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by rich swintice | january 28th, 2000

The Truman Show and Three Colours Red: European vs Hollywood Allegory

’Hollywood’s alright, it’s the pictures that are bad’ said Orson Welles in 1954. Given the treatment he received while working there, his attitude is understandable. His first feature, Citizen Kane, now considered by many critics to be the ‘greatest film ever made’ was dismissed by audiences, critics and studio executives. By the time his second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, was released, Welles would be unable to make the films he wanted, as he wanted, ever again. But are Hollywood ‘pictures’ bad? The era from which Welles was speaking is considered now by many to be the golden age of American cinema, if not worldwide cinema. The irony, of course, is that this recognition, both of Welles and the Hollywood ‘golden age’ came from Europe. To his death, Howard Hawks never considered himself an artist, yet European critics, notably those involved in the French New Wave saw him as an auteur, and along with Welles and John Ford, was seen as both a great pioneer and artist of film. Retrospectives of these directors were held in Paris and London long before New York and Los Angeles. Later on, a similar treatment was given to Alfred Hitchcock: ‘long before his passing, young filmmakers and critics, first in France, and then everywhere, enshrined him in their Pantheon, although the Academy… never awarded him a competitive Oscar’1. Steven Spielberg, again, was not considered a serious artist by his Hollywood contemporaries (at least not until Schindler’s List, or perhaps The Colour Purple), yet was revered in France. Francois Truffaut was so impressed with his debut, Duel, that he requested to appear in Close Encounters of a Third Kind.

So there has always been an interesting play-off between Hollywood and Europe, and it would appear that Hollywood’s harshest critics are its own. Yet perhaps the reason that it took so long for filmmakers such as Welles, Hawks and Hitchcock to be recognised by the industry that employed them, is that Hollywood is less sensitive to people who are doing something original or ground breaking and almost blind, at least at first, to those - such as Hawks, Michael Mann or King Vidor - whose artistry is less obvious than Hollywood’s favourites such as Disney, Michael Curtis or Victor Flemming.

So with 65-90% of product on European screens now originating from Hollywood, and with critical appreciation of a large number of American films and filmmakers, it is fair to say that Europe is accepting of Hollywood cinema. But what of America’s reception to European film and filmmakers? American audiences have traditionally been, and continue to be, reluctant to read subtitles. They are generally unsympathetic to ‘art films’, and most European films are associated with such films. There are exceptions, such as UK films (Trainspotting, Spice Girls and Mrs Brown being recent successes) and films that are funded and filmed in Europe, yet have US stars (such as The Fifth Element, Sliding Doors and Notting Hill). In addition occasionally European ‘event movies’ such as Life Is Beautiful find reasonable success at the US box office.

More common is for Hollywood to poach European directors, writers, actors and film ideas. The movement of directors, who have found success in Europe, across the continent has been common since cinema’s early days, with Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang and FW Murnau, through to directors such as Roland Emmerich, Ridley and Tony Scott, Jan de Bont, Wolfgang Peterson and Paul Verhoeven today. Similar moves have been made by actors (Charlie Chaplin, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Dirk Bogard) and cinematographers (Freddie Young, Nestor Almendros, Vittorio Storaro, Janusz Kaminski).

A trend in recent years has been the Hollywood remake of a European film or idea. The short French film La Jetee formed the basis for Terminator (itself spawning a sequel, Terminator 2) and Twelve Monkeys. This trilogy of films has together taken in excess of £1 billion worldwide. Other successful remakes of European films include The Birdcage (US gross US$136.2m), True Lies (US gross US$146.3m) and Ransom (US gross US$136.5m).

Remakes of literary texts have become increasingly popular. Somersby, staring Richard Gere, retold the story of Martin Guerre (itself both a popular French film, and story). During the past few years films such as 10 Things I Hate About You (an adaptation of The Taming of The Shrew), Clueless (based on Jane Austin’s Emma) and Cruel Intentions (taken from Les Liaisons Dangerous) have restaged the classic texts to American high schools.

