An Artistic Consideration: Kieslowski's Judgement in Red

By Greggory Moore

Greggory Moore is a lifelong SoCal resident, copy editor, freelance writer, editor and proofreader. He's also a hardcore civil libertarian and a fiction/prose writer. His film writing has previously appeared in Images.


Red is very complex in its construction. I don't know whether we'll manage to get my idea across on the screen. [. . .] I've got everything I need to put across what I want to say, which is really quite complicated. Therefore, if the idea I've got in mind doesn't come across, it meant that either film is too primitive a medium to support such a construction or that all of us put together haven't got enough talent for it. - Krzysztof Kieslowski, June 1993 (1)

Before beginning the "Three Colors" trilogy (Red being its culmination), Kieslowski enigmatically stated that this would be his final opus, despite being only 53 at its completion in 1994. By early 1996, he was dead. Whether or not this is coincidental, it seems clear that Kieslowski inserted himself into his final film in the character of Joseph Kern. Kern is a retired judge by contextual trade, but his judgement extends far beyond the purview of any jurist: he is the arbiter of fate, the prime mover of his world. He is, in the end, Kieslowski himself, inhabiting the world of his own art, unable to truly inhabit the world of his imagination, attempting to right the wrongs of his own life, if only artistically. (2)

* * *

When Valentine first visits the Judge (3) at his home (bringing his injured dog, Rita), he dismisses her. But Valentine is eventually drawn back to the Judge's in a manner which, prima facie, seems perfectly ordinary: Rita returns to her former home when Valentine lets her off of the leash. However, this time the Judge does not simply dismiss Valentine, and it soon becomes strikingly clear that Valentine has been summoned to the Judge in a manner which is in no way coincidental.

If we - at least this early in the film - do not find anything to suggest that perhaps the Judge has a hand in Rita's returning to him in order to bring Valentine there, we first begin to question the Judge's power over the events of the film when he sends to Valentine money for the veterinary bills. While perhaps it would have been nothing exceptional to guess that Valentine would return to his home in order to return the obviously superfluous amount of money sent (4), it is at this point that even Valentine asks an apposite question: how he found her address. "That was easy," he replies; but considering that he did so without knowledge of even her name is puzzling. Valentine returns the excess money to the Judge, but, as he does not have the change to be able to remit to her the appropriate amount, he retreats inside. In an obviously orchestrated maneuver (5), he leaves Valentine outside for an inordinately long time so that she will venture into the house; and it is then that Valentine becomes aware of the Judge's propensity for eavesdropping on the telephone conversations of his neighbors. She is disgusted with his behavior, but he asks her to remain a moment longer. "Why?" she asks - and it is perhaps here that we get our first undeniable aperçu of the Judge's power in this world: "The light is beautiful," he answers-and, on command, the splendor of the light increases. At this moment (or after a prelude which serves to focus Valentine's attention), in what is, even at this point, something that is difficult to attribute to sheer coincidence, a particular phone call comes across the wires (6): Auguste - with whom Valentine has recently and unknowingly crossed paths a number of times - is phoning his girlfriend (who runs a personal weather-report business via telephone). They debate whether Auguste should stay home and study for his pending law exam or go bowling with her. Auguste decides on a coin flip: heads for studying, tails for bowling. The Judge flips one first: tails; and here we see that the Judge seems to have at least a hand in the fates of the film's characters, for, as we look at the tail-side of his coin, we hear that Auguste's has also come up tails. Before Valentine leaves, the Judge tells her that Auguste "hasn't found the right woman yet," a statement which seems more than simply small talk when Valentine unknowingly ends up at the same bowling alley later that night.

The Judge turns himself in for eavesdropping - and it couldn't very well be otherwise: if he is the artist in the midst of his own artwork, who else could decide his fate? In addition to this, it is this act which brings Valentine back to him. He says as much when asked by Valentine why he implicated himself: "To see what you would do once you saw it in the paper." (7) He changes the subject to Auguste and his girlfriend, saying that their relationship is almost over. Valentine is beginning to catch on: "Did you provoke it?" she asks; and, in fact, he did.

