Communication. Fate. Kinship. Moral responsibility. Such topics may seem better suited to your next philosophy class than to a movie, yet they happen to be central to one of the greatest films of the 1990s — and for my money, of all time.

The late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski undertook a landmark feat in the early 1990s when he produced a trilogy of stellar films — Three Colors: Blue, White, and Red — thematically modeled around the French flag and its corresponding principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. Co-written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz with the score by composer Zbigniew Preisner, each film in the trilogy premiered at the three most prestigious film festivals on the continent (Berlin, Venice and Cannes) between 1993 and 1994 and received rave reviews. Red would end up being Kieslowski’s final film; he passed away in 1996, two years after announcing his retirement. It enjoyed crossover success in the US, where it picked up Academy Award nominations for best director, best cinematography and best original screenplay.

Despite opening with a high-speed tour of the most antiquated of technologies, the landline, Red remains surprisingly relevant to the 21st century viewer. Our heroine is Valentine (Irène Jacob), a runway model and part-time student in Geneva whose out-of-town boyfriend—heard but never seen—persistently and erroneously doubts her fidelity. While driving home from a photoshoot one evening, Valentine runs over a dog and, guided by her unwavering moral compass, delivers it back to its owner. Little could Valentine know just what she’s getting herself into: the dog’s owner is a retired judge and a prototypical NSA operative (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who whiles away his time eavesdropping on his neighbors’ phone calls for sheer amusement. Cognizant of his own immorality, the judge challenges Valentine to act on his illegal activity. Like any well-to-do young adult, Valentine initially responds with righteous indignation. Yet something holds her back from turning him in, and what follows is a riveting cross-generational duel that slowly morphs into a sincere camaraderie.

What sounds like a fairly straightforward premise proves to be anything but with Kieslowski in the director’s chair. Some mysterious and invisible force — call it God, fate, ghosts or whatever you wish—palpably exerts its presence throughout the story and in the lives of its characters. While Valentine and the judge are busy sparring over issues of morality and legality, the seemingly unrelated story of earnest young law student Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) unfolds just across the street. Privileging visual and musical cues over frying-pan-to-the-face exposition, Kieslowski slyly intertwines these parallel stories while unraveling the fabric of space-time in the process. Coincidences begin to pile up and as Valentine learns more about the judge’s past, Auguste’s storyline begins to look like less of a non sequitur and more of a case of history uncannily repeating itself.

It took me three viewings to finally get a grasp on Red; that I bothered to give it a second and third look (and then a fourth, in preparation for this column) speaks more to the film’s extraordinary quality than to any narrative faults. Even if one is unsure entirely how the film’s multiple story threads are meant to align or what the final point of it all is, Red gives the viewer plenty to appreciate otherwise. Every last frame of the film is impeccably arranged and suffused with the movie’s chromatic namesake. Whereas red is elsewhere the herald of anger or eroticism, here the color lends itself to a sense of companionship and warm nostalgia—feelings one does not usually expect to find in the wilds of foreign film. Preisner’s score, a militant march of strings with the occasional fantastical flourish mixed in, deserves to be recognized as one of the most beautiful film soundtracks in the history of the medium. And if you’re still unconvinced, let Jacob and Trintignant’s acting convince you otherwise: Valentine and the judge are two of the most intriguing, yet oddly relatable, personalities to be found in a foreign art film.

Red does not lend itself to any single interpretation. In commentaries about the film, Kieslowski himself adopted an air of ambiguity and shied away from definitive explanations. While critics have pointed out links between the filmmaker and the character of the judge, the film is not easily dismissed as an autobiography. Kieslowski wants his audience to confront the mysteries of life and to ask big questions: at what point does coincidence become fate? What responsibilities do we have to total strangers? What are the limits of human communication and how do we overcome them? The experience of watching Red is unlike any other moviegoing experience you’ve ever had, and you’ll walk away feeling simultaneously puzzled and satisfied. True to the life it so often imitates, cinema is full of surprises—if you’re willing to take a chance on something playing outside the multiplex.

Tim Markatos is a senior in the College. This is the last appearance of The Cinema Files.

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