Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
I remember it was probably around the third time I watched Trois Couleurs: Rouge that I thought to myself as it started: “this is one of my favorite films”. It did not disappoint then or now. No doubt it was rather unlikely that I would ever watch a trilogy by a Polish director most people have never heard of, although perhaps it really was just a matter of time. An article appeared around about the time the DVDs came out that I read sitting in a McDonald’s near my school (which I’m pretty sure Ebert had something to do with). Naturally it proclaimed the greatness of a trilogy and director I was completely unfamiliar with, so I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought then. A couple of years later, I bought the DVD set and watched the movies over three nights. It was fun to experience a series like that so close together. I knew going in that Rouge was considered the best of the three, especially as it was the only one in the IMDb top 250 (sadly it has since fallen out). Even so, I was unprepared for how floored I was after watching it. It has long been apparent to me that 1994 was a great year for movies, and I figured Pulp Fiction was likely the best even if the ending wasn't quite what I hoped for. After seeing Rouge, I had to reconsider what I thought I knew. This little film that was much smaller in scope was able to do things that Tarantino’s masterpiece didn’t.
Like Bleu, Rouge eschews a typical plot in favor of showing people going about their normal lives. They’re concerned with working, dates, and school, and don’t plan for anything out of the ordinary to happen. Of course such things will, but this is partly to be expected, and the characters deal with these events as quickly as they can before returning to their normal lives. Indeed, without one small inconvenient coincidence, the entire plot probably doesn’t happen at all. But then again, how many other events could we say that about?
Unlike the first two movies, describing the “plot” is completely unhelpful. Our main character this time is Valentine (Irène Jacob), who is considered the lead since the camera follows her the most. She is that legendary “part-time model” we’ve heard about (currently living in Geneva), and many reviewers have gushed about how beautiful Jacob is in the role. While not untrue, this is slightly misleading. Jacob doesn’t have the drop-dead beauty of Delpy in Blanc, or the recognizable movie face of Binoche (Jacob’s second most famous part is probably Kieslowski’s last film before the trilogy: La double vie de Véronique). What she does bring is perfect for her character. Jacob’s Valentine has a kindness that is unmatched by any other character in the trilogy. So much so that it is inconceivable that her boyfriend Michel (only ever heard on the phone) constantly believes that she is cheating on him. Valentine isn’t all bubbly or anything of the sort though, and is more than capable of being mean if she feels wronged.
Her life is shaping up to be a rather uninteresting soap opera, when one day the radio goes all funky while she’s driving. This distracts her a bit (although she doesn’t seem to notice that the problem surely must be she is tuned to 87.9), and sure enough, we hear a loud bump moments later. She hasn’t hit another car or a person, but a large German Shepherd is lying almost motionless on the road. With that kindness kicking in, she somehow lifts the dog into her car and checks the collar. The dog’s name is Rita, and Valentine dutifully sets out toward the owner’s home. She buzzes at the gate, but there’s no response. It’s open, so she walks to the door and knocks. Still no response. It’s open too, so with Rita’s life possibly at stake while clearly needing medical attention, she heads inside in a determined attempt to find the owner.
After moving past a few rooms, she finally comes upon an older gentleman (Jean-Louis Trintignant). A stranger has just entered his house, but he seems rather non-plussed by it. Valentine notices he doesn’t much seem to care about his missing dog either, and drolly asks him if he would care so little if it was his daughter who was hurt. Never missing a beat the entire movie, the man responds that he doesn’t have a daughter. He asks her to leave, and goes back to whatever it was he was doing.
Not having much desire to return to this crazy guy’s house, Valentine nevertheless will a number of times, although always for a reason. After getting Rita care at the vet, Valentine takes her for a walk and decides to let her off her leash. Sweet freedom calls, and Rita quickly takes off. Valentine can’t catch up, and eventually gets back in her car, figuring Rita may have decided to head home. She buzzes the gate again, and Rita answers the call. The man comes out after a moment too, and eventually offers change for the overpayment in vets fees he sent her. This is taking forever, so Valentine invites herself inside again to see if something went wrong (her joking suggestion for him to stop breathing since he didn’t want anything was responded merely with “good idea”, so she’s momentarily scared he might have taken her advice).