Direct remakes or homages to European art films are less common, but not unknown. In recent years, a Sharon Stone remake of Les Diaboliques found limited commercial or critical success. In 1981 Brian De Palma remade Antonioni’s classic Blow Up as Blow Out. The story changed from being about a photographer noticing an act of murder in a one of his photographs to being about a sound recordist who finds a gun shot sound in the explosion of a tyre that led to the death of an important politician. The two films provide an interesting comparison between American and European aesthetics. In the remake, the story becomes a murder mystery thriller, and the action revolves around John Travolta’s character’s battle against dangerous forces to uncover the truth; while the original cares much less about the causes behind the murder, and more about the play-off between illusion and reality. In addition, Antonioni’s film captures well the zeitgeist of swinging London in the 60s, while Blow Out hardly considers the period it is set in. This is undoubtedly a trend in American cinema: with a few exceptions - such as Easy Rider, The Fight Club or McCarthy era films - Hollywood films rarely attempt to capture a general cultural mood or zeitgeist.

In order to analyse the relationship between Hollywood and European cinema more closely, I have chosen to study two films made in the 1990s, The Truman Show (dir: Peter Weir) and Three Colours: Red (dir: Krzystof Kieslowski). Both consider voyeurism and identity, and could also be seen as allegories for paternalistic or creator-creation relationships.

The Truman Show tells the story of a man who gradually becomes aware that he is existing inside a television soap opera, and that everyone he knows - family, friends, colleagues - are actors. Through the course of the film he struggles to escape ‘the largest studio in the world’ and enter the real world. The film was a great success, taking US$125m in America, and established Jim Carrey (who played Truman) as a serious actor. Truman Burbank, is essentially an Everyman character (the name, Truman, obviously points to this) who must escape small town mentality, trust his instincts and go it alone, leaving behind him everyone he ever knew, a common plot theme. ‘While the world he inhabits is counterfeit, Truman is genuine’ claims Christoff, the shows creator and ‘televisionary’. Nevertheless, this is also a story about media power and manipulation - indeed his surname, Burbank, appears a direct reference to the part of Hollywood where all the major studios - including Disney and Paramount (who made this picture) are based. The film asks questions about media intrusion - ‘there is no difference between a public life and a private life’ claims his wife, Meryl - which, post-Diana, are more relevant than ever. The film also looks at self-discovery, omnipotence and geocentricism as Truman explains, midway through the film ‘it feels like the world revolves around me.’ His ‘friend’ Marlon retorts that ‘it’s a lot of world for one man’ in what is, at first, a touching moment between the two characters. However we soon realise that Marlon is getting all his lines fed to him by Christoff who is editing and composing the scene from a control room. Finally the film can be seen as a direct allegory for man’s relationship with God. Christoff - whose name holds obvious religious allusions - tells Truman at the end ‘I know you better than you know yourself… I’ve been watching you your whole life’. That Truman only became aware of his false existence through a series of errors and accidents emphasises how similar our own lives could be to Truman’s - ‘we accept the reality of the world we are presented with, it’s as simple as that’ says Christoff.

Seahaven, the coastal town Truman lives in - its name an anagram of ‘as heaven’ - is created as a paradise with the best sunsets, perfect weather (except when it profits the programme’s creators for it to rain) and smiling happy citizens. Christoff comments that ‘the world, the place you live in is the sick place… Seahaven is the way the world should be’. It is a pastiche of Capra-esque small-town picket-fence America, a ‘paradise’ of pretty cleanliness and architectural predictability. Truman’s desire from an early age to leave Seahaven as an explorer is understandable, and it is interesting that he keeps this desire throughout his life despite the best efforts of the programme’s creators (newspaper headlines saying ‘It’s official - Seahaven the most beautiful place on earth’). Truman is indeed one ‘whose nature, nurture can never stick’2 and the only way Christoff and his team manage to keep Truman on the island is by instilling a fear of water, brought about by the death of his father at sea, when he was a young boy.

Despite going far beyond typical Hollywood narrative and themes, The Truman Show follows a classical Hollywood narrative structure3 throughout, and can be broken into three acts of equal length. The first act lasts 30 minutes, and includes three different events - a falling lamp from the sky, meeting his ‘dead’ father by accident and picking up a production crew radio signal on his way to work - that lead Truman to realise all is not as it seams. At the end of this act (plot point one) Truman halts traffic in the middle of the street and hits people randomly, realising his reality is an unnatural one. At the mid-point (45-50 minutes) Truman makes the first attempt to escape from the island, and is brought back home. At the end of act two (after 60 minutes - plot point two) Truman is reunited with his father, and for the first time we see the control room in the moon, where Seahaven is managed by a group of technicians, vision mixers, composers and Christoff. In the final act Truman pretends to have forgotten dreams of escape, before overcoming his fear of water and sailing a boat right into the sky - literally.

