Red is very complex in its construction. I don’t know whether we’ll manage to get my idea across on the screen. […] I’ve got everything I need to put across what I want to say, which is really quite complicated. Therefore, if the idea I’ve got in mind doesn’t come across, it meant that either film is too primitive a medium to support such a construction or that all of us put together haven’t got enough talent for it. — Krzysztof Kieslowski, June 19931
Before beginning the “Three Colors” trilogy (Red being its culmination), director Krzysztof Kieslowski enigmatically stated that this would be his final opus, despite being just fifty at the time. Three years later he was dead. Whether or not this is coincidental, the spectre of Kieslowski haunts Red in the character of Joseph Kern. A retired judge by contextual trade, Kern’s judgement extends far beyond the purview of any jurist: he is the arbiter of fate, the prime mover of his world. He is, in the end, Kieslowski himself, inhabiting the world of his own art, unable to truly inhabit the world of his imagination, attempting to right the wrongs of his own life, if only artistically.2
When Valentine, a fashion model and the ostensible protagonist of Red, first visits the Judge3—bringing his dog, Rita, whom Valentine injured in a moment of distracted driving—he dismisses her. But eventually Valentine is drawn back to the Judge’s home in a manner which, prima facie, seems perfectly ordinary: Rita returns to the Judge when Valentine lets her off-leash. However, not only does the Judge engage Valentine, it soon becomes clear that she has been summoned in a manner bordering on the metaphysical.
Although this early in the film there may not be anything to suggest that the Judge has a hand in Rita’s and Valentine’s return, we first begin to question the Judge’s power over this cinematic universe when he sends Valentine money for the veterinary bills. Although perhaps it would have been nothing exceptional to guess that Valentine would seek him out to remit the obviously superfluous amount of money sent,4 at this point Valentine poses an apposite question: how did he find her address? “That was easy,” he replies—puzzling when we consider that he has yet to hear her name. Valentine returns the excess money, but on the pretense of not having exact change the Judge retreats inside. In an obviously orchestrated maneuver,5 he leaves Valentine outside for an inordinate duration so that she will venture into the house. It is then that Valentine becomes aware of the Judge’s propensity for eavesdropping on the telephone conversations of his neighbors. She is disgusted with his behavior, but he requests that she remain a moment longer. “Why?” she asks. Here we get our first undeniable aperçu of the Judge’s power in this world: “The light is beautiful,” he answers—and, as if on command, the splendor of the light increases. At this moment (or after a prelude which serves to focus Valentine’s attention), a particular phone call6 comes across the wires: Auguste, a young law student with whom Valentine has recently and unknowingly crossed paths a number of times, is phoning his girlfriend, who runs a personal weather-report business via telephone. They debate whether Auguste should stay home and study for his pending exam or go bowling with her. Auguste decides on a coin flip—heads for studying, tails for bowling. But first the Judge flips a coin of his own. As we see that the Judge’s has come up tails, we hear that Auguste has had the same result.
Before Valentine leaves, the Judge tells her that Auguste “hasn’t found the right woman yet,” a statement which seems more than simply small talk when Valentine unknowingly ends up at the same bowling alley later that night.
The Judge turns himself in for eavesdropping—and it couldn’t very well be otherwise. If he is the artist in the midst of his own artwork, who else could decide his fate? Additionally, it is this act which brings Valentine back to him. He says as much when asked by Valentine why he implicated himself: “To see what you would do once you saw it in the paper.”7 He changes the subject to Auguste and his girlfriend, noting that their relationship is almost over. Did you provoke it?” Valentine asks. She is beginning to catch on.
As their conversation progresses, Valentine mentions that she is going to England to see her mother and brother. “Leave,” the Judge replies. “It’s your destiny”; and as he hears an airplane fly overhead, he admonishes her to take a ferry across the Channel—an instruction which will become central to her future.
A rock is thrown though the Judge’s window by one of his neighbors; the Judge, however, is unfazed,8 simply adding it to a collection on his piano. “I wonder what I’d do in their place,” he speculates. “The same thing. […] In their place? Of course. And that goes for everyone I judged,” he adds, his theme now clearly transcending the literal. “Given their lives, I would steal, I’d kill, I’d lie. Of course I would. All that because I wasn’t in their shoes, but mine.” This is because he, as artist/creator, is truly separate from his characters, even as he has brought them to a sort of contextual coexistence with himself by inserting himself into their world. It seems the Judge has joined them in his fictional world because, as he says of his former judicial career, “deciding what is true and what isn’t now seems a lack of modesty […] vanity.” After he tells Valentine of a dream about her he had, she asks whether his dreams come true, a question he will not answer until later in the film. He does, however, offer a statement which seems to suggest why he is taking charge of this creation, this “dream,” in such a hands-on manner: “It’s been years since I’ve dreamt something nice.”
The time of Valentine’s departure is approaching. Auguste’s former girlfriend has a new lover. The Judge calls her to inquire after the weather in the Channel for the week of Valentine’s journey. “Wonderful,” the woman states. “Sunny, a slight breeze, chilly in the morning.” As it happens she, also, will be on the Channel, sailing on a yacht.9 Before Valentine embarks on her trip, she takes part in one more fashion show, to which she has invited the Judge. Afterwards, she questions him in detail about his earlier dream: he tells her that it was twenty-five or thirty years later, that she woke up and smiled at someone next to her, that she was happy. “That’s what will happen,” she asks, “in twenty-five or thirty years?” He confirms that this is so. She questions him gravely: “What else do you know? Who are you?” “A retired judge,” he quips;10 but the matter is more serious for Valentine. “I feel something important is happening around me,” she states. “And it scares me.”