She hears voices conversing from somewhere, and it quickly becomes obvious these are two male lovers of whom one is trying to hide the relationship from his wife and kid. Valentine finds the voices coming from the radio where she first saw the man sitting, and is surprised by his appearance after she stops in front of it. The man doesn’t bother trying to hide that he is spying on the telephone conversations of his neighbors, but only seems to be doing it as some sort of entertainment. Still refusing to care about anything, he invites Valentine to tell the neighbors in question about his spying, and even points the house out to her. She does so and is greeted by the guy on the phone's wife at the door, but suddenly decides against telling them. In the other room, their daughter is listening in to the conversation on another phone.
Running parallel to this and without explanation at first is the story of another man. He is named Auguste, and lives less than a block away from Valentine. Like her, he is also in a relationship, but his girlfriend lives a short distance away. Although we actually see him first, he doesn’t feel like a main character since we spend more time with Valentine overall, and he doesn’t talk all that much (even less than Valentine, who is far from chatty). For instance, one phone conversation Auguste has with his girlfriend consists only of a quick kissing noise on his part. Naturally, with living so close to Valentine, they’ll probably run into each other eventually. But this doesn’t ever seem to happen. They’re always just missing each other. The odds must surely go up when it’s revealed the girlfriend is one of the man’s neighbors, but nope, still doesn’t happen. After Valentine returns to the man's house, he tells her he was a judge, but prefers the spying since he knows the truth for certain now. They later listen in on one of Auguste’s phone conversations, but she doesn’t recognize his voice obviously and stops paying attention after a bit.
As the judge eventually opens up about his own life, it becomes apparent he is describing the events we have seen with Auguste. This includes a book just happening to land on a page that will be the answer to an important question on his judge’s exam (although they happen in different locations), and the description of his ex-girlfriend, including how he discovered she was cheating on him. Later we find out that his ex’s ultimate fate is also the same. Certainly they can’t be the same character, but they don’t seem different at all except for their age (Auguste also has a pet dog and wears familiar-looking suspenders). For all the characters that just happen to meet in the movie, those two never end up doing so.
Trintignant is probably not a familiar name to English-speaking countries, but he has had a number of big roles in well-regarded movies. He played the lead in Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud, and also played a judge (of sorts) in Costa-Gavras’ Z. Even if this was only in the movies, it gives a bit of weight to his role in that he really does feel like a retired judge (if only for pretend). It is amazing to see how disconnected he and Valentine seem during their first meeting. Trintignant’s judge is both hilarious and intelligent, while seeming like a man completely beaten by life. He never hides his lack of desire to continue living, yet is so apathetic that he would never resort to suicide either. Even if he no longer enjoys being alive, there doesn’t seem to be much that happens he isn’t aware of. He might come off as a House-like misanthrope at first, but yet the judge knows things even observation wouldn’t be able to tell him.
There are two common suppositions as to who the judge might represent. One is Kieslowski himself, and Trintignant does look something like the director at the time despite being a decade older. Even though Kieslowski would retire himself after Rouge, their situations are otherwise quite different. Kieslowski didn’t miss out on his love, having been married for 27 years at the time and having a daughter. His sudden frequent casting of Jacob might suggest a crush, and many people think the name “Valentine” is a poorly-hidden clue to what the movie actually is. Even if it can somewhat be interpreted like that, Jacob has stated that she was the one responsible for the name “Valentine”, since it was just a name she liked as a little girl. Perhaps Kieslowski used parts of himself for the judge, but they don’t seem to be all that related, unless we consider the judge might be an alternate reality version of the director.
The other “person” the judge may represent is God, and this one actually seems much more likely. The judge is capable of listening to other people’s “private” conversations, but doesn’t even seem to need his radio to do so. One of his neighbors purchased a Japanese phone to avoid being traced, but the judge knows fully well his importance in the heroin trade. And after seeing Auguste’s girlfriend talking with another man, he knows they are now seeing each other despite witnessing nothing else between the two. This prescience doesn’t just consist of other people’s situations, but everyday events as well. He knows the sun is going to peek out of the clouds and illuminate the room moments before it does (and without looking out a window), and can tell it is Auguste who has just called his girlfriend (instead of another random person interested in her “personalized” weather reports) without any clues whatsoever.
