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Oscar Injustice III: Kieslowski and "Red"   (March 11, 2006)

Having reviewed the first two segments of Three Colors Trilogy (Blue / White / Red) ("Trois Colours" in its native France), I would be remiss if I didn't decry the injustice that none of the films or the director, Kieslowski, ever won an Oscar. In 1995 the screenplay for The third film, Red, was nominated for best original screenplay, and Kieslowski was nominated for best director; but alas, neither won. Inexcusably, the film wasn't even nominated for Best Foreign Film.

Yet the Trilogy will undoubtedly endure while the Oscar winners of those years will be largely forgotten. Why? Well, let's start with all the Hollywood cliches about screenplays: story arc, plot points, blah blah blah. Open any screenwriting guide and you'll find that the first plot point arrives on page (and therefore minute) 20. Check it out. Twenty minutes into a film, something happens which causes the action to swerve in a new direction.

If we follow up the idea that all art works from some "center," some gravitational focal point which draws us in, then the vast majority of Hollywood films work from a a plot-driven center: a character must overcome an obstacle, there's something at stake which has to be resolved by a voyage, and so on. On ocasion, the center of a movie will be the transformation of a character. In a good movie, the two are seamlessly overlaid.

Thus, in Casablanca, the "something at stake" is Victor Lazlow's escape to America, and the transformation is Rick's emergence from self-pity to understanding, sacrifice and action.

What makes Red so intriguing (other than its visual virtuosity) is the ambiguity at its center. Exactly what is the "plot"? A model accidentally hits a dog and finds the owner, who feigns indifference. The model cares for the dog and establishes a vague sort of relationship with the owner, an irascible retired judge.

Not much here in terms of story arc and other Hollywood conventions. But there is a beating heart to the story, perhaps even several. One is certainly "contingency," a philosophic word for chance, serendipity and even synchronicity. Things happen in a causally linked but outwardly haphazard fashion.

Another center in this film is intimacy, the difficulties of intimacy and the secrets plumbed or hidden in intimacy. The model's boyfriend seems to be extremely suspicious of her; during every call, he cross-examines her as if unbelieving she is truly alone. We never see him, we only hear his disembodied voice. When she asks him if he loves her, he replies, "I think I do, which is the same thing." She demurs. The retired judge, meanwhile, is secretly listening to the intimate phone conversations of his neighbors.

A third center to the movie is how patterns of human behavior and relationships pop up again and again. Thus the judge's own story of a lover's betrayal is played out by a promising young lawyer, and perhaps also by the model's own relationship with the boyfriend. The charm of the film is that these patterns, overlays and elliptical references are not announced, they are hinted, suggested, brushed on in chiaroscuro.

The use of color is unavoidably central in the films, as befits a series of movies named after the French tricolor flag, as are the themes of liberte, egalite et fraternite. Yet just as striking is the powerful deployment of music. You would be hard-pressed to name another film which wasn't specifically about music itself (i.e. The Last Waltz, etc.) with a better vocabulary of musical flourishes and colors. This is clearly referenced in the first film, Blue, whose main characters are composers and their lovers.

The transformation of character is understated in Red, but it is nonetheless visible. The judge turns himself in for spying, and returns from his punishment a better man. His dog, the one he cared so little for at the beginning, has a litter of puppies. As for the model, her growth is nearly invisible, but we sense it beneath the surface. The film ends with her traveling to see her boyfriend in London, leaving us with the anticipation of some discovery, revelation and perhaps closure or renewal. Maybe the model hasn't changed much so far, but we sense that her experiences have prepared her to deal forthrightly with her boyfriend's infidelity. At least that's my read of a purposefully, and artfully, ambiguous movie about life's inherent ambiguities.


copyright © 2006 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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