The Judge begins to talk of his past, and at this point we learn with certitude that in some manner Auguste is the Judge’s earlier self.11 He speaks of episodes from his life that we have seen Auguste live out: a dropped book opening to a question later asked on an exam; a dead car battery (which, by her reaction, apparently recalls for Valentine the dying battery of Auguste’s jeep (though she doesn’t yet know Auguste); and, most importantly, a perfidious girlfriend. He tells Valentine of his humiliation, of the girlfriend’s death in an accident, of how he never loved again. “Maybe I never met the woman,” he tells her. “Maybe you’re the woman I never met.”
In a sense, of course that’s exactly what she is; and through Auguste—i.e., the Judge’s youth revisited—he is determined to rewrite his own life.12 By this time, Valentine and Auguste have looked at each other without recognition, have stood next to each other listening to the same music at a record store,13 have crossed paths in a rather remarkable variety of ways—and yet they have not exchanged a single greeting. Chance—if all this has been only chance—is not enough to bring the two of them together; and so the Judge will see to it. Before taking his leave from her, the Judge checks her ferry ticket—presumably (in light of what’s to come) to make sure he has orchestrated things properly. He is, after all, to go to great and severe lengths to remake his past.
The day of Valentine’s voyage—and Auguste’s, for he is aboard the same ferry (though the two still do not meet,14 even though they walk right past each other as they look for their berths (which, of course, are on the same level))—is as beautiful as predicted by Auguste’s ex-girlfriend. However, a violent storm suddenly appears from nowhere and wreaks havoc in the Channel. “Several fishermen are missing,” a television newscaster reports, “as well as two people aboard a yacht.” The ferry is capsized, and out of its 1,435 passengers, only seven are rescued (as it happens, they are unharmed). It is the identity of six of these seven15 that makes ineluctable what has already been made abstrusely plain, for, in addition to Valentine and Auguste, Julie Vignon and Olivier Benoit from Blue, and Karol Karol and Dominique Vidal from White, are also saved. This conflation of Kieslowski’s three films, his transcending of the Red universe within that very universe, can be seen only as a superseding of that universe’s rules, something which, in context, only the Creator could do. That creator, within that universe, is, of course, the Judge, Kieslowski the artist, inserted by himself into his art.
The film’s final sequence bears this out. The Judge, watching the news report on TV, sees the shot freeze on Valentine. It is exactly the same shot which had recently been featured in a chewing gum advertisement. This, of course, could happen only in a universe consciously governed by a creator. Kieslowski cuts from this shot to the Judge as he sees it on his TV screen, then back to the image itself. However, when Kieslowski cuts back to the Judge, he is no longer seeing the image on television but out one of his windows. So as to leave no doubt as to what the Judge is seeing, Kieslowski cuts back once more to the same image of Valentine, before fading the picture to black.
Finally, he has dreamt something nice.
- Kieslowski on Kieslowski, p. 222. Ed. and trans. Danuisa Stok. New York: Faber and Faber, 1993.
- Kieslowski: “[…] The essential question the film asks is: is it possible to repair a mistake which was committed somewhere high above?” (ibid., p. 218)
- It is noteworthy that, although Kieslowski has given this character a proper name, he lists him only as “the Judge” in the film’s closing credits—particularly since if Kern’s judgeship were simply a matter of profession, this title would be inaccurate, as Kern is retired.
- I.e., over four times the cost of Rita’s treatment
- Consider the way he surprises her from behind as she examines his eavesdropping equipment; or the calculated flourish he makes in pointing out the money lying on a table (which he could have brought out to her at any time).
- Obviously presaged by the Judge, considering what unfolds later in the film.
- Notably, although the paper in which she reads of this is said to be hers, she is mystified as to how it comes to be in her handbag.
- It might even be argued that he is actually interested at these rebellious doings by his creations. “See that? It’s the sixth window they’ve broken.”
- We understand that she will be with her new lover from yachting pictures she and he are looking at when Auguste espies them at a restaurant.
- This may have greater import than it seems to have contextually if we remember that, upon Red’s completion, Kieslowski considered himself retired.
- Consider Kieslowski’s statement: “But we’ll never be sure whether Auguste really does exist or whether he’s only a variation of the Judge’s life forty years later” (ibid., p. 218).
- Cf. note 2, with the addition that, vis-à-vis “somewhere high above,” Kieslowski never refers to God or any sort of divinity, but only “somebody.”
- N.b.: by the fictional composer Van Den Budenmeyer, a Kieslowski creation
- The film’s opening sequence displays the degree of complexity involved in making even a simple phone connection with someone whom one already knows, thereby setting up the idea that perhaps something other than chance can be required so that the important connections in life are made. Considering how often Valentine and Auguste have unsuccessfully crossed paths by this point, clearly this is one of those times.
- The existence of a seventh survivor—namely, “Steven Killian, English citizen, barman on the ferry,” a personage unseen here (even on the newscast) and mentioned nowhere else in the “Three Colors” trilogy—is perhaps the only inscrutable enigma of the film.