Conversation Piece: A Sonata on Human Connection in Five Movements

Three Colors: Red (1994)

Three Colors: Red (1994) | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

I. Andante

The director is sitting next to a window. A smear of green trees shivers through the glass. A camera and a microphone hover in front of his face, recording his words and gestures for a television documentary. A year has passed since the director retired from filmmaking. The last movie he made managed to realize, in his estimation, at least 50-to-70 percent of his original vision; he thought it unlikely he could ever do better. He hated spending his days on film sets. He preferred to devote the remainder of his time to thinking, mentoring, smoking, and writing while he still could. He wanted to live life directly and meaningfully, instead of studying its intricacies through a lens. “When I bathe,” the director says, “I wash in order to enjoy life, not to make a film. That’s a very nice feeling.”

The director is 54 years old. He is asked by a dark shape in the foreground if he believes that the events of life are ruled by chance. The director doesn’t answer the shadow’s question directly. His brows knit and furrow. The answer he comes up with is strange and seems almost beside the point. He neither denies that chance directs our lives nor confirms it. He sighs and says, “Everything depends on the sum of several things that come together simultaneously.”


He shot the last scene first.

A television news crew films seven people as they walk or are carried on stretchers from the wreckage of a capsized ferry. Among the survivors are the composer Julie de Courcy from the film Blue, her assistant Olivier Benôit, the hairdresser Karol Karol from the film White, his wife Dominique Vidal, and two people whose lives over the previous few days had embroidered together as if by invisible wire, a young law student named Auguste and a model named Valentine. The television broadcast freezes on Valentine’s face in profile. She looks cold, breathlessly shocked as though she’s just seen a ghost, a smear of a grey sweater shored up around her shoulders like a deflated life preserver. This, the final shot of the movie Red, was the first scene of the trilogy that Krzysztof Kieślowski filmed, shortly before he started shooting the first film in the series, Blue. The Three Colors trilogy, to paraphrase film writer Dennis Lim, reverse engineers itself from this point, the only location in time and space where the main characters from each film find themselves in the same place. Did their individual decisions lead them to this destination? Or did the destination reel their lives into it, like a black hole?

There is a principle of classical composition called “rotational form.” It was coined by James Hepokoski while describing the Fifth Sibelius symphony, a piece whose central motifs, instead of determining narrative or emotional shape of the work, seem to weave around it like a helix of DNA. Eroded fragments and echoes of these themes appear throughout the length of the work. They’re only heard in completion at the piece’s end.

The Three Colors trilogy unfolds in a kind of cinematic rotational form. Images are recycled through all three films—index fingers glide across maps and musical scores, three different hunchbacked elderly people struggle to recycle a glass bottle in the periphery of each of the main characters. As they repeat, these images deepen the mystery of each movie a little, like related scales laid down on top of each other to make curious and introspective chords. As a final elaboration of the themes running through all three works, the last scene of Red strikes an unsettling and ambiguous note, leaving the trilogy’s characters together and in love, but terrified and surrounded by death.


It’s raining outside. Someone’s index finger dances across the keypad of a telephone. An electric current trickles from the phone into the wall. The camera follows it, diving headfirst into a sea of fiber optic cable. We, stray electrical pulses ourselves, traverse vast amounts of space in almost no time at all, plunging into the English Channel and sailing through miles of underground tunnel before we finally arrive at a blinking light on a switchboard—a busy signal, pulsing and blurring red, as if blushing at a mistake it made. The film cuts back to the same hand as it hangs up, picks up the receiver again, and redials the number.

This is how Red, a film of profound intimacy and philosophy, begins: with a missed connection. If Blue is about the meaningless horror and ecstasy of human connection, Red, with its title drawn from the color of the French flag linked to fraternity, deals with the sense of responsibility that accompanies human connection. What do we owe each other? the film seems to ask. (White, the middle chapter, stands apart from Blue and Red in its dream of “equality” as a series of mutual humiliations, barricaded away from the other films by the blackness of its comedy. Its answer to the question “what do with owe each other?” is probably “revenge.”)

