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Story Of An Émigré: The Culture Clashes Of Three Colours: Red
Adam Solomons , December 8th, 2019 11:59

The final entry in the acclaimed trilogy – and the last in director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s career – Three Colours: Red is a sorrowful essay on love and brotherhood. Adam Solomons looks at the powerful film 25 years on

Considering he is one of Poland’s most internationally acclaimed filmmakers, the reputation of Krzysztof Kieślowski in his native country doesn’t quite amount to the National Treasure status one might expect. Poles have traditionally favoured his more conservative, more Polish contemporary Andrzej Wajda, the outspoken hero of popular anti-communism who won the Palme D’Or and an honorary Oscar for his troubles. He also won the consistent adoration of Poles, a not-unimportant fact which enabled Wajda to continue to make popular films up until 2016, mere months before his death at the age of 90.

If Kieślowski were still alive today, he would be 78 years old. After screening Red at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, where it became his third nomination and third failed attempt at the Palme, Kieślowski announced his retirement at 51. Two years later, presumably after drinking and smoking even more than he had gained notoriety for, Kieślowski was dead. “He drank too much and smoked too much, he was proud, arrogant, entertainingly cynical – in other words, my kind of guy. He was also one of the world’s great directors,” read a Premiere magazine obituary written by – wait for it – Harvey Weinstein.

For a man who always claimed to be irreligious, Krzysztof Kieslowski sure liked making movies about God. Following his acclaimed Decalogue for Polish television, in which each episode was centred around one or more of the Ten Commandments, the Warsaw-born filmmaker stayed fixated on a subject that seemingly ran through his blood, even if he never quite accepted it. In Three Colours: Red, the final film in a trilogy which alone came to redefine the European avant-garde aesthetic, one character actually takes the role of God. (Or at least a God-like being, albeit in the form of a grumpy retired Swiss judge.)

Such choices are, for better or worse, par for the course when it comes to Kieślowski. There aren’t many agnostic filmmakers whose work appears on the Vatican’s list of 15 “Great Films” celebrated for their values, but Kieślowski is one of them. A careful auteur, well-practiced in treading the thin line between outright dissent against the authoritarian communism of the day (which, otherwise, would have seen his films swiftly banned) and a disinterested apoliticism (which could have been even worse), Kieślowski’s politics were frequently elusive at a time when all Poles seemed to agree on two things: God is good, Russia is bad.

If the enigmatic quality of Kieslowski’s own beliefs was ever apparent in a single part of his work, it would be in Red. Alongside the grumpy Swiss judge is Valentine (Irene Jacob), a lonely model looking for love in every corner except where she might find it. The judge in question is Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who lives alone in a big house and derives more pleasure spying on his neighbours than from his fluffy Belgian Shepherd, Rita, whose escape inadvertently (?) brings Kern and Valentine together. Unlike the first film of the trilogy, Blue, which deals primarily with love and romance, Red, despite its obvious visual connotations, seems to focus more on relationships of a platonic variety. Without giving too much away — though that would be difficult, even if I tried — Red is about the personal strength, emotional development and dose of luck we all need in order to coexist sustainably with the ones we love. Kern makes it his mission to help Valentine do exactly that, even if it doesn’t seem quite that way in the beginning. “I feel that something important is happening around me. And it scares me”, she confides in him. Kern takes her hand, as a friend or a father would. He asks, “Is that better?”

The reason for Kieślowski’s less than glittering reputation at home is a simple, if boring, one: as soon as the auteur was able to leave Poland and the eminent film school education he received in Łódź, behind him (other graduates included Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi and Roman Polanski), he did. And following a string of social realist Polish-language hits including the Decalogue for Telewizja Polska, which won plaudits from the likes of Roger Ebert and Stanley Kubrick before it silenced even Weinstein after a ten-hour binge, Kieślowski’s films took on a notably French sensibility. Among his late-career Francophile works were The Double Life of Veronique (also starring his French muse Jacob) and the trilogy which became his magnum opus, the Three Colours trilogy, which reportedly stopped Jacob from taking Maria de Medeiros’ part in Pulp Fiction.

Though he reached global acclaim with each of these films (only White failed to receive a nomination for the Palme), Kieślowski came to embody the unhelpful stereotype of a sell-out – the Western-facing Pole ready to leave his origins and traditions behind, in favour of stardom of a scale unavailable within the Soviet satellite states. That’s unless you were a party member, which he certainly wasn’t.

Of Kieślowski’s émigré filmography, Red surely provokes more than any other. Technically, it is nothing short of iconic, with the director’s chief collaborator (and a seminal cinematographer in his own right) Piotr Sobociński returning, after Blue and White were shot by Sławomir Idziak and Edward Kłosinki, respectively. It’s no secret that the Three Colours trilogy, in the literal sense of blue, white and red, is an extended homage to a country Kieślowski came to love. From the salmon-pink bubble gum Valentine chews for a billboard shoot, to the scarlet background of the poster, to the crimson cherries in the slot machine, Red stays on message. Its melodrama outweighs even the heady emotional weight of the previous films, culminating in a magnificent final sequence that ties the seemingly unrelated trilogy together.

Yet Three Colours pays homage not merely to a place, but to the set of ideas that founded it, revolutionary beliefs Kieslowski felt should apply everywhere. In fact, that’s where the contentions begin. Part of the reason many Poles were upset by the trilogy (beyond the sheer fact that important filmmaking was being done by a Pole outside of Poland, largely in a foreign language) was that “égalité” had come to mean something different, in a country that had only five years beforehand finally replaced its Soviet puppet leaders that for half a century had stood on a platform of equality, or at least a bastardisation of it. Kieślowski would lament in a 1994 interview with the Guardian, in characteristically unrestrained fashion, “In England you still think about tomorrow, whereas in Poland we just think about today or this evening. It’s extremely egoistic, very short term. Poland has been through so much in the past, and it has ruined us.”

Kieślowski’s near-sacrilegious excoriation of his country’s wonted brand of modernisation has parallels with Kern’s own disillusionment with the 1990s neo-Europe in which Red resides. And his nomadic career has a poignant connection to Valentine’s own indecision to settle somewhere, and with someone. It’s quite possible that Kieślowski sees himself in both Kern and Valentine, simultaneously the bitter, existentialist has-been, and the ever-creative inspiration who never lost his curiosity for exploration.

Kieślowski is buried in Warsaw’s Powazki cemetery alongside Poland’s eminent artists and inventors. In later life, Kieślowski was certainly able to accept Poland as his imperfect home. Whether the country’s cinema will ever be willing to rediscover the director as one of its own is a different challenge entirely. In truth, we don’t know quite whether Kieślowski understood his films to be important. But we do know that, at least by the time he made his last, it didn’t scare him.