Red is the final chapter of Krzysztof Kieslowski's riveting "Three Colors Trilogy," and if we can believe him, it's also his swan song. But even if the Polish director of such art-house hits as The Double Life of Veronique and Red's predecessors, Blue and White, doesn't actually retire in his prime, Red still gives off the bittersweet scent of a summing-up.

Kieslowski's heroine here is a ravishing but uncertain model named Valentine (Irene Jacob), who lives alone in a Geneva apartment, provides photographers the precise facial expressions they demand at work and engages in unhappy telephone conversations with her absent boyfriend. So far, life in Switzerland doesn't fascinate.

Then Valentine hits a dog with her car, and the dark, thoughtful Kieslowski who's beloved to thousands of film buffs begins to re-emerge. Upset, the young woman tries to return the injured animal to its owner, who turns out to be a bitter recluse (Jean-Louis Trintignant, now long in the tooth) who's indifferent to the dog and to Valentine. His only interest, she's shocked to learn, seems to be eavesdropping on his neighbors' phone conversations.

But, as the film's title and its dominant coloration suggest, passion is as stubborn as anger. Almost by accident, Valentine and this much older man (he's a former judge, and we later learn how harshly he's judged himself) undertake an almost mystical journey of mutual discovery. Fate, along with their disparate ages, precludes the pair from being lovers, but not from rooting around in each other's souls. Valentine's essential goodness starts to cut into his disillusionment; the judge moves on from trying to manipulate his visitor to confessing his sins and imparting hard old wisdom.

Kieslowski, however, is not the kind of filmmaker who trades in cliches about May-December love or ill-timed romance. Blue was based on the French ideal of liberty, White on equality--and in this final film of the set, he addresses the moral issue of fraternity with searing emotion bordering on vengeance. The beautiful Jacob, who worked earlier with Kieslowski on Veronique, has become his alter ego (see related story), but you may find yourself drawn even more irresistibly to Trintignant's tragic judge. Little by little we learn what has befallen him, as well as the bleak consequences. Like the lovely young widow in Blue, the sour Judge Joseph Kern has cut himself off from life, and only a series of smudgy, everyday miracles, odd accidents and the ministrations of Valentine can begin to reinvigorate him. At the same time, she seems to grow older before our eyes. It's a valuable and fascinating exchange.

Kieslowski provides a rather tricky finale (also tinged in hot red, of course) in which Valentine at last fulfills her romantic destiny with a young law student called Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), whose biography and personal effects reflect those of Kern himself. At the same time, the director ties up the trilogy's loose ends by uniting Red's characters with the principals of Blue and White--again by fate. If this seems a bit far-fetched, it is, but Kieslowski can soon be forgiven. He infuses even this sequence with such emotion and, in concert with cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski, brings such a profoundly beautiful look to the whole film that we can only conclude we're in the presence of a filmmaking master. Even in the depths of Joseph Kern's red hell of disenchantment, we discover visual wonders we could scarcely have imagined before Krzysztof Kieslowski imagined them for us. Of course, his convictions are as powerful as his visions, and that's what makes his films so splendid.

Foolishly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has disqualified the sumptuous and disturbing Red from Best Foreign Film consideration because its credentials as a "Swiss-produced" work are said to be questionable. Kieslowski probably couldn't care less about winning an Oscar, but if he does retire from directing, the American "industry" will have missed its last chance to honor one of the world's most compelling and intelligent artists. That should cause those who love great filmmaking to see red, but at least you can still see Red.


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