We begin with a great scene where we follow a telephone line go under the English Channel. We’re surrounded by sounds and images that overwhelm the senses. And then the phone call results in a busy tone, and we’re hung up on. This works well in making us question exactly what is going on in the film, and serves as a solid hook. If only it got us prepared for what we were going to experience as Three Colors: Red progressed.
We meet our lead, a beautiful model named Valentine (Irène Jacob). It was a call from her boyfriend that we saw earlier. They eventually talk, and we find out that he doesn’t trust her one iota. All throughout the film, whenever he calls, he asks if she had cheated on him, or was in the process of doing so. She takes this much better than I’d expect from anyone, although it’s possible that it does make her sad. When she has a photo shoot, she looks naturally upset when the photographer asks her to be. Maybe she’s just that good at posing for pictures.
One night, she runs over a dog. No, it’s not a fun scene. We see the poor dog panting hard and bleeding all over, so she picks it up and puts it into her car. Instead of taking it directly to a pet hospital, she looks at the collar and takes it to its owner’s house. The retired judge, Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), owns the dog, although he’s indifferent about what happens to it. She leaves disgruntled, but ends up taking the dog to the vet. Yes, the dog lives, and she ends up taking it home, effectively adopting it.
This won’t be the last we see of the former judge. He ends up becoming a main character, with Valentine constantly visiting his house. They develop a friendship, although it develops in a strange way. The second time they meet, she finds out that she spies on the neighbors and listens to their phone calls. He readily admits this, while also telling her that he doesn’t care if she tells the neighbors whether or not he’s spying on them. He seems to have no will to live at this point, and I swear when he says “I have no bulbs left,” he was talking about his willpower to live, even though he literally was out of lightbulbs. Clever dialogue there, filmmakers.
I say that with absolutely no sarcasm, either. There are a ton of clever dialogue tricks that both give us more than one meaning and also foreshadow forthcoming events. It’s not just the dialogue that foreshadows things for us; the most prominent image for the film involves a profile shot of Irène Jacob. While you won’t know it initially, you’ll understand when the end comes around how it is important and why it stands out so prominently.
Three Colors: Red manages to do something that rarely happens in film: It doesn’t give us a significant payoff, and yet it still manages to satisfy. This is a romance film without much romance, and even in the end, you don’t get much of a relationship between the characters. “So why is it a romance film?” you might ask. Well, it’s because that’s the theme for most of the time we spend with these characters. Valentine does have a boyfriend, although how well their relationship is going is a constant question. There might be something going on beneath the surface between the retiree and Valentine, and there’s a third character I haven’t mentioned who ends up living exactly what happened to the judge thirty or so years earlier. It’s more a story of lost love than anything else, but despite the fact that it doesn’t play to what we want, it still quenches our thirst for — well, whatever it is you want when you watch a film like this.
A lot of the time, you sit through the film and then at the end, characters get together and are happy. In this film, things don’t exactly happen in that way. But despite that, you’ll feel happy at the end because of how the characters have grown and because the film ended on a perfect note. All of the emotions that have been built up throughout get released, and when that release occurs, you feel fantastic afterward. That’s how I felt coming out of Three Colors: Red — I felt absolutely amazing.
It doesn’t also just end perfectly as an individual film; it ends that way as a trilogy as well. While not directly related to either of the previous films in the Colors trilogy, it does manage to tie everything together beautifully with its final scene, both in theme and in narrative. Once you finish sitting through these films, you realize the genius that you just watched, and you sit back and appreciate them even more.
That isn’t to say it’s a perfect film, but it’s about as close as you can get. The ending almost goes into melodramatic territory — although thankfully it doesn’t — and the third character I mentioned earlier doesn’t get quite enough screentime to allow him enough time to do anything. But apart from these two points, and really only the last one because the former is circumvented right at the end, everything works and makes for an extraordinary enjoyable and rewarding watch.
Three Colors: Red is a masterpiece — a film that’s just about as close to perfect as you can get without achieving absolute perfection. The story is well-told, the characters are (almost all) well-developed, the script is sharp, the ending wraps things up perfectly, and you are given an emotional release at the end unmatched by most of cinema history. If you’re still on the fence about watching the finale to the Colors trilogy, you owe it to yourself to give it a chance. This is one of those must-see films.