Saturday, May 30, 2009

84. Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Trzy kolory: Czerwony" (Three Colors: Red) (1994):The color at the rainbow's edge and the optical spectrum

Red (Trois couleurs: Rouge) is the last film made by a master of cinema. Having made his stunning 10-part Dekalog and following it by Three colors trilogy of Blue, White and Red, Kieslowski openly stated that he was retiring at the age of 52. He was, of course, co-writing the script with Krzysztof Piesiewicz for yet another trilogy—Heaven (later made into a film directed by Tom Tykwer), Purgatory and Hell (loosely based on Dante’s Divine Comedy). And guess what, he dies at 54, following a heart surgery, as though his life was snuffed out according to a cosmic plan that Kieslowski was aware of. Among his ardent admirers were/are Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino. It was as if, nearing the end of his life, he was stating from a cinematic cross the words “it is finished’ before he commended his spirit to the doctors and the world. Health and religion were strange bedfellows for Kieslowski, his father a tuberculosis patient, and he himself feigning physical frailty to avoid the army draft.

The brilliant scripts of the two Krzysztofs and the music of a fascinating composer Zbigniew Preisner dazzle the inquisitive mind. (The films of Kieslowski where the two Krzysztofs did not collaborate pale in comparison with the works of Kieslowski without the other Krzysztof, which only underlines the role of Piesiewicz as a great screenwriter!) The stories are constructed as engaging puzzles that provide more entertainment as we figure out the myriad connections. While the three films of the three colors trilogy are “standalone” stories, the final film Red ends with the appearance of six individual characters, two each from Blue, White, and Red. It becomes more fascinating when we realize the three colors referred to the three colors of the French flag and that each of the three films was a meditation on the three terms it represented, liberty for Blue, equality for White and fraternity for Red. Big deal, you could say, and point out that the Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone had done that before Kieslowski by making a 1981 film called Bianco, Rosso e Verdone based on the Italian flag’s colors. But Kieslowski’s allegiance to the French flag was purely pecuniary—the French were bankrolling the films.

The planning and the making of the three films Blue, White, and Red are truly remarkable. Blue was made for the Venice Festival just as White was made for Berlin and Red for Cannes—the three top film festivals. The three films made the prestigious competition grade at each of the festivals within a span of one calendar year (1993-4)!! How many directors could plan all that and actually make that grade? Again the cynical mind would say that is achievable if you know the selectors of the three distinguished festivals. But hold on, characters (and the actors who play them) appear in each of the other films, making the larger connection between the three distinct tales. Imagine getting actors to play small roles in other films, before or after they play the bigger role in another.

Viewing Red critically is nothing short of a study of fascinating, innovative cinema. Red is a cinematic rumination on "fraternity.” Fraternity envisages connections and the two Krzysztofs begin the film with telephone calls, discuss the sophisticated, illegal eavesdropping of telephone calls, and newspaper headlines and photographs interconnecting people far and near. The story of Red is of a young Swiss model living in Geneva, who through a literal accident connects up with a retired judge who is living alone. The judge is old enough to be her father, yet has no family and is a misanthrope. A platonic relationship develops between them. Another accident brings the Swiss model in contact with a new-found lifelong partner. For a casual viewer of Red that would be the plot outline. Red offers much, much more for an astute viewer.

Even the village idiot will note the color coding that Kieslowski deliberately uses, but what is less obvious is his play with the concepts of fraternity, of connections, of relationships. Undersea phone cables that begin the movie suggest the modern physical mode of making connections. The film ends with connections that are not so easily explained. Survivors of a sea accident, once strangers now bond together through a larger cosmic scheme of chance. Knowing the two Krzysztofs' penchant for biblical allusions/parallels after they made/wrote the fascinating 10-part Dekalog, I tend to agree with Dave Kehr’s interpretation in Film Comment (Nov-Dec 1994) of the “retired judge” (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) “is that Old Testament God, but a pathetically diminished one, whose power extends to light bulbs but not lightning, and whose apparent control over the winds and seas may be explained by the fact that he knows a good number to call for a personalized weather forecast.”

