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« Despair | Main | Tarkovsky, "Вот и лето прошло" »


You and I both know red as death and revolution.  It is the most elusive color, the most eye–catching and ornamental, the symbol both of decadence and, in latter days, of the earthbound proletariat.  And if we discard the small cross in the center of the Helvetian banner, red is the one hue common to the flags of this trilogy’s three settings, France, Poland and Switzerland.  But what distinguishes red is its general lack of natural occurrence.  Apart from our blood exposed to oxygen and a few random fruit and animal species, true nonsynthetic red is always the exception or locus of exception.  Our eyes, accustomed to blues, whites, greens, and browns, immediately veer towards such patches of brightness.  And when red surrounds Irène Jacob, the star of this film, they tend to stay there.  

She may from certain angles remind you of Juliette Binoche, but bears an uncanny likeness to this British actress.  She is Valentine Dussaut, wafting through the aptly named Swiss town of Carouge, attending college and ballet classes and modeling shoots, and ending up on a billboard for chewing gum.  The billboard, a profile surrounded by a swirling red mantilla and the reddest of backgrounds, boasts the inscription: “Whatever the occasion, the freshness of life.”  She is indeed like the chewing gum she advertises: fresh, sweet, untouched, and magnetically alluring in her ingenuousness.  She has a boyfriend who doesn’t love her, probably because she picked the one man who would not lie prone at her feet, and she exudes a loneliness that belies her youth and opportunity.  She is in many ways magnificent; what she is not, however, is convincing as a character since her small worries do not translate into tragicness.  So to keep our attention rapt, she must encounter someone who knows much about loss and pain, and she must become his heavenly foil.    

Ironically, it is she not the viewer who commits a clumsy crime by staring red down.  Her car injures a dog who happens to belong to an old judge (Jean–Louis Trintignant), a crusty curmudgeon in whom youthful passions flicker only rarely.  She brings the dog to its owner who suggests, to her humanitarian chagrin, that she keep it.  Although I shall maintain my policy of non–disclosure, I add that we come to see that this meeting is not coincidental.  She and the judge, whose name is later revealed to be Kern (German for “core” or “nucleus”), strike up a relationship that cannot be anything more than paternal on his part, yet she can certainly help him overcome his cynicism and hatred for the petty malice that usurps real life.  Since he has been hurt by a past betrayal, his vice is spying on others and finding out their secrets, a very consistent psychological phenomenon.  Most of his victims he treats as test animals and removes himself entirely from any threats of compassion. Yet he has a bit of empathy for one of his neighbors, a young law student named Auguste.  When Auguste, who of course drives a red jeep, catches his girlfriend with someone else (this is a long and dramatic scene, and unintentionally comedic), this faithlessness brings Kern to admit his crimes and throw himself at the mercy of those whose lives he has invaded.             

While the judge is the engine of the film, Valentine is its throbbing red heart.  Unlike the trilogy's other young female protagonists, she does not have sexual urges, but pants and bends to her ballet lessons while following some disturbing news in the papers, first about her brother then about the man whose dog she almost kills one night.  Kern intuits that one of the two junkies shooting horse (under the rubric of “After Zurich, Geneva,” referring to this rather unfortunate social experiment) is her brother, and also guesses why he might have resorted to such escapism.  Throughout the film, Kern knows precisely what he shouldn’t know, and his hunches invariably turn out to be correct.  How is it that someone so brilliant could possibly have missed the infidelity that took place right under his very nose many years ago?  Did he learn from this experience and become an astute emotional detective?  That is one explanation; but the film proffers another which shall not be mentioned here.         

While Valentine is a red, February 14th–type of a name, her last name may be (very) loosely rendered as “of the leap.”  The leap of faith one makes in believing in someone and giving oneself to that person soul and soul cage?  Whatever the symbolism, making her a model, albeit somewhat of a clueless one, viciously jars our reality because runway models do not elicit much sympathy.  There is also the dream that Kern has of her being happy at forty or fifty and her fears that he might be a clairvoyant.  “I have the impression,” she says as innocently as possible, “that something important is happening around me.  That scares me.”  Then a frightful storm breaks out and something or someone seems damned.  She crushes her plastic cup and realizes something very important is being kept from her.  Kern finally divulges what has made him tick all these years, and concludes that, despite the massive age gap, Valentine might be the woman he was destined to meet.  How curious it would be if she were this woman and then ran right into the young, recently dumped law student!  Is this an overlap of time and space?  Whatever it is, the result is harmonic and euphoric, as stunning as the poster of Valentine that collapses under the weight of the hail that threatens Carouge in the final scene.  There, a fire starts, as if God were casting plagues down upon the land.  And if not He, then maybe some other, lesser hegemon.   

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