Red centers itself around two early technologies of telecommunication: the phone and the radio. Phones and radios carry our voices to each other across immense distances, giving us a sense of community, of intimacy, of an entire network of human activity humming around us even when we’re alone in our apartments, staring at our cats, thinking about each other, sometimes not even with any depth, just a name raining over and over again in our minds. In fact, the intimacy experienced through phones and radios is so close to fictional, can feel in retrospect so imagined or dreamed, that whenever we hang up the phone or turn off the radio, we tend to feel more alone than ever, faced again with all the stillness and emptiness roaring beyond ourselves. A lonely and desperate aura surrounds a phone call, a conversation that you’re trying to force even though there may be no one at the other end, your voice just one among thousands babbling down a bottomless abyss of cable. Or worse: what if someone’s there, and they aren’t listening to you?

In Red, Valentine and Michel talk on the phone every day. Valentine calls Michel because she loves him. “Michel,” she says, “I felt lonely last night.” “What did you do?” he asks. “I slept with your jacket the whole night,” she says, gazing at the red coat crumpled up in her bed. She missed Michel so much she slept with a symbol of him, a trace of himself that he shed, the only evidence of his presence in her apartment. “I wanted to be with you,” she says.

But Michel calls Valentine because he’s worried that she’s cheating on him. Their conversations crumble into silence whenever her love for him runs up against his overwhelming suspicion and indifference. “I have a dog,” she informs him. “I ran over her yesterday,” she adds, as if she’s absorbed some of the black humor of the dog’s owner, an old judge who lives alone in a big house on a hill. Valentine hears silence from the other end of the line. “Michel, I’m sorry.” “That wasn’t funny,” he says. But Michel can’t find anything funny or significant in the details of Valentine’s life. They just remind him that her life goes on without him.

Valentine tries to revive their conversation by changing the subject. “You remember how we met?” she asks. “I remember,” Michel says. “If I hadn’t stepped out during the break, we’d never have met,” she says. “That’s true.” They both accept this coincidence but their voices cradle the information differently. In Valentine’s you hear a shiver of wonder and mystery, a fascination with the arbitrariness of the design underpinning all things. Michel’s voice is comparatively lifeless, filled with a characteristic aloofness and resignation. Hundreds of miles of space howl in between them.


In the dream I see you. We’re surrounded by empty blue space. It would be a room if it had walls but everywhere I look the horizon is sucked away into a solid blue. There is no furniture. We are locked in either a doorless airplane hanger or in some soft-hued nursery of ideas. Your face is turned away from me. I can only see the back of your head. (I can’t reconstruct faces in my dreams, they keep melting into other people). Your hair looks like light stretched from your skull. I reach out toward you. I try to say your name but it walks backwards out of my mouth. (The language in the dream is melted too.) I want you to turn around, to see you smile at me, but you don’t move. I grab your hand. You collapse into a small mattress of bloodless feathers. I pick up one of the feathers. It barely feels like anything, less than air, heavy as an atom or thought. As the light glides along it from tip to tip it erases the feather from my hand. A phone, new to the landscape of the dream, rings on the blue floor. I pick it up. The receiver shivers into the shape of my alarm clock. The dream ends.

I wake up and I text you. I send you a poem I read the other day that reminded me of you, “Homage to Paul Cézanne.” The writer, Charles Wright, was trying to paint a poem instead of write one, using language like crushed pigment. He admits as much toward the piece’s end: “What we are given in dreams we write as blue paint.” The poem melts between the perspectives of the dead and the living, attempting to give shape to the uncharted space in between them. “Each year the dead grow less dead, and nudge/Close to the surface of all things,” Wright writes. “They start to remember the silence that brought them here.” I don’t actually know why this poem reminds me of you. I just can’t seem to stop seeing things that remind me of you. When I wake up in the morning the world arranges itself into patterns and themes and echoes and all of them are making chords out of your name.

II. Allegro

We’re outside. The director walks into the shot. His face is framed by a plant sprouting tiny white petals.

“Anything interesting to report?” a voice off-camera asks.

“Yes,” the director says. “I dreamed I could fly. I started from the foot of a tower, and then rose up and flew up, as normal as could be, to a tree.” He smiles. “There was a tree there.”


Instead of taking place in the waltzing streets of Paris or in the snowy, scraped-out husk of early-’90s Warsaw, Red anchors itself in the Swiss city of Geneva, a center of international diplomacy that apparently occasioned a Tower of Babel-esque collision of languages on set, directions and dialogue being constantly, confusingly translated from Polish to French and back again. (Red was eventually submitted to the Academy Awards as a Swiss film, but was disqualified from the Foreign Language film category for being an insufficiently Swiss production.)