As their conversation progresses, Valentine mentions that she is going to England to see her mother and brother. "Leave," the Judge replies. "It's your destiny"; and as he hears an airplane fly overhead, he admonishes her to take a ferry across the Channel - an instruction which will become central to Valentine's future.

A rock is thrown though the Judge's window by one of his neighbors; but the Judge is unfazed (8), simply adding the rock to a collection of them on his piano. "I wonder what I'd do in their place," he speculates. "The same thing. [. . .] In their place? Of course. And that goes for everyone I judged," he adds, his theme now clearly transcending the literal. "Given their lives, I would steal, I'd kill, I'd lie. Of course I would. All that because I wasn't in their shoes, but mine." This is because he, as artist/creator, is truly separate from his characters, even as he has brought them to a sort of contextual coexistence with himself by inserting himself into their world, this world of his creation. It seems he has joined them in his fictional world because, as he says of being a judge, "deciding what is true and what isn't now seems a lack of modesty [. . .] vanity." After he tells Valentine of a dream of her he had, she asks him if his dreams come true, a question he is not to answer until later. He does, however, offer a statement which seems to suggest why he is taking charge of this creation, this "dream" in such a hands-on manner: "It's been years since I've dreamt something nice."

* * *

The time of Valentine's departure is approaching. Auguste's former girlfriend now has a new lover. The Judge calls her to inquire after the weather in the Channel for the week of Valentine's journey. "Wonderful," the girl states. "Sunny, a slight breeze, chilly in the morning." As it happens she, also, will be on the Channel, sailing on a yacht. (9)

Before she leaves, Valentine, a model, takes part in one more fashion show, to which she has invited the Judge. Afterwards, she questions him in detail about his earlier dream: he tells her that it was 25 or 30 years later, that she woke up and smiled at someone next to her, that she was happy. "That's what will happen?" she asks. "In 25 or 30 years?" He replies that it is. Obviously coming to have at least an inkling of his place in the scheme of her world, she sits and questions him gravely: "What else do you know? Who are you?" "A retired judge," he quips (10); but the matter is more serious for Valentine. "I feel something important is happening around me," she states. "And it scares me."

The Judge begins to tell her of his past, and it is at this point that we learn with certitude that, in some manner, Auguste is the Judge's earlier life rewritten (11): the dropped book opening to a question later asked on an exam; the dead car battery (which, by her reaction, apparently recalls for Valentine the dying battery of Auguste's jeep (though she doesn't yet know Auguste); and, most importantly, the perfidious girlfriend. He tells Valentine of his humiliation, of the girlfriend's death in an accident, of how he never loved again. "Maybe I never met the woman. Maybe you're the woman I never met."

And, in a sense, she is; and through Auguste - i.e., the Judge's youth revisited - he is determined to rewrite his own life (12). By this time, Valentine and Auguste have looked at each other without recognition, have stood next to each other listening to the same music at a record store, have crossed paths in a rather remarkable variety of ways - and yet they have not even exchanged hellos. Chance - if all this has been only chance - is not enough to bring the two of them together; and so the Judge will see to it. Before taking his leave from her, the Judge checks her ferry ticket-ostensibly (in light of what's to come) to make sure he has orchestrated things properly. He is, after all, to go to great and severe lengths to remake his past.

