‘Red,” the final installment in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ambitious “Three Colors” series inspired by the symbolic bands of the French flag (blue for liberty, white for equality, red for fraternity), begins with a telephone. More accurately, telephone wires - a whole mess of them, as Kieslowski’s camera, zooming fast and furiously, follows a call from its origin, tracking the electronic signal as it courses through a network of cables (red, of course), tunneling underground and even splashing into a channel of water.
It’s an arresting, amusing way to start a movie, and it ends with a joke: after all the hyperspeed visuals and the international miles logged, the line at the other end is engaged. We’re greeted with a busy signal.
An overwhelmingly beautiful, soul-stirring work, “Red” is a movie about many things, but it is especially about communication - efforts to form bonds of friendship, of love - in an increasingly isolated world. Telephones, televisions, computers - all the media designed to bring people together - are instead forming new boundaries, new borders to cross.
Shot through with the color red (even the upholstery in a bowling alley is crimson) - just as “Blue,” the inaugural picture in the trilogy, was suffused in its namesake hue and “White” had its blinding white-outs - “Red” has been filmed with astounding artistry by cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski. Every frame is a composition to behold.
Also to behold is the radiant Irene Jacob, whose Valentine is the central figure in the Polish writer-director’s latest - and, Kieslowski has declared, his last - film. A successful model living in Geneva, Jacob’s character, driving home one night, runs over a dog. She pulls the animal into her car, takes out a map and heads for the address on the dog’s collar. In a house up a twisty road behind a creaking gate, she finds a man, disheveled, sitting at his desk. He appears indifferent about his injured pet and, in fact, indifferent about life itself. He tells Valentine to keep the dog. And to go away.
It turns out that this man, Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), is a retired magistrate. Unshaven, wearing a mussy shirt and old trousers, he hobbles around his dark house with a cane. And he eavesdrops on the phone conversations of his neighbors. On her initial encounter with this ex-judge, Valentine is taken aback by the bank of high-tech listening gear on his desk - and the exchange between a married neighbor and his (male) lover that she cannot help but hear on the speakers.
It is the brown, bright-eyed German shepherd who brings the judge and Irene together again, and the pair’s relationship soon turns, changing both in profound ways, although this is not another May-December male fantasy. Trintignant’s character is too embittered, too world-weary, to make any sexual moves, or to want to make any. It’s almost too easy to draw the analogy between Trintignant’s cranky voyeur, observing and orchestrating other lives through his dazzling muse, and Kieslowski, the filmmaking voyeur, observing and orchestrating through his muse. (Jacob starred for Kieslowski in his 1991 opus, “The Double Life of Veronique.”)
“Red” is about chance and destiny, too. What are we to make of the accidental encounter, the clockwork timing that draws strangers across the same path, that places them in the same courthouse or on the same ferry? Are such meetings really accidents at all, or the machinations of some godlike force?
A sublime experience from a serious-minded artist, “Red,” like its two predecessors, is nonetheless marked by rich comic touches. In one scene, the judge and Valentine are locked in deep conversation in an empty theater when a stagehand shuffles by looking for the cleaning lady, and launches into a mumbly diatribe about how he can never find her. In another, Valentine pulls the crank on the slot machine in her local tabac - a daily ritual - to find that three cherries have lined up in a row. Coins flood the payoff bucket. The cafe owner looks over worriedly from behind the bar. He and Valentine share the knowledge that this cascade of francs is a bad omen.
Trintignant, whose grizzled appearance may come as a shock to audiences who just recently saw the actor in the re-release of Bertolucci’s “The Conformist,” gives a performance here that is almost scary in its quiet forcefulness and sense of loss. And it’s easy to see what Kieslowski sees in Jacob. Although she’s actually a little un-mannequinish to be entirely believable as a fashion model, the actress projects an astonishing range of complex, subtle emotions. It’s hard to imagine anyone else wrenching notes of such bleak melancholy from a scene in which all she does is stand in a crowded record shop, listening to music on earphones. Or wringing her hands distractedly as she sits in her car waiting for the light to change.
It is entirely possible to take in “Red” without having seen either “Blue” or “White.” Nothing will be missed except a few satisfyingly jokey allusions (remember the hunched over old lady trying to shove a plastic bottle into the mouth of a sidewalk recycling bin?). A little of the irony in the twist-of-fate finale will be lost as well, but Kieslowski’s point is still made. In a world - and worldview - steeped in sorrow, the filmmaker’s point is, finally, one of transcendent optimism.
MEMO: This is a sidebar that appeared with the story: “Red” Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Cast: Directed and cowritten by Krzysztof Kieslowski, starring Irene Jacob and JeanLouis Trintignant. Language: In French with English subtitles. Rated: R Running time: 1:35