The fear of water is another classic narrative device - the obstacle - something that the hero must overcome to achieve their goal. Used in the Truman Show, however, the obstacle takes on another meaning as the viewer is aware that the obstacle was created as a dramatic and perfunctory device by the ‘villain’, Christoff. The final moments where Truman crashes his ship into a wall painted to look like sky is both deeply moving and visually surreal. The ending brings the allegory full circle as Truman talks with his creator - whose booming voice echoes down from the clouds above - before opening a door in the sky and stepping through it into the black unknown.

The final part to Krzystof Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy - Three Colours Red - was widely acclaimed as a masterpiece. Derek Malcolm in The Guardian described it as ‘the best of European cinema… miraculous’, while Geoff Andrew in Time Out called it ‘Kieslowski’s towering achievement… a masterpiece’. It won numerous awards, although missed out on the Palme D’Or at Cannes to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (Tarantino was surprised to win, describing Three Colours Red ‘a masterpiece’)4 . It never set the box office alight, yet regularly featuring in critic’s top ten lists of films, it enjoys continued success on video and in retrospectives.

It tells the story of a model, Valentine, (played by Irene Jacob) who meets a retired and embittered judge - Joseph Kern (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) - who spends his days eavesdropping into neighbour’s conversations. Running parallel to this is the story of August who - in what Kieslowski called ‘a mistake in time’ - appears to be living out the judge’s younger life. Kern regrets that he is unable to form a sexual relationship with Valentine, yet the ending - in which all but seven people die on a ferry crossing - suggests that she will establish a relationship with August, as they both survived the accident. The cyclical nature of the film is completed with a final shot of Valentine, silhouetted against a red sheet in an almost exact copy of a photo shoot she did earlier in the film.

Using the colours of the French flag to form the basis for the film, Red represents fraternity (blue represents liberty; white, equality) and Kieslowski set out to make a film dealing with brotherhood and destiny. Of the three woman portrayed across the trilogy, Valentine is the most selfless and generous and it is a mixture of her ‘radiance… simplicity… and moral integrity’ that regenerates Kern, ‘reviving memories of his youthful love, and inspiring him with her almost wholly selfless behaviour’.

Like The Truman Show, the film considers truth and illusion, albeit on a far more subtle or sophisticated level. Kern uses his position as objective observer to justify his eavesdropping: ‘I don’t know whether I was on the good or bad side… Here at least I know where the truth is… My point of view is better than a courtroom’. Later on, Kern considers the perhaps omnipotent position of judgement: ‘deciding what is true and what isn’t seems to be a lack of modesty… vanity’. His eavesdropping becomes a moral battle with Valentine, which, like Christoff, he argues (albeit more jokingly) as entertainment, saying ‘the next programme is very interesting’ when referring to another neighbour’s telephone calls. At one point Valentine comes close to telling a neighbour that he is being listened to, but stops when she realises the damage it would cause to a secure family unit. Joseph argues ‘it matters little whether I spy, or you tell, sooner or later he’ll jump out of a window’. Kern’s narcissism lifts throughout the film, and we see a character evolve from ‘wanting nothing’ to pointing out ‘the beautiful light’ as the sun sets. Invariably, however, Kern points out the ‘beautiful light’ immediately before it becomes ‘beautiful’, highlighting a side to his character, and indeed the film, that grows more interesting and compelling with repeat viewings - his power, and god-like nature. This is implied through various means: from Valentine’s luck on a slot machine - ‘I think I know why I won’, she says - through to his wise understanding of people and their interrelationships; and his final contented, slightly crafty smile as Valentine and August survive the ferry disaster. It should be remembered that Kern suggested she took the ferry in the first place, and when he asks to see the ferry tickets after the fashion show, three notes of music play as he surveys them. Valentine begins to consider Kern in more depth earlier that evening when he retells her about a dream he had had involving her waking up happily besides another man when she is fifty. ‘What else do you know? Who are you’ she asks ‘…I feel something important is happening around me. And it scares me.’ Part of Kieslowski’s skill is in never fully answering that question, although Kern as symbol for God, could also be seen simply as creator, and in turn director:

    ‘Kern, not unlike Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest has been playing God. Embittered, severely disenchanted by the fickleness, injustice and the sheer pain of human experience… he had removed and isolated him from any direct involvement with people or their feelings, preferring simply to observe, without judging or responding emotionally to their chaotic, complicated lives… If Kern ‘is’ God, he is neither omnipotent nor even omniscient; while he may influence the destiny of others, free will and blind chance - be it a slot machine, a dog run over by a car, or stormy weather - still play a major part in shaping individual lives (sic). Rather Kern seems to ‘direct’ people, as if they were characters in a script which he then tweaks and turns into a finished film.’ BFI Modern Classics - The Three Colours Trilogy - Geoff Andrew (BFI Publishing, London, 1998)

And how ironically close that description of Kern is to Christoff. The Prospero analogy is also interesting, for Prospero, Christoff and - possibly - Kern whip up a ferocious storm to bring about a resolution. Prospero is often seen as a metaphor for the writer or artist - especially of Shakespeare, Christoff is undoubtedly ‘the artist’ while Kern ‘may be seen as some kind of self-portrait by Kieslowski’

The main difference between Christoff and Kern as God or Creator analogies, is that Christoff’s world is very much an offspring of him, while Kern lives within the midst of his. The doctrine in The Truman Show is panentheistic, the idea that God is in all things, but not identical to them, that the Universe is a subset of God. Christoff does not live within his world, but manages it from a control centre in the moon. In Red the doctrine is more pantheistic, the idea that God and the universe are the same thing. Furthermore, while Kern is non-participatory in life he is unable to (or perhaps he does not wish to) influence it; when he becomes more active in the world around him, he is able to alter it more dramatically.

It is clear that both films offer much for discussion. In comparing the two films, what particularly stands out is the difference in volume, in the amplitude both films use to get across their ideas and themes. The Truman Show is much more verbose, and the narrative is action and character led, as opposed to Red, where it is, largely, character and idea led. Silences serve as much importance in Red as words, while at times The Truman Show appears to have a lot of story condensed into a very short space and time.

Kieslowski uses the camera like few others since Welles, utilising mirrors, shadows, reflections, artificial framing devices, tracks, and steadicams. The photography on The Truman Show must serve the purpose of appearing to come from hidden cameras, and as such is a little per functionary. Nevertheless, the art direction more than aptly compensates, although - with the exception of those scenes in the ‘real world’ - we only get glossy fantasy as opposed to Red’s elaborate realism.

To suggest that Hollywood films lacked depth, intelligence or philosophy - as some commentators have done - would be ludicrous. As early as King Vidor’s neo-Nietzschen The Fountainhead, Hollywood has been prepared to deal with big philosophical ideas. The Truman Show can be seen as a multi layered film which appeals to the whole spectrum of viewing tastes. For those looking simply for entertainment, it offers entertainment, and for those looking for something thought-provoking, likewise. What it looses in creating this broad appeal, is subtlety or ambiguity. Three Colours: Red is a much more enigmatic film, and arguably a less accessible one. It does not appeal to the broad spectrum of moviegoers, and it obeys few (if any) narrative twists to keep the blockbuster addict happy. Nevertheless, its themes are often only hinted at, with some areas (such as Kern’s smile at the end) almost deliberately ambiguous. Such sensitivity is a luxury the European movement can afford, and Hollywood directors can only slip in to their films if they’re not being watched by anxious executives.

But despite the differences in broadness of brushstroke, the colours Weir and Kieslowski use are similar. Both films touch upon universal themes and ideas, which is why, like The Tempest, they work so well. Both create an elaborate illusion, and with a wink to the viewer let them know they are being played with. And of course the realities that Kern and Christoff create are as much an illusion as the films Kieslowski and Weir have created. Both directors are concerned with the illusive nature of truth in the real world, and yet both are manufacturers of fantasy. Christoff points this out to Truman before he steps into the unknown: ‘there’s no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you. The same lies, the same deceit. But in my world you have nothing to fear’.


Who The Devil Made It - Peter Bogdanovich (Ballantine Books, 1997, New York)

BFI Modern Classics - The Three Colours Trilogy - Geoff Andrew (BFI Publishing, London, 1998)

International Film and TV Rights 2000 - Nic Wistreich (MTI, London, 1999)

The Tempest - William Shakespeare (1954 eddition prepared by Frank Kermode - Arden University Paperback 1964, London)

Shooting From The Hip - Wensley Clarkson (Piatkus, London, 1995)

Kieslowski on Kieslowski - edited by Danusia Stok (Faber and Faber, London, 1993)

Screenplay, the foundations of screenwriting - Syd Field (Dell Publihsing, New York, 1994)


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