In retrospect, there doesn’t seem to be a single event in the movie the judge hasn’t manipulated in some way. Valentine’s problems with the radio were due to his spying, and he cleverly schemes to see her again when there’s little reason for her to want to return. He grossly overpays her for the vet, knowing she is too good to keep it all, and then just “happens” to disappear looking for her change long enough for Valentine to discover his secret. After she leaves, he willingly turns himself in to the authorities (through letters of confession), which he even admits to Valentine he did just to see what she would do when she saw it in the paper. Considering everything else we’ve seen, it’s likely he knew exactly what she’d do, which is to come visit him again. The judge even convinces Valentine to take a ferry for her upcoming trip to England, which sets up the devastatingly important final scene.
Certainly he couldn’t be God, because the lord probably wouldn’t give himself such a dreary existence on earth. But yet, on one level he uses his powers to set up a life for himself he didn’t experience the first time, while also using them to gain at least one friend and break out of his habits. This doesn’t explain how he could possibly have them in the first place, although maybe the director comparison helps it make more sense. Writer-directors are sort of like God in a way; creating their own worlds and deciding what will happen in them. Doing so may represent an idealized form of their own situation in life. This would explain how the judge knows everything that will happen, but doesn’t explain why he’s in the movie in the first place. It is unlikely to be an argument for religion, since events don’t seem “destined” to happen as much as they randomly occur. Given what happens at the end, we would not necessarily be observing a merciful god either.
(Another possibility I haven’t heard discussed but could technically be feasible is that the judge is a time traveler, and has journeyed back to set himself up with Valentine. This would explain how Auguste’s story could be practically identical to the judge’s and his prescient knowledge about events. While it doesn’t seem to explain the discrepancies (or how or why he would choose Valentine), we only assume the judge has been living in that house for a while, his story about the book is true, and that the name we hear for him (Joseph Kern) isn’t an alias. All of this is admittedly unlikely, but there’s surprisingly little that doesn’t support the theory.)
Perhaps the judge only seems like a god to us because he understands an important facet of life. The crux of this movie is coincidence, which is usually a word used to describe the ridiculously improbable plots of bad films. Although almost every event happens solely because of a coincidence, most of them couldn’t really be described as improbable at all. Sometimes a phone call misses its intended party by just a few seconds, or Auguste’s attention is distracted just enough so that he never looks at Valentine (or vice versa). Certainly Rita is not the first dog to be run over, and every meeting between the judge and Valentine is a completely logical result of this chance occurrence. The near–misses of Valentine and Auguste not quite seeing each other reach absurd levels by the end (they are literally standing right next to each other in a record store, but have no reason to turn around), but every single one is completely logical and likely.
The difference between Rouge and other movies is that this is one that understands coincidences are the building blocks of life. I can think of many examples in my own life of how one little thing ended up turning me on to something I like (including this trilogy), and that doesn’t include all the unlikely events that had to happen to get me here in the first place. The corollary is rarely explored, but logically must also exist. How many things might I like that I simply don’t know about yet? Or how many people that I just didn’t happen to meet? How might my life be completely different right now if one little thing had happened differently? Rouge explores all of these questions, but never announces that it’s doing so. It’s really a true film in that all of this is only shown. Not one of the characters opines about all of the strange things happening to them, mostly because they aren’t all that strange. And no one notices how important all the coincidences are (both the judge and Valentine sense something, but never explicitly state anything). To them, these are just everyday occurrences. Although the plot technically depends on all of these coincidences, not one of them is really necessary. The movie could easily have turned out quite differently. It just happened that this is the set of events that occurred.
The judge and Valentine present an interesting “couple”, because at first they seem like complete opposites. As they get to know each other, this turns out not quite to be the case, but the first impressions weren’t entirely inaccurate. The judge is a perfect representation of someone who “slipped through the cracks” regarding love, and is now alone despite not really deserving the fate. He is not a serial criminal hiding a stash of bodies, or concealing some other disgusting secret. His one crime is rather benign, and ironically it only hurts another person when he turns himself in. Valentine and the judge both open up to each other over time, and though their lives are quite dissimilar, they both find they can understand each other (which is actually more important).
The clincher is their final conversation together, which occurs after a fashion show that Valentine invited the judge to. This scene is an incredibly accurately depiction of two people kind of interested in each other talking. It includes a couple of unexpected yet unimportant interruptions (such as a building manager wondering why these two are still talking so long after the show (but never explicitly stating that)), and kind of just stops when it does. For the first time, Valentine shows she is able to meet the judge’s level, as she correctly “guesses” he was keeping a secret from her. This is where he tells her about his lost love (which we’ve already seen), and idly wonders if Valentine was “the girl he never met”.