Kieślowski didn’t find Geneva to be a very photogenic city, which is perhaps why the film takes place so often in interiors, the camera plunging deep into enormous human-sized terrariums, like the labyrinthine sequence of rooms that makes up the old judge’s house and the theater of dark slanted subspaces and blushing red seats where one of Valentine’s fashion shows takes place. The street-corner that Valentine lives on feels more like a set than a city street, a consequence of how the camera moves through it in long, gliding crane shots, a swiveling eye of God bearing down on the details of its creation. In one of the first and most impressive sequences in Red, the camera drifts from an intersection outside to Valentine’s apartment building, then floats up to and through her second story window in a single fluid motion. A red chair rocks in the foreground. The phone is ringing. It’s Michel. “Are you alone?” he asks.


The director is aware that his profession is a form of playing God. He started his career shooting documentaries, yet felt uneasy over how they required invading other people’s privacies. “Are we free to film real death for a documentary?” he asks his interviewer. He’s sitting in what appears to be a stone room; a black and white filter has been placed on the shot, making the light from the nearby window look like it’s falling into a crypt. The director continues: “When someone’s really dying, aren’t they entitled to solitude? Does one not have the right to experience death in harmony with one’s own inner principles, or with one’s own course in life?”

The French poet Charles Péguy once said, “Everything begins in mystique and ends in politics.” Kieślowski’s filmography is like a backwards climb through this sentence, from the immediate miseries of politics into the depthless mysteries of life and love. But you never lose the sense, even in his fictional work, of Kieślowski the documentarian. In his later films, instead of trying to document someone’s life within a political system, he’s trying to capture a feeling, a coincidence, an idea, drawing the most inaccessible and invisible dimensions of our lives through the glass of his lens. Red is in many ways the apotheosis of this approach to his post-political film career, the most successful of his films at conveying the truth of the world beyond the capabilities of language and even beyond the capabilities of image. Red’s deepest meanings seem trapped just beneath Irène Jacob’s long, sustained gazes of attention, in the introspective silence that opens up between words in Jean-Louis Trintignant’s monologues.

The camera in Red is also the most dynamic and weightless of all three chapters of the trilogy, diving suddenly then swooping back upward like a leaf on a current, attaching itself to seemingly random objects moving through space. Were it not anchored to Valentine, it could float freely into the private life of any resident of Geneva, processing all of their simultaneous depressions and regrets at 24 frames per second. Still, the camera manages to get playful, if only in the margins of the lives to which it’s tethered. In one scene, Valentine goes bowling, and the camera tracks her bowling ball as it glides down the lane and bulldozes a sequence of pins, almost following the ball into the guts of the alley just as it followed the phone cord into the river of wire in the wall. The color of Valentine’s bowling ball, and the color radiating from the walls and surfaces in the surrounding bowling alley, is a bright, swollen red.


Red is a color of varied meaning and significance. It is an unusually political color, working its way throughout history into revolutionary designs, into dramatic symbols of the upheaval of society. Jacobins flew red flags during the French Revolution, and the color is permanently associated with the political philosophy of Communism. (Kieślowski’s own queasy relationship with Communism—his early documentaries depicting the reality of Polish life were censored by the then-Communist government—would feel curiously absent from a film named Red that earnestly muses on the theme of fraternity, had he not publicly abandoned politics at this point in his film career.) It is also a color of deep intimacy and physiology: fragments of red swell through the skin when someone blushes, the color of blood pooling into the capillaries of the cheeks.

If this reads like free-association, it’s because the reds in Red have more of an elusive and arbitrary purpose than the washes of blue in Blue—the swells of Julie’s former life, before her husband and daughter died—or even the sustained white-out in White, the total annihilation of thought during orgasm. The objects in Blue are blue because they’re important to Julie or they contain echoes of her grief. The objects in White are white because they’re, for the most part, snow. The objects in Red are red because they’re red. Red figures into almost every scene of the film, often the bright end of a gradient of less powerful browns and greens, sometimes enriched by woolly counterpoints of white and grey. But why shouldn’t the color red be another layer in the film’s lattice of coincidence? It’s a color swollen with potential energy, uncertain of its purpose or destination. “Red was about anger,” Irène Jacob said in an interview for the Criterion release of the film. “It was about revolt.” Maybe that’s why the red in the film is often the kind of color that you’d find burning beneath someone’s expression.


