees someone truly adrift. In Clementine, the judge sees someone he might have loved when he was a young man, who as an old man he simply appreciates as someone to talk to.
The film has a third character, seemingly unrelated. It’s a young man, a judge-to-be in law school. He is in love with a woman who reads weather reports over the phone. Clementine calls her at the beginning of the film. The Judge listens in on their private conversations, exchanging sweet nothings over the phone.
We wonder why he’s in the film at all, until we realize that he is a) essentially the judge as a young man, living the judge’s past and b) would likely get along very well with Clementine.
Why is he in the film? Well, why not? We don’t know the people we care about until we meet them, but we were both living our lives fully until that point. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see the exact paths that led to two people meeting? So rarely do we get the chance to see that sort of story play out.
Kieslowski cares as about the threads that make a quilt before they’re sewn in. Freed from the constraints of a linear plot, Red simply observes and lets us wonder. It’s a fascinating subversion of typical film plots, where the audience needs to be convinced of a match of two characters We want the young judge to meet Clementine. Neither knows the other exists. Their presence in the same film seems partially whimsical and mostly arbitrary. Seems.
Red is one of the most poetic and enchanting films I have seen. Its final scene is both cheeky and beautiful, tying together all the threads of the film and the entire Three Colors trilogy. We all weave in and out of so many lives. If only we stopped to look at the patterns we create more often.