Except for his imposing name, there is little about Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski that fits the conventional American image of a great director. His public statements are spare, his subject matter intimate rather than epic, and his interest in anything as flamboyant as a cult of personality is nonexistent.
Yet, as "Red" underscores, Kieslowski is likely the world's most accomplished director, that rare artist with a virtuoso's exhilarating grasp of all aspects of filmmaking from editing and cinematography to music and acting.
More than that, Kieslowski is the type of master whose hallmark is unobtrusiveness, whose skill is the more impressive for its lack of self-important posturing. And his interest in narrative, emotion and the human condition make his films so accessible it is possible to underestimate how accomplished they are.
Coming after the invigorating "Blue" and the bitingly comic "White," "Red" is the final film in Kieslowski's "Three Colors" trilogy, inspired by the French flag and the motto of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." Co-written with longtime collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, "Red" concentrates on fraternity, on the yearning for connection that even the most detached lives are prey to.
Simple on one level, profound on another, "Red" is also the best kind of adult fairy tale, a romance conceived and executed by a pessimist. For when a filmmaker as stern and uncompromising as the man who directed "Decalogue" decides to tell a story of love and hope, it is bound to be both different and convincing.
Kieslowski also believes in the importance of coincidence, and "Red" is rife with it. A tightly controlled film about the randomness of events, "Red" has as a major theme the pivotal role of chance and happenstance in shaping and defining its characters' lives.
At the center of things is Valentine (Irene Jacob), a young model living in a small apartment in Geneva. Though she is unaware of it, "Red's" elegant camera movements reveal that a handsome young man named Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), busy with his preparation for exams to be a judge, lives in a similar apartment just around the corner.
While Auguste has a beautiful blonde girlfriend named Karin (Frederique Feder), Valentine is involved in a ticklish phone relationship with a young man named Michel who is working outside the country. Fiddling with her car radio one night, Valentine hits a dog named Rita. The animal's collar lists an address, but returning the wounded Rita is not a simple affair.
For Rita's owner turns out to be an icily reserved man named Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an unshaven former judge who is both reclusive and apparently contemptuous of all feeling. A formidable individual, unapologetic about his misanthropy, he coldly tells Valentine he is indifferent to the dog's fate and would like nothing so much as for her to go away.
Leave she does, as disgusted at his attitude as he is at her evident concern and generosity. But circumstances bring her back to the judge's house, and though nothing conventional is to be expected, one of the accomplishments of "Red" is how convincingly it depicts the delicate and highly unlikely emotional connection that is forged between these two.
But there is more to Kieslowski's web than that. There is always Auguste, the young man who unknowingly lives in the periphery of Valentine's existence, and whose own life is gradually revealed to have curious parallels to that of the former judge. Kieslowski has dealt with this theme before, most notably in "The Double Life of Veronique," which also starred Jacob, but he handles it here with lovely delicacy.
Presented naked on a page, "Red's" plot has the potential to sound contrived, but the skills of Kieslowski and his team, starting with Zbigniew Preisner's ethereal music and Piotr Sobocinski's gliding camera work (which looks effortless but at times required hours of work for the briefest shots), obviate that possibility.
Critical as well are the remarkable performances of the film's two leads. Jacob, a radiant actress with an open, wonderfully expressive face, must have served as much as a muse for Kieslowski during filming as she does for Joseph Kern in the finished product. And Trintignant, perhaps the preeminent French actor of his generation, is faultless opposite her, brittle anti-matter to her vibrant matter.
As with "Blue" and "White," Kieslowski uses this film's title color as a visual accent, forcing us to notice the bright red of a car, a Swiss Army knife, even a cigarette package. And though all three films stand alone, the director couldn't resist a finale that will be most fully understood by viewers who've seen the previous pair.