The day of Valentine's voyage - and Auguste's, as he is aboard the same ferry (though the two still do not meet, (13) even though they walk right past each other as they look for the berths (which, of course, are on the same level)) - is as beautiful as predicted by Auguste's former girlfriend. However, quite suddenly a violent storm appears from nowhere and wreaks havoc in the Channel. "Several fisherman are missing," the TV newscaster reports, "as well as two people aboard a yacht." The ferry is capsized; and out of its 1,435 passengers, only seven are rescued (and, as it happens, they are unharmed). It is the identity of six of these seven (14) that makes ineluctable what has already been made abstrusely plain, for, in addition to Valentine and Auguste, Julie Vignon and Olivier Benoit from Blue and Karol Karol and Dominique Vidal from White are also saved. This conflation of Kieslowski's three films, his transcending of the world of Red within that very world, can be seen only as a superseding of that world's rules, something which, in context, only the creator of that very world could do. That creator, within that world, is, of course, the Judge, Kieslowski the artist, inserted by himself into his art.

And the film's final sequence bears this out. The Judge, watching the news report on TV, sees the shot freeze on Valentine - and it is exactly the same shot which had recently been featured in a chewing gum advertisement. This, of course, could happen only in a world consciously governed by a creator. But this is not all: Kieslowski cuts from this shot to the Judge seeing it on TV, then back to this shot. However, when Kieslowski cuts back to the Judge, he is no longer seeing the image on the TV screen but out one of his windows; and so as to leave no doubt as to at what the Judge is gazing, Kieslowski cuts back once more to the same image of Valentine, before fading the picture to black.

* * *

In neither Blue nor White are the respective rescuees of Red necessarily together. But whether or not the resolution of Red is "true" would not be of any real interest to the Judge, for, as he states, "deciding what is true and what isn't" no longer interests him. Instead, he has chosen to bring these couples together, to wreak vengeance upon his youth's/Auguste's betrayer-and, most importantly, to meet the woman he never met (even if he has to kill about 1,500 innocents in the process (15)), if only in the world of his fancy. Finally, he has dreamt something nice.


1. Kieslowski on Kieslowski, p. 222. Ed. and trans. Danuisa Stok. New York: Faber and Faber, 1993.

2. Kieslowski: "[. . .] The essential question the film asks is: is it possible to repair a mistake which was committed somewhere high above?" (ibid., p. 218)

3. It is certainly noteworthy that, although Kieslowski has given this character a proper name, he lists him only as "the Judge" in the film's closing credits-particularly since, if Kern's judgeship were simply a matter of profession, this title would be inaccurate since Kern is retired.

4. What he sends is well over four times the amount required.

5. Consider the way he surprises her from behind as she examines his eavesdropping equipment; or the calculated flourish he makes in pointing out the money lying on a table (which he could have brought out to her at any time).

6. Which the Judge has obviously presaged.

7. The paper in which she reads of this is, by the way, said to be hers, although she is mystified as to how it comes to be in her handbag.

8. It might even be argued that he is actually interested at these rebellious doings by his creations. "See that? It's the sixth window they've broken."

9. We understand that she will be with her new lover from yachting pictures she and he are looking at when Auguste espies them at a restaurant.

10. This may actually have greater import than it seems to have contextually if we remember that, by the time Red was released, Kieslowski considered himself retired.

11. Consider Kieslowski's statement: "But we'll never be sure whether Auguste really does exist or whether he's only a variation of the Judge's life forty years later" (ibid., p. 218).

12. Cf. note 2, with the addition that, as to the "somewhere high above," Kieslowski never refers to God or any sort of divinity, but only "somebody."

13. The film's opening sequence displays the degree of complexity involved in making even a simple phone connection with someone whom one already knows-and so sets up the idea that perhaps something other than chance sometimes might be needed to come into play so that the important connections in life are made; and, considering how often Valentine and Auguste have unsuccessfully crossed paths by this point, it is undeniably clear that this is one of those times.

14. The existence of a seventh survivor-namely, "Steven Killian, English citizen, barman on the ferry" - a personage unseen here (even on the newscast) and mentioned nowhere else in the trilogy - is perhaps the only inscrutable enigma of the film.

15. He did say, after all, that, in the right circumstances, he would kill.


                                                                 © FILM JOURNAL 2002