Valentine’s hair is wet. She blows a pink cloud of chewing gum. A red curtain billows behind her. She’s modeling for a gum advertisement, the slogan for which is “a breath of life.” The photographer decides to redirect the mood of the shoot and hands Valentine a grey sweater, which she knots around her neck. She shakes some of the wet out of her hair and smiles. “No, don’t smile,” the photographer says. “Look sad.” Her face weakens, shudders, begins to cave in on itself. “Sadder. Think of something awful,” he says. At this instruction her face comes completely unpinned, loosening into an almost bottomless expression of melancholy. What, or who, is she thinking of? Is it Michel? Or is it something or someone she doesn’t know, an absence so powerful she can feel the shape of it in her modeling jobs, in her ballet classes, in the emptiness and loneliness that stretch between them? She looks as though she’s just seen a ghost. “Now it’s coming!” the photographer yells. “That’s it!”

The photograph he takes in this scene is nearly identical to the shot of Valentine emerging from the wreckage of the ship. The image is famous both within and without the film. It appears in almost all of the promotional materials for the movie including the poster, and it’s finally unfurled in the film itself at a busy Geneva intersection that both Auguste—Valentine’s future romantic partner on the ferry—and the old judge drive through on separate occasions. Each of them gazes at her image as if it’s an apparition from a life they failed to live.


In the dream the universe is continually expanding around us. Even though we seem to be occupying the same positions in space we are gradually receding away from everything and everyone we know and love. We brush against each other like wind leaving brief shapes in sand. I can see you in this dream; for once I can reconstruct the image of you perfectly down to the weight you put into your expressions. You’re looking at me and I’m wading through your gaze, which is, of course, also rocketing away from me at the speed of time.

In reality, we’re apart. Most of the time we’re apart. I wake up, I get dressed, I leave my apartment. Space falls between us wherever I go. When we’re together, it might as well be another dream.

III. Scherzo

Kieślowski said the theme of Red is the conditional mood. It’s an uncertain, speculative tense to phrase an entire film in, an inquiry not into what people will do but what they would do. For example, what would we do and, more importantly, who would we be had we been born in different decades, in different bodies? Would we still have found each other? Would I have been able to tell the difference between you and a complete stranger? Would you have recognized me when you saw me? Every choice we make exports every choice we didn’t make into a different parallel universe. These parallel universes touch ours at strange, resonating points.

The subject of Red’s conditional mood is not its main character, Valentine, but a retired judge named Joseph Kern, played by the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant with a coldness so vast and ancient it’s as if he’d asked a glacier how it feels. Would Kern behave any differently if he had been born 20 years later, if he had met the right person? Is he doomed to inhabit his current position forever? He spends his days and nights sitting in the center of a maze of unlocked rooms. A radio on his desk hisses with strange frequencies and distortions. Disembodied voices stir through the static. They’re fighting with each other. They’re falling in love. They’re mutually agreeing to hurt someone else. They’re wondering what their family will think. They’re asking what the weather will be like over the next few days.

The voices belong to Kern’s neighbors. He’s eavesdropping on their phone conversations, scrolling through their most private intimacies as if they were channels on a television. “Next program not very interesting,” he says as he listens in on a old mother talking to her daughter. The mother is lonely, so she invents incredibly ordinary scenes of despair, like ambiguous body pains or having run out of bread and milk, to manipulate her daughter into visiting; the daughter has grown wise to this technique and no longer takes any of her mother’s complaints seriously. Valentine collapses against the wall in sympathy, as if she absorbed every inch of sadness between the two strangers, unable to do anything to help.