Any evaluation of Kieslowski's films, Dekalog and after, has to go beyond the simplistic story-line. His films offer much more. I have written earlier that a clue to evaluating Blue lies in the choral music (rendering of I Corinthians, Chapter 13, a chapter in the New Testament of the Bible), heard towards the end of the film. In Red, a dog leads a not-so religious benefactor into a near-empty church. Which intelligent dog would do that, unless its master frequented that place or lived in that abode? A close look at the character of the “retired judge”, clearly indicates that he can put strangers together like a cosmic puppeteer, that he knows the brother of the new-found friend is a drug addict even though they have never met, that he can manipulate the future actions of those he cares for, and even be truthful in confessing his guilt of eavesdropping. Much of Red can be a virtual class for aspiring directors and screenwriters as you realize a final shot on a TV news capsule is incredibly similar to the heroine’s face captured on posters for an advertisement shown much earlier in real time through a different medium. The two Krzysztofs are enticing the viewer to connect to the bigger picture. Even sequences in Red, such as the drinking of the liqueur by the retired judge and his new and only friend harks back to Dekalog 8, where two women, one a lonely woman finding a young friend, separated by time, share a hot beverage while they bond together. In all the Three color films, an old person is trying deposit a glass bottle into a trash bin, an action watched by major characters of each of the three films. However, its only in Red that the film's major character steps forward to help, underlining fraternity.

There is so much to delve into Red. There are seven rocks that get thrown at the judge’s house by angry neighbors, there are seven survivors of the sea tragedy, and interestingly there are seven puppies born of Rita the main dog. There are two dogs in the film with two owners. And the dog-master relationship survives all the turbulences in their respective masters’ lives. What a great performance from actor Trintignant, capping a brilliant international acting career that included a somewhat parallel role in Costa-Gavras’ Z, where he plays a judicial magistrate.

The bolero of composer Zbigniew Preisner is not out of place if you compare it with Bizet's bolero. You don’t see a bullfight with all the red colors flashing—what you do see on screen are two tales of two men who pass an examination because they study a lesson highlighted by an accident only to become lawyers and have two different girlfriends who betray their love and trust. The duality is not unlike a bullfight for the viewer’s mind. Are the two men, separated by age, the very same individual? The elder lawyer never has a physical relationship with the heroine, but the film suggests the younger one will indeed have a happy marital relationship. What one individual could not attain in life is found by the alter ego through an “accident’, with the help of a force beyond his knowledge. But both love dogs and ultimately the same woman.

Kieslowski made films that connected people and acknowledge a force that greater than themselves (Red and Dekalog 1). Yet many argue that Kieslowski was an atheist. I tend to think that it was a mask that he wore for convenience. Either way he was a thinker, and his later films make you think. However, if I were asked which was the best of the three films in the trilogy, I would choose White, the most enigmatic of the three (after all, white color is made up of blue. red and other colors of the rainbow, or as painter would say, add the additive colors red, blue, and green to obtain white!).

Kieslowksi told the Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Kiefer "Film is often just business -- I understand that and it's not something I concern myself with. But if film aspires to be part of culture, it should do the things great literature, music and art do: elevate the spirit, help us understand ourselves and the world around us and give people the feeling they are not alone."

What a great filmmaker and what a great mind!

P.S. I was fortunate to have had a brief chat with Kieslowski with the help of an interpreter at the Bangalore Filmotsav 80 (International Film Festival) in January 1980. He was accompanied by the First Secretary of the Polish Embassy in New Delhi, who was interpreting for him. The diplomat was eager that I would do an interview of Kieslowski but I was not keen about the prospect as I had only seen his Camera Buff, which even today does not impress me even though it won the grand prize at Moscow. Further, Kieslowski did not seem at home speaking in English in 1980. How he became proficient in English to give interviews to Los Angeles Times within 14 years shows yet another aspect of his personality. And it’s in those 14 years he bloomed into a genius. Instead of interviewing Kieslowski, I chose instead to interview the Cuban master filmmaker Tomas Alea attending the same festival. I was probably one of very few who was honored with that privilege. How I wish I had a similar opportunity of interviewing Kieslowski after he made Dekalog and the Three Colors trilogy!

Three Colors White and Blue have been reviewed earlier on this blog. So are Dekalog Parts 5 and 7.