It is true that a large portion of this film consists of Valentine and the judge talking. Like Bleu though, it is never not compelling. We see the clear progression as they go from strangers to life-long friends, and this feels very natural. Like the judge experiences, there is a kind of perverse pleasure in spying on these strangers, especially since we get to see how the two react to what is happening. It is also satisfying when the judge finally opens up, and we clearly understand why he has become like he is (something also helped by the Auguste storyline).
These scenes are unquestionably improved by Zbigniew Preisner’s score. This time, he has chosen a bolero theme and rhythm which permeates the movie. It is instrumental in creating an expectant feel that exists throughout the film, and this includes many of the dialogue-only scenes between the two main characters. We end up feeling like Valentine states: that something important is happening around us. This is something that has been building unsuspectedly throughout the first two films, and is now very apparent. This feeling is why it is important that Rouge is viewed last of the three films, and also why it’s actually better after watching the other two movies first. There is clearly a grand conclusion building, but it’s not what anyone would expect.
The ending understandably creates a lot of confusion, and can intensify the common supposition that coincidence=contrived. What’s lost is that the ending doesn’t actually have much to do with the rest of the movie, outside of resolving one “annoying” plot thread. The judge curiously checks Valentine’s ferry ticket, as if he wanted to make sure he had the right boat. A storm had been raging during their final conversation, and this bad weather continues for Valentine’s trip. Having just discovered his cheating ex-girlfriend, Auguste has also decided to journey on this ferry. Once again, the two come oh-so-close to seeing each other, but end up on different decks.
The judge fetches his morning paper the next day, but sees the last headline he would want to given what just happened. “Tragedy on the channel” is displayed near the bottom, and he rushes to his new TV to check the news. The paper announces seven survivors, but there were almost 1,500 on the ferry. The program he finds shows the overturned boat, and discloses the names of the survivors who are just being brought ashore. Surprisingly, we recognize almost all of them. Julie Vignon, Binoche’s character from Bleu, is the first brought aboard. A British barman is next, but we don’t see him. The next two people are Karol Karol and Dominique (Zamachowski and Delpy), the stars of Blanc (naturally Karol is the worst-looking of the survivors). After them, Olivier (Régent), Julie’s love interest in Bleu, makes his way off the boat.
We’re at five now, and though we probably expect who the next two people will be, there’s no question we share the judge’s apprehension as he stares intently at the screen. Finally, the announcer reveals the last two survivors are Swiss, and the workers part to reveal a worn-looking Auguste and Valentine. They are clutching blankets and move together for the moment, finally looking at each other in the eyes. Each survivor was accompanied by a freeze-frame when their names were announced, which Valentine receives as well. Her attention is turned away from Auguste for the moment, and the frame stops as a rescuer in a red jacket stands behind her. This creates an almost identical image to the one chosen for her chewing gum ad that has been displayed on a street for most of the movie (and that Auguste pleasantly caught a glimpse of one time). The camera zooms in on this image, as tears well in the judge’s eyes. He looks out the window in a familiar shot, but the final image is of a water-logged Valentine and the mysterious red background. Only the sounds of boats are heard as the movie fades to black.
This is an image that means nothing, yet absolutely everything at the same time. It is just another of many coincidences, but yet symbolizes the moment when both Auguste and Valentine’s lives took a dramatic turn for the better (even in the face of incredible tragedy). We thought that it was just a simple photo from a shoot that had little meaning other than to announce the color red, but yet it’s become the most important image in the film. Everything that has happened has been building to this moment where the two will finally live the life together they were supposed to. It is a simple yet stunning and unexpected moment, and the single greatest scene in a movie with quite a lot of them.
Mostly though, the rest of the ending is what is problematic for a lot of people. It is an extremely unlikely coincidence that the stars of all three movies would be the only ones rescued from a ferry of 1,500, or that any of them outside of Auguste and Valentine would even be on it. In a way, this is a corollary to the rest of Rouge, since there is no good reason we should meet a lot of the people we do in life. Even if it was a problem, the other stars appearing in Rouge makes no difference to the movie whatsoever, and actually carries on a thread of them doing so from film to film. I don’t believe it is though since we’re looking at this from the wrong perspective. Since we saw the other movies first, we know these people, but any seven survivors would have had to be just as lucky. If we were watching the program and didn’t know who they were (like the judge was), and then went back and discovered their stories and how they got there, it wouldn’t seem contrived at all (but still extremely fortunate). The entire trilogy could be seen as being about a group of ferry survivors, but then their stories certainly wouldn’t have anything to do with the fateful event that brought them together. The accident is ultimately irrelevant as far as we’re concerned, but still works since it fits the theme of the movie.
