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Monday, February 04, 2008

Three Colours: Red

Here’s Kierkegaard on the unhappiest man (a grave somewhere in England, he tells us in Either/Or (Either, to be specific) is marked ‘the unhappiest man’):

There can be but one combination of [the unhappiness of hope and the unhappiness of disappointment], and this happens when it is memory which prevents the unhappy individual from finding himself in his hope, and hope which prevents him from finding himself in his memory. When this happens it is, on the one hand, due to the fact that he constantly hopes something that should be remembered; his hope constantly disappoints him, and in disappointing him, reveals to him that it is not because the realization of his hope is postponed, but because it is already past and gone, has already been experienced, or should have been experienced, and thus has passed over into memory. On the other hand, it is due to the fact that he always remembers that for which he ought to hope; for the future he has already anticipated in thought, in thought already experienced it, and this experience he now remembers, instead of hoping for it. Consequently, what he hopes for lies behind him, what he remembers lies before him.

Thought of this while watching Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Red again. The old judge’s hope is behind him: the end is in the beginning, and yet he goes on. He has been left in his youth by a woman he loved and has never got over it. And if he could begin again, knowing what he knows, the result would be the same, and all that. Or that’s how it looks. But a corollary, or observe, of the future being behind him is that in some ways the past hasn’t really happened yet, and remains unfinished business, as illustrated by the Auguste and Karin subplot. Does the judge have a dirty old man’s interest in the Irène Jacob’s character Valentine? Apparently not. That would be too simple. If his long-ago abandonment made him feel impotent, his snooping on his neighbours’ telephone conversations restores his sense of power but means he forfeits any moral high ground. Valentine is disgusted when she finds out, yet given the chance to inform a neighbour she refuses. Why? He taunts her that shattering the lives of a wronged wife and her young daughter is too much for her, but there is more to it than that. He makes her realize that her motivation reeks too much of self-righteousness: she would be doing the right thing but for the wrong reason. She has to grasp the element of sickly enjoyment at the heart of her sense of indignation, something the judge’s grotty little hobby has helped him to grasp all too well.

Once her initial indignation wears off, Valentine quickly becomes complicit in the judge’s games. The character of Auguste, who we realize towards the end of the film is re-enacting the story of the judge’s young life, is being cheated on by his girlfriend, who then abandons him when the judge outs himself as a spy to his neighbours. The news montage at the end of the film, after the ferry disaster, strongly hints that Auguste and Valentine have been brought together by this strange chain of events and will now go on to have a relationship. But what looks like a happy ending for the judge, the ending that should have been for his younger self, is not quite so simple. His voyeurism has been a large factor in ending Auguste’s relationship. Auguste does not win the woman back. The woman Auguste does win he owes, at least indirectly, to the judge’s spying, and to Valetine’s acquiescence to the judge’s belief that his acts of betrayal and perversion trump her righteous indignation. Valentine and Auguste’s relationship will be based not on innocent true love but on the acceptance of betrayal and knowing too much. This is why the Platonic love between Valentine and the judge begins, rather than ends with her discovery of his perversion. Love begins after, not before we lose these illusions. It’s like Blake’s ‘organised innocence’, that comes after experience, with the judge here assuming the stigma of experience and handing the pleasure to Valentine, as his gift. He wins nothing but the long-awaited pleasure of being able to tell his lost love, You think I was a fool? You think I was a romantic innocent? I too know that love is based on betrayal and loss, and I too have learned to enjoy it like that.

This may be a somewhat eccentric and improbable reading, but that’s how I see it at least. I find the film just devastating to watch, I must say.

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