When Kern looks at her, he feels, at first, superior; like Julie in Blue, he believes he is detached from the phenomenon of cause and effect. He uses the radio to listen in on other people’s lives because he thinks it gives him access to undisguised truth, a truth he found evasive in his former life, when he declared people innocent or guilty based on meager facts. He’s an observer, witnessing the ugly affairs and petty recriminations of humanity from a cathedral of ice. Unmoved by Valentine’s compassion for the old woman, he even suggests that her sympathy for a stranger is fundamentally selfish, that every kind thing she does for others—including taking care of a dog she hit with her car—is just a way for her to feel better about herself. “Otherwise you’d had have felt guilty,” he says. “You’d have dreams of a dog with its skull crushed.” She cries. (This scene, the first filmed for Red, was so physically intense to shoot that Jacob later spoke of being overwhelmed by stomach aches in between takes.) People aren’t bad, Valentine insists; they can’t be constantly lying to or cheating on or hurting each other. “One can only feel pity for you,” she tells the judge while storming out of his house, her voice shaking with anger as she informs him that his dog is pregnant. It’s at this point that Kern’s expression finally changes, as if a hand had slammed down on every key of his feelings at once. His face collapses, the icy fortifications shattering around him.


The connection that forms between Valentine and the judge from this scene on precipitates the action of the rest of the film, action that takes place largely in their conversations, in the slow-motion stir of their thoughts and confessions. The dynamic between the two of them is not unlike the one between the titular characters of Beauty and the Beast; Valentine thaws a younger, less stubborn person out of the judge, and he draws someone else out in her too—someone less naive and more in touch with who she is than who she believes she should be. There’s an atomic exchange of information going on between them, an empathy and good faith so powerful and borderless it resembles telepathy.

There are three scenes of overwhelming beauty that transpire between Valentine and the judge in Red:

1) The judge asks Valentine, still shaking with horror after discovering him eavesdropping on his neighbors, to stay for a few minutes. “Why?” she asks, only faintly aware that she’s as attracted to the voices swelling through his radio as she is repulsed by them. “The light is beautiful,” he says. The camera reels backward through the air as a prismatic light floods the room. A dial tone sounds over the radio, and a woman’s voice delivers a personalized weather report to the caller. The shot is held for 10 seconds, just long enough for the light to burn away any line dividing the figures of Valentine and the judge as they listen to the woman’s voice and watch the light shift and waltz through the room.

2) The day after Valentine runs out of the judge’s house in tears, he turns himself into the authorities. Valentine reads about his trial in the paper, and rushes back to his house. The judge brings out an old bottle of pear brandy and pours two shot glasses. They share the bottle over the course of the afternoon, their conversation deepening as both the drink and the light recede. They tell each other more about themselves, their lives, their pasts. Valentine tells the judge about her family. She’s worried about abandoning her brother and her mother when she leaves for England in a few days. “If only I could do something,” Valentine says. “You can,” says the judge. “Be.” He encourages her to take the ferry to England: “It’s less expensive and healthier.” He leans across the table to turn on the lamp between them and the bulb immediately burns out. He removes the lampshade, borrows a new bulb from the overhead light fixture, and screws it into the lamp. The light from the naked bulb fills Jacob’s face with a screaming white incandescence. She squints against the brightness until the judge replaces the lamp shade, softening the glow to a coronal blush. “Deciding what’s true and what isn’t now seems to me,” the judge says, “to show a lack of humility.” Sometimes I feel even when we’re being completely honest, every word we say to each other is wrapped in some kind of rhetorical lampshade. If we ever told each other the naked truth, we’d probably squint at it.

3) The night before she takes the ferry, Valentine invites the judge to a fashion show that she’s performing in. She spends the entire show looking for him in the audience, but only manages to find him afterward, standing in a small garden of red theater seats. A few nights before he had a dream about her. In the dream Valentine was 50 years old; she woke up and smiled at someone next to her that the judge didn’t recognize. “It feels like something important is happening to me,” she tells the judge, “and it scares me.” Miles beneath Irène Jacob’s apprehensive expression you can see an older, wiser, almost monastic version of the character rearing up between the rushing waves of her self. The judge guides her to the edge of the balcony and tells her how once, when he was a student, one of his books fell from the upper balcony of the theater to a lower floor; the page the book fell open to corresponded exactly to the question they eventually asked at his judge’s exam. The camera arcs downward as he describes the book’s descent, as if it were adhering to the physics of his memory.


The judge is not the only person connected to Valentine; Auguste is also invisibly tethered to her, though neither of them is aware of it. Is the judge? It’s reasonable, if a little cynical, to suspect that Joseph Kern is the engineer of almost all of the happy and unhappy coincidence in Red, as if he were directing the film himself. For one, Kern owns the dog, Rita, that Valentine runs over, which is the event that causes her to meet him. Even stranger, Auguste, who in the course of the film graduates law school and becomes a judge himself, seems to be reliving Kern’s life on a different layer of space-time. Just before Valentine hits Rita with her car, she drives through a street that Auguste then crosses himself; he accidentally drops his stack of books in the middle of the intersection, one of which sprawls open to a page containing the exact question he’ll be asked on his judge’s exam. Later, in the judge’s house, Valentine overhears part of a conversation between Auguste and his girlfriend, who happens to be the judge’s neighbor. “They’re in love,” Valentine observes. But the judge tells her that Auguste hasn’t met the right woman yet, as if he were scribbling a correction into the margins of his own life.

The movie is predictably coy about Kern’s awareness of his own authorship of events, and Auguste and Valentine seem entangled independently of him, even though their relationship in the film is mostly a series of frustrated non-encounters. Their timing is always off, and the time in Red is weird, like a cracked looking-glass that someone (the judge? the director?) has glued back together, Auguste walking his dog across the street in one shard of time while Valentine talks to Michel on the phone in another. There’s also a sense of inevitability to the way time moves around the two of them, pushing them toward each other and gradually removing every obstacle between them, including Auguste’s girlfriend, who cheats on him with someone she meets at Kern’s trial, an echo of the way the judge’s wife betrayed him. Eventually it tosses Valentine and Auguste into the same doomed ferry, both of them trying to escape the increasing tedium of their lives in Geneva. But Red rarely betrays a self-awareness of these narrative interweavings. Any effective film about the meaning of life has to be aware of its own potential meaninglessness, that its cascade of coincidence and accident could be just that: coincidental, accidental. Sometimes events in life rhyme as meaninglessly as words.

At first we puzzle at what brings Auguste and Valentine together, why we follow what appear to be unrelated stories. But the camera insists on the dynamic; it routinely sashays from her to him, gliding as if along a string drawn between their bodies. In one scene Valentine turns off her car alarm in the background as Auguste recognizes his girlfriend approaching in the foreground. Neither of them notices the other, but the audience recognizes them both, perceiving the connection that’s forming between them even as it remains elusive to the characters themselves. They’re gradually folding into each other like the lines of a seashell. All of this is contained within a single shot, multiple points of perspective merging and folding down like wrinkles in a universal mind.


In the dream we live in different cities. We don’t remember each other. I try to remember myself and instead remember that the self is an oar dipped between waves, an attempt to ground ourselves in something that is inherently formless and endless. We can never know our true nature; we can only guess at its shape. To feel like we have any identity at all, we string the flimsiest of material into narrative rosaries—our memories and feelings.

In reality we live in the same city, but we still live in separate cities, stranded in the neighborhoods of self that waltz around us, unable to see each other through their relentless, shifting architecture. I send you another poem; this one is about spring, a season that is like a porous wall between the dead and the living. Trees and flowers reversing themselves out of the grave. In the time that passes before your response, I’m struck with the awareness that your city has moved a few miles away from mine.

IV. Adagio

The director lights a cigarette. ”I have one really good character trait,” he says. ”I am a pessimist. So I imagine the worst in everything. To me, the future is a black hole.”


As a narrative, Red is often recursively and sometimes even reflexively understood. It’s a film of ellipses, of threads dropped and picked up until, suddenly, they are woven. Kieślowski will often present a sign (a pack of cigarettes purchased by Auguste) and wait until a much later scene to suggest or explain its significance, if at all (the same pack of cigarettes, crushed, next to a shattered beer glass in a bowling alley, like the second frame of a diptych). With a heavier touch this dense network of sign and significance would be unbearable. But with a lighter touch it’d be invisible. “We wanted viewers to think backwards,” Kieślowski said, “to make associations with things he had already seen without noticing.”

The film is driven by this kind of backwards thinking. It is a technically a romance, yet the principle characters neither date nor marry; the meet-cute, if it could even be called one, is delayed until the film’s end, and occurs near the wreckage of a destroyed ship. Many scenes in the film end with, to quote the film’s editor Jacques Witta, “a comma instead of a period,” implying what happens instead of letting it develop on-screen. The audience completes the sentences privately, to themselves.

This makes thinking about the movie a potentially bottomless endeavor. Writing for me is often a form of problem solving, and I don’t think I want to solve the problem of Red. I’m also not certain I have to. The film contains all of its own answers, though most of them aren’t spoken in French or Polish but in a flood of images and expressions, in congruent blushes of feeling and connection echoing across time and space. Scenes from it—the soft pastels of light and shadow that frame Valentine’s profile as she advances through rooms of the judge’s house—flicker through my mind as if I were the projector the film were reeling through. One scene in particular has engraved itself in my memory: a shot of two plastic cups, filled to the exact same height with coffee, a still life of the relationship between Valentine and the judge and the total equilibrium between them. In just a few seconds, this shot threatens to collapse all three themes of the trilogy into a single image: a moment of intimacy shared by two people who have become equal and free because they have, at last, become friends.


The judge gets into his car outside of the theater and asks to see Valentine’s ferry ticket. She hands it to him, and he gazes at it for a grave and prolonged second before returning it to her. As he drives away he presses his hand against the car window, and Valentine places her hand against his, only a thin tremble of glass in the space between them. The judge drives away from her, stretching that space wider and wider until it gradually becomes everything. In the distance, Valentine glimpses an old woman trying to recycle a glass bottle. The mouth of the receptacle is too high for the woman to reach, and Valentine walks over to assist her. The audience hears a brief, satisfying shatter of glass as the bottle lands in the bin. What’s miraculous about this scene is that Valentine is the only character in the trilogy who helps this recurring motif of a character; Julie is too lost in a dream about her music to notice the old woman in her periphery, and Karol derives a kind of sadistic pleasure in observing someone he thinks inhabits a more pathetic station than him. Valentine, who longs to know other people and to share herself with them, is the one person capable of doing something about it.

In the next scene, a storm gathers over the English Channel, hovering just on the rim of Geneva. Clouds blacken and rain. A group of men take the large poster of Valentine down from the intersection, drawing it down by ropes as the rain batters the canvas; Valentine’s face weakens, shudders, caves in on itself like a wet paper boat.

The next morning, we see Valentine broadcasting the same expression from the judge’s television as he watches the footage of the destroyed ferry. Rita, the dog struck by Valentine’s car at the start of the film, has given birth to a litter of puppies, who bark and scuttle across the judge’s floor. Life goes on without us. That’s the sad thing. It is also the only thing. In the last scene of Red we perhaps witness the price of true equality, freedom, and fraternity. Even with all the distance between Valentine and Auguste collapsed, they still have to face the remaining distance of death.


The director is sitting in front of a blazing fire. Orange light flickers across his face. A year before, the director had announced his retirement from filmmaking at Red’s premiere at Cannes. “I’m just tired,” he told the audience.

A man sporting thick glasses—Krzysztof Wierzbicki, one of Kieślowski’s former assistant directors—sits across from him. He continues to interrogate the director about his life’s work and the ideas running through each of his films. He also asks him adjacent questions about life, politics, fate, the death of Western civilization. The director grows exasperated with this last line of questioning. He believes that the world is undergoing a cultural crisis, but that the world itself isn’t ending, that society is always cycling through states of crisis and stasis. “What’s the most important part of that process?” the interviewer asks. “If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be sitting by some stupid fireplace but in a president’s chair, telling everyone what to do to make it better,” the director says. “But I don’t know. Knowing isn’t my profession. Not knowing is.”

In March 1996, a year after the documentary—released as Kieślowski: I’m So-so—finishes shooting, the director suffers a heart attack and dies during surgery.

V. Fugue

In the dream there is no space between us, all of it filled by ourselves, you then me then me then you … Who are you? … Wait … Oh … Hi, have we met before? … What’s your name? … Why are you smiling like that? … You’re really funny … Could I call you? … What’s your number? … Do you like me? … I really like you … Could I kiss you? … I wanted to kiss you the whole time we were talking … What are you thinking about? … How do I get back to the train from here? … The other night was really nice … It rained here yesterday too … I missed you … How was your day? … I feel like I’ve known you for so much longer than this … Could you give me a call back when you get home? … You can call me as late as you want … Are you still awake? … Are you feeling any better? … How was work? … What are you doing? … I had a dream about you last night … I want you to come over! … I can’t be alone! … I miss you too … Are you alone? … Where were you when I called last night? … Who were you talking to? … Why are you like this? … Is there someone else? … How could you? … (and in between all the places where the world rushed in, there was you) …

… How have you been? … We should catch up sometime …