Like the other two films with their colors, red is very prominent in the scheme (and not just in the last shot), but likely even more so this time. There is definitely a reddish tint to a lot of scenes, but so many objects are red to the exclusion of other colors. This can also be subtly done, such as a recurring shot of the red setting sun, the autumn leaves, or Valentine finding the judge’s house on a map with blood still on her hands from Rita’s injuries. Even if it’s a bit ramped up from the other two movies, this still has the effect of making you remember the color red when you think about the film. Again, this is a subtle but obvious technique that is effective and unique from other films.
The final value represented by red is fraternity or brotherhood, which like the ending is often misinterpreted. Many think the message of the movie is something akin to “all men are brothers” and asking for acceptance of everyone. Even if Kieslowski himself stated something to this effect about Bleu, that was a different movie. I find no evidence in the movie that suggests we need to blindly accept everyone as a potential friend. The film focuses on a small number of people, while we see other characters (such as the heroin dealer) who are not deserving of our sympathy, or at the very least do not belong with our leads.
What it does state is that there are a number of people from “everyone” who could be our friends, but we may not discover them unless certain coincidences happen. Even if they may come from different backgrounds and be at different places in their lives, they could still be brothers in spirit. People connected by a level of understanding that they wouldn’t share with others. These are the most important people in our lives, and these relationships should be cherished since they are not only few, but also will not last forever if they even happen at all. This is what Valentine and the judge represent, and why it was so important for the judge to get her together with Auguste (maybe not kill-over-1,400-people important, but still). We may be “related” to everyone biologically speaking, but it is only the very few to whom we can truly relate.
One of the things that sets Rouge apart from Bleu is the ending, which feels much more concrete even if it’s technically a new beginning. It’s also more satisfying since almost every thread from the three movies is wrapped up by the point we come to the ferry ride. This is felt most with the recurring scene of an old person attempting to recycle a bottle. It’s been going on for three movies now, so there’s a definite sense of relief when Valentine walks up to the old person and pushes the stupid bottle into the hole. Like so much else in the film, this is something you wouldn’t get or fully experience watching Rouge by itself or first.
With the open-endedness of Bleu and the slightly disappointing Blanc, Kieslowski needed a knock-out to send the trilogy off on a high note. And boy did he get one. Rouge may seem rather simply made, and is certainly rife for misinterpretation. Like Bleu, there isn’t much of an accepted plot, and we have a bad experience with “coincidences” in film. For me though, there are few films that are truer to life than this one. Few that understand how unlikely it is that any of us are here at all, and how what we think of as destiny was probably just blind chance. Your terrible life may be one coincidence away from becoming great, while the reverse is just as equally true. This is a film that knows relationships can be found in unlikely places, and that you can’t be afraid to seek them out because of your own preconceptions. Yes, you’ll never be able to connect with everyone, but somebody out there is worth your attention.
Bleu is a strong film and the favorite of many, while there is a surprising amount of love for Blanc to the detriment of Rouge. All three movies in the trilogy are fine films, but for me there really is no comparison. It is amazing how much is packed into such a deceptively simple movie that doesn’t run for very long. How many more great scenes there are here than in the previous two films combined, and how compelling the dialogue is between the two unlikely leads. But the topper is the amazing ending which sums up everything we’ve been building to even if it doesn’t really mean anything.
We’ve all had a time in our lives where we’ve liked movies of questionable quality, and many of us will eventually desire for something more. This is not to take a shot at anyone, but to explain how such a “boring” movie can be so beloved. A film like Rouge doesn’t just provide me with an amazing experience for 100 minutes, but resonates throughout my life. I see a lot of myself in it by way of a number of characters, but I know many of these experiences are universal. It gets so much right and is such a joy to watch, that it’s hard to go back to movies that just want to entertain and do nothing else. This is what movies used to be, but it’s not what they are now. They have the capability to express truths in ways where words are insufficient, and this is something Rouge does in a way quite unlike any other film. I came to it through a coincidence, I have passed it on through a coincidence, and now you are reading my view on it because of a coincidence. All of this is quite preposterous